On Status

Man Adjusting Necktie
“Man Adjusting Necktie” by Unsplash

Regular reader and commenter MitchK pointed out a place where my last article could have used a lot more fleshing out: on the matter of status.

On the one hand, I mentioned that one of the most important things you can do to be happier and healthier as a man is to stop trying to impress other people. At the same time, I also mentioned that status does matter, and that a man who wants to be successful needs to make sure that he displays his most attractive and worthy self.

I can definitely see how one could see this as essentially contradictory. The key is understanding status.

Status is your relative perceived position and authority in a group of people. A person with high status earns respect, assistance, and tends to get advantages. In fact, because human beings are a lot shallower than we like to think, status often trumps merit in how we look at other people.

There are four ways a person can accomplish status in a generally equal society.

Inherited Status

The first is to inherit status. Even in a society without an aristocracy, a person can be born into wealth and power. A trust fund, a large inheritance, or connections among the social elite can all help you gain social advantages – as long as other people around you are willing to play that game. The problem with relying on inherited status is that not all of us are impressed. A rational and individualistic person looks at the morals, actions, and achievements of a person as a means to judge their value; they aren’t impressed by the ability to cling to the successes of others. As one of my favorite philosophers would put it: inherited status is just an attractive veneer on the same primitive tribalism that has been used to justify tyranny and racism through most of human history. In sociology this is what is called “ascribed status.”

Politic Status

The second method is to acquire status through politicking. By that I don’t mean running for office; although having a government position often brings this kind of status. Instead, “politic status” is gained by playing a game of popularity well. A person can gain status by being politick – by manipulating the opinions of others. These are the people who really care what other people think. They earn their status by schmoozing with people of higher status than themselves, by buying a veneer of status through designer and brand-name goods, and by intimidating the people around them into taking subordinate positions.

In the past, people who grabbed status through politicking did so by hanging out with the highly elite, wealthy old-money families, prominent academics, and celebrities. At some points in history people would even convert religions or undergo surgical procedures to gain access to status.

The Political Correctness movement and Social Media has fundamentally changed our status game in the past twenty five years or so. Today, instead of earning status by schmoozing with the Boston dinner-party set, becoming a Hollywood Scientologist, becoming the head of your local Rotary or HOA, or being made into the perfect Beverly Hills babe through plastic surgery, you can instead play a victim.

Grabbing the victim card by bemoaning the terrible things that have happened to you, signaling your supposed virtue on social media or through a politically correct blog, and joining in on mob intimidation of people who don’t fall in line with the totalitarian “Social Justice” crowd can earn you big points in certain circles. The more you bemoan the inherent unfairness of the world and play up your own pain and misery, the more you are treated like a celebrity in the New Left circles.

Unfortunately playing the Victim is inherently self-destructive. It destroys initiative and keeps you from shaping your life by making decisions that require self-ownership.

Like inherited status, most rational people are not impressed by politic status. After all, brown-nosing to the right people and brow-beating others makes you a coward and a bully more often than not. It shows poor boundaries and negotiable principles. Status acquired in this way is also unstable; you never know when you might be on the outs with your “in crowd”, either because someone else in the social set has decided that you are a stepping stone toward their social success, or because your identity has become “problematic” to the Social Justice league (see the recent treatment of gay and trans men in University student unions, for example.)

This form of status might either be ascribed or achieved depending on which set you travel with; the social climbers are definitely big on earning status through politicking and brown-nosing to those with inherited status, while the New Left is more interested in making your mental illnesses, race, sexuality, or gender a vessel for ascribed status.

Accomplished Status

Perhaps the most impressive form of status is accomplished status. Some people d something so hard, or that required such genius that they are respected on the merit of their actions, either in a small crowd of people able to understand their achievements, or in a large one because of the implications of the accomplishment.

Some examples of the kind of people who generally gain this kind of status include CEOs of successful firms, authors of popular fiction, popular artists, pre-MTV-era rock stars, professional athletes, highly accomplished scientists and engineers, celebrated architects, philanthropists, and astronauts.

Accomplished status takes hard work, focus, a desire to serve (if only by creating something people want to buy), and often years of hard work. Usually, a person who is oriented towards accomplishing status is going to be less interested or adept at politicking (although not necessarily); their status is going to be recognized by a smaller group of people, and possibly less useful in the world at large.

