Social status has a secret influence on your life. If you’d like to understand how, the first thing you must do is to get rid of the image you may have of those who shamelessly flaunt their status: the ruthless social climber, the top hatted mogul, the braggart with the golden toilet, the virtue signaling hipster, the TikTok influencer, and the guy taking up two parking spaces with his enormous truck. You may not be like them. For now, focus on the ordinary things you do every day in your intimate circle of friends, colleagues, and family. There, status plays an important role, a role which is the subject of Cecilia Ridgeway’s 2019 book, Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter?
Imagine you’re on a committee given a task. If you don’t know each other well, at first there’ll be a period of awkward silence. During this silence, you’ll be thinking of what you have to contribute to the completion of the task and whether anyone will be moved if you speak. In a perfect world, those who have something to contribute will contribute, and everyone else will take them seriously. There may be others who provide clarifying questions, offer alternative visions, or play the devil’s advocate; but the person whose contributions are seen as adding the most value will be the center of the discussion. They’ll have greater status, at least as it pertains to this group. Status is supposed to be that which we confer on people who contribute something important. It rewards them for their contributions, so they’re motivated to get involved.
Incidentally, you can’t admit you’re looking for status; that’s not how the game is played. You can’t give status to yourself; others must freely give it to you. You can’t get it just by showing you want it or need it; you must contribute. If you admit you’re trying to gain status, people will suspect they’re being gamed; they’ll resent you for trying to get something for nothing, at their expense. That’s why we scorn the social climber, the mogul, the braggart, the virtue signaler, the influencer, and the guy with the enormous truck. They revel in their status too much, even as they collect it.
Regrettably, the world is not perfect. Problems arise that pervert the whole system so the people who gain and hold the most status are often not the ones who earned it. Consequently, we often don’t get the best contributions and the ones who do contribute, but fail to gain status, descend into disillusionment and despair.
Here’s where it goes wrong. When you meet in that committee and everyone is looking at each other, wondering where to begin, they’re not only thinking about how to solve the problem the committee was formed to address, they’re also sizing each other up. Before anyone says anything, they’ve constructed a pecking order. They’re looking for signs of status gained in other settings as a predictor that the person will contribute something here. Why? Everyone wants to know, if I speak up, will anyone be moved and, if I don’t, who will I get the most credit for backing?
Status is often earned in one situation to privilege the status holder’s voice later, when their contributions may not be as valuable. Whenever we gain any status, we’ll find a way to wear that status, so we’ll be taken more seriously. We add our accomplishments to our resume, clothe ourselves in signs of our status, display our numbers of followers, likes, and retweets, and exhibit indications of our wealth. That’s why the high school football star has his pick of the best looking girls. His performance on the field doesn’t predict how he’ll do in relationships; but he displays his high status, so the girls often choose him first. Similarly, the beauty of a girl doesn’t predict how well she’ll do in relationships; but her status makes him choose her. They’re both not really looking for the best relationship, they’re interested in status, the status a high school boy has with the best looking girl on his arm, and the status a girl gets when she’s going out with the football star.
That may be high school, and the poor choices those kids make may hurt no one but themselves, but the same thing happens in committee meetings, the halls of Congress, international forums, your own family, and even between the parts your own mind. There’s an assumption that the wealthiest, most confident, most accomplished, whitest, and best looking person will have the most to contribute. They already have status, so almost everyone will want to align themselves with them, so they can have that status, too.
To the extent you care about influencing outcomes, you’re looking for status wherever you can get it. This quest motivates your interests and influences your identity. You’ll seek out groups where your contributions are recognized and use the status gained there to add to your overall status. So, the guy who gets C’s in class migrates to the football field, where he may excel and get the girls. The one getting A’s stays in school forever and gets called doctor. The nerd hangs out at ComiCon where everyone loves his costume, and the popular girl gets her own TikTok channel, giving fashion tips. They may have a genuine interest in their thing and not think they’re doing it for status, but they still reap from the status gained. They feel that much better about themselves, hold their heads up higher, speak up more often, and display their successes for all the world to see.
There’s nothing worse than not getting recognition when you have something to contribute. It really burns me when I see celebrities being given muti-million dollar publishing deals before they even write a book when those of us who have something to say must self-publish. Publishers are not interested in what anyone has to say, they’re only interested in selling books. To predict how many books they’ll sell, publishers look at a prospective author’s platform. An author must have the status gained by having name recognition and loads of social media followers before people in the book business will take him seriously.
If that’s the worst thing, the second worse thing is how status is imperfectly awarded. In a perfect world, status will be given to those who have the most to contribute. But not all contributions can be easily measured. You can tell how a book sells easier than you can determine how good it is. In sports, players get the most credit for scoring points because it’s easy to add up points; but defense is less quantifiable, so defenders have lower status, even if they contribute more to the success of the team. In a committee, the one who comes up with the best ideas or organizes the execution of them is given the most status. But no one could do any work if it were not for the ones who ensure everyone gets along, the ones who keep the peace or have a joke to break the tension. In another article, I wrote about how giving care and performing maintenance is not as highly valued as creating and disrupting. Well, here’s why: care and maintenance are not as quantifiable as making things and blowing them up.
As a therapist, I often see people who say they have low self-esteem. When we explore it, we find out they really mean others don’t esteem them very much. They suffer from low status; sometimes justly, but more often, unjustly, arising from the imperfections of how status is assigned. I might suggest Ridgeway’s book to them if I thought knowing they were injured would improve their self-esteem. I would caution them from protesting, though. They cannot be seen as wanting status, for that would disqualify them from getting it.
I’m currently working on a project that explores subpersonalities, those divisions within an individual. Consequently, I read Ridgeway’s book while thinking of the status of those subpersonalities with each other. There is a committee in your mind, made up of the important people of your life, all the roles you’ve ever played, a platoon of critics, a rebel, dozens of feelings, the child you once were, and an aspiration or two. There should also be a part of you that organizes them all and gets them to work civilly with each other. Often, they don’t. When they don’t get along, you end up with any number of issues.
Subpersonalities are not actual people, they’re processes; but they behave like people. Some subpersonalities have greater status than others. Some are always called upon, even when they are ill-suited to the task. These are patterns of behavior that worked in one circumstance but are misapplied in another. The mechanic who’s always trying to fix his wife. The comedian who can never get serious. The football star who pushes everyone around.
Other subpersonalities are marginalized, and their contributions are ignored, even when they’re crucial. The parts of you that you like the least are silenced and sometimes even elbowed out of consciousness. Many, you cannot do without: aggressive parts that help you assert yourself; tender, vulnerable parts that help you identify with others; shameful parts that keep you humble. These are the committee members whose contributions cannot be measured, so they’re not rewarded. The part of you that organizes all of them and gets them to work civilly with each other is often the least recognized because it works offstage; so, the part that should have the highest status, sometimes has the lowest.
We clearly could do a lot better with how we give status away and I don’t see it changing in a big way anytime soon. It might change in a small way, though, if we can be appreciative of all contributions and demand more from high status individuals than what little status they share. You can develop an awareness of the parts of yourself that are unappreciated and the willingness to give them some credit. By writing this, I’ve spoken up and done my part. Is anyone moved?