I’ll never forget the day I learned about status in my college improv class. It felt like I had received a small dose of enlightenment: all of a sudden, conflicts that used to befuddle me made sense. The mysterious behavior of the people around me became a little less mysterious.
Status is the performance of dominance and submission. High-status moves are attempts to move up the pecking order, low-status moves move us down. While this can be related to who actually holds power, it’s important to distinguish between actual power (being able to affect change) and playing high status (acting like someone important).
There are four basic status moves people can make. A high-status move either raises our own status or lowers that status of someone else. A low-status move either lowers our own status or raises the status of someone else.
High-status moves denote ownership of the space we’re in and of other people. Noble characters play high status; they move through the world with a sense of ease and importance. Wielded expertly, playing high status can give you an air of authority and recruit people to your cause. Wielded poorly, high-status moves make you look like an asshole or like you’re covering something up.
Low-status moves, by contrast, diminish our footprint, cede control, and signal deference. Wielded expertly, playing low status will make you friendly and approachable. Playing low status poorly will make you appear unimportant, weak, or ineffectual.
The first place to look for status is in how people hold their bodies and where they position them in space.
High-Status Physical Moves
- Moving slowly (especially if other people are waiting).
- Lounging, taking up a lot of space. Putting your feet on the table. Manspreading.
- Touching the upper half of other people’s bodies. Putting a hand on someone’s shoulder or fixing their collar, especially if you don’t ask. Touching someone else’s face is very high status.
- Farting and burping are both very high-status.
- Staring at other people or holding prolonged eye contact. When high-status characters break eye contact, they look up or to the side.
- Holding an upright, relaxed posture.
- Being elevated. Think thrones. High-status characters tend to occupy elevated, central positions in a group scene.
Low-Status Physical Moves
- Moving with fast, stuttering motion.
- Touching your face. Fixing your hair and scratching your nose.
- Hunching. Low-status characters tend to keep their shoulders up and forward as if they’re always afraid they might get hit. High-status characters, on the other hand, are happy to expose their neck and belly.
- Lowering yourself physically. Ducking, bowing and crawling are all low-status moves.
- Low-status characters don’t maintain eye contact. If they do make eye contact, it’s characterized by flicking between the person they’re looking and the ground.
- Giggling and coughing, especially if it’s quiet.
The second place to look for status is in patterns of speech.
High-Status Verbal Patterns
- Interrupting other people.
- Speaking loudly (but not shouting. Shouting is low status.)
- Speaking slowly.
- Preceding sentences with a long ‘Hmmmm’. This is a signal that your thinking time is more important than other people’s speaking time.
- Addressing other people using nicknames or diminutives.
Low-Status Verbal Patterns
- Dropping a very short ‘um’ at the beginning of sentences.
- Putting an uplift at the end of sentences that aren’t questions.
- Speaking quietly.
- Stuttering, mumbling, or trailing off.
- Saying “I’m sorry” without apologizing for anything in particular.
- Excessive use of “thank you.”
- Using last names, honorifics, or “sir”/“ma’am.”
High-Status Content Moves
- Giving advice or feedback, especially if it’s unsolicited.
- Sharing strong opinions.
- Giving orders.
- Dismissing other people’s content as incorrect, unimportant, or uninteresting
- Offering approval.
Low-Status Content Moves
- Hedging your statements, wavering, expressing uncertainty.
- Asking for permission.
- Expressing admiration.
- Asking for advice.
Understanding status is useful for two reasons. First, we all react unconsciously to status. By labeling the status moves other people are making and our reactions to them, we can start to discard these unconscious reactions and move with more intentionality.
If you want to master status, spend some time noticing what status moves other people are making and how you feel about them. You’ll likely have different reactions in different contexts. When do you find high-status comforting, and when does it make you bristle? When someone plays low-status to you, do you find yourself responding stepping with pride into a high-status role, or does it make you uncomfortable?
Status behaviors that don’t align with our expected role of someone can be especially discomfiting. Imagine a college professor who plays low status to his class. He stutters, corrects himself frequently, and blushes when asked questions. He will likely provoke a reaction from his class: either they’ll be anxious, or they’ll ridicule him. Notice how this isn’t true if a student asked to present in front of the class stutters or blushes: it’s much more acceptable for a student to play low-status than a professor.
Or: imagine you’re teaching a class, and a student plays very high-status to you. He shows up late, puts his feet on the chair in front of him, and interrupts you frequently. This will likely provoke some sort of reaction from you.
The second gift you’ll get by paying attention to status is a better understanding of the unintended implications of your own behavior. Maybe you think the norms around not eating in meetings are silly and you see nothing wrong with licking mayonnaise off your fingers while Brad goes over last quarter’s numbers. Brad, on the other hand, finds this to be incalculably rude and a bit of a power play.
Or perhaps you’ve got allergies that keep you scratching your nose. For you, this is a purely physical reaction but for the people around you, you’re playing low-status and eroding your authority.
I encourage you to pay attention to your own body in social situations and see what you observe by gently labeling your own status patterns. Notice when you lounge (high status) and when you sit up straight (low status). Notice how much space you take up in conversations. Don’t try to change or fix anything — just label the behavior and see if you can spot any patterns.
In my next piece on status, I’ll talk about some options for responding to status games.