However, this does not mean that a person who is geared to accomplishing their status is going to be disheveled, unattractive, or socially tone-deaf. After all, a wise person who wants to accomplish status realizes that they will often need either the help – or the abstention – of other people to achieve their goals. They may need employees, volunteers, faculty, managers, coaches, or assistants to help them get to where they want to be. They understand that appearance is a communication tool that can help them work with others. For them it is not that they are trying to impress others – but rather that they are trying to establish the grounds, rules, boundary, and purpose of communication using their appearance, attitude, and manner as a tool to that end.

Accomplished is generally the sort of status that is stable once earned, unless the individual does something that earns a great deal of notoriety or is subject to character assassination. It is always a form of ascribed status.

Integral Status

Finally, there is the sort of status I will call integral status. Human beings are forever looking for social cues from others in order to help them orient socially. We don’t just rely on appearances, reputation, or biographical data to figure out the status of others. We also look at their bearing and behaviour.

A person with strong boundaries, who acts with – and expects – respectful behaviour of others, who projects the idea that they respect themselves by dressing well, keeping clean and well groomed, and wearing quality clothes and goods sends the signal that they have status. Likewise a person who is studied in rhetoric, Assertiveness, and a little psychology can speak in a manner that ensures that their viewpoints and ideas – their mental frame – is the one that sets the ground-rules of any interaction. People pick up on the way a person treats themselves, and tend to act accordingly.

Making sure that you are well-groomed, well-dressed, and carry yourself well is for a person with integral status, a matter of self-care. They understand that when they are showered and dressed well that they are more mentally focused and emotionally centered. They realize that by being plain and direct in their speaking they are less likely to be misunderstood or say things they don’t mean. They know that by treating other people with respect that they create a better psychological climate. And they understand that by sticking to their frame in conversation they not only avoid being manipulated, but avoid creating cognitive dissonance or contradictory thoughts in their own mental landscape.

Integral status might be summed up as “you teach other people how to treat you by the way you treat yourself.” A person with Integral Status is concerned with treating themselves well, and realize that others will do the same as a result.

As a rule, to have integral status you must impress yourself before you can impress others. It requires a sense of personal integrity, self-respect, and self-esteem to pull off. If you do not respect yourself, then you can’t fool other people into thinking that you do.

Integral Status is highly stable; you can’t lose a sense of dignity or integrity unless you allow other people to take it from you. It can also make you resilient against attacks in social situations where people attempt to bully your into lower status while boosting their own politic status.

Multiple Statuses

Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau, Image from NBC News

No one person focuses on just one form of status to the exclusion of all others. Every person naturally will have some of each form of these statuses. For example, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau is handsome, charming, was born to riches, and has incredibly strong political connections thanks to his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; all points of inherited status. He is also exceptional at politicking: he has managed to endear himself to Canada’s two largest media outlets, The CBC and The Globe and Mail, to the point where they almost exclusively run soft, positive stories on him. He has made cabinet appointments and national commitments for the environment that appeal to Canada’s strong feminist and environmentalist contingent. He has also moved the Liberal party from being Centrist to being fairly Far Left on many platform matters as Canadians have been moving farther left as a whole. He is exceptional at trailblazing on the fashion front, and makes sure his signature socks are a matter of public obsession. Although he used a lot of inherited status to enable his political success, he has accomplished becoming the PM of Canada, which is an undeniably important position which earns him a great deal of respect both out of deference to his office, and for the skill it takes to get there. Whether he will make actual policy accomplishments that match, is still yet to be seen. Regardless of one’s opinion of the man, however, his integral status is hard to question. He does not just make his appearances well-groomed as many Canadian PMs have, his body language, social manner, and way of communicating with others is confident, assertive, and easy; he tends to set the tone and tenor of his public appearances and meetings, rather than letting the people across the table or in the crowd do it for him. Whether one believes he is competent as a politician or deserving of the office, it is undeniable that he is charismatic and has a strong personality.

One thought on “On Status

  1. Excellent work Brian. My perception is that many people who have “accomplished status” have acquired at least a degree of integral status along the way, and almost certainly an understanding of how integral status works. They may feel they can’t do integral status (rightly or wrongly), or may deliberately choose not to (not uncommon) but they have a reasonably clear perception of how it works.

    My field is very dominated by accomplished status, to the extent that politic status can carry a certain negative weighting. The interplay between accomplishment and integral status is interesting: those at the very top tend to have both, but in the next echelon (for want of a better definition) there is a constant interplay where those with different combinations of these two qualities constantly find their relative positions swapping back and forth depending on the exact context of the situation.

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