One of the things I like to observe is the status of people. It's one of the first things you learn in theatre improvisation and it can be a quick way to create character. When facilitating groups, tuning into status can really help stay on top of a group's dynamics.
Walking across Princes Bridge today, I deliberately played high status. My path was on the left of the pathway and there was no one who was going to move me from my route. I said nothing, but people moved out of my way. I was even walking up behind some people going in the same direction as I was and they moved out of my way; again with no words from me and without seeing me. They could obviously "feel me". If I was playing low status, no one would move. Ever had an "invisible day"? That's low status.
One of the other interesting places to observe status - apart from the zoo - is in the workplace. Some people are bestowed with status because of their title or job role. Sometimes their personal status might align with the hierarchical status; other times it might be at odds. Think of the leader who is personally low status. They fail to command respect and won't last long. The person who is lowest in the hierarchy might have high status, however, and it's interesting to observe the dynamics that creates.
I'm thinking about this tonight because I've been watching the television show "Survivor", which is another great place to observe status games playing out. How do people acquire their status? Do they naturally have high status? Will they be able to keep it? What are the thought processes and behaviours that emerge when someone is aware that their status has shifted?
There's a woman in the office of one of my clients who is dominant in the workplace, but I've had a hard time picking her status. I've decided that she is high status. Her role is middle on one consideration, but on another she wields power. In her mind, she appears as though she is the ruler of the roost. It's classic "head of the typing pool" syndrome.
She and I have had some interesting encounters. In the constructed hierarchy of this particular workplace, I know I have low status. However, I know that I personally carry high status. One of the things that gives me high status is that I don't care about the hierarchy. I just care about doing good work and getting on with people. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Mostly, it serves me well and I'm consequently well-connected throughout the workplaces in which I move. I've observed that people with a misalignment between their status accorded them by the constructed hierarchy and their personal status, really don't know what to do about people who disregard their high status position. They often want to lash out, but know they will be let down by their ultimate lack of authority. Or they will turn into bullies.
Another way to think about status is in terms of the "natural leader". Generally my observation is that people whom we perceive as natural leaders, carry high personal status. Nelson Mandela is a good example - he was born with low status in his country (a black man in a country imposing apartheid) yet rose to be one of the most respected men and leaders in the world. One of the things he had was high personal status.
Recent Australian politicial history is interesting to consider through this lens of status. The last two leaders of the Australian Labor Party (Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd) were both elevated to leader of the party and the country. Before their elevation, I would argue they had high status, but as soon as they were in the position, both lost their status.
Back to the particular woman in the client's workplace...she often stops talking when I enter the room. Recently, I heard my name said just before she stopped talking and responded from a high status position. I told her I heard my name and made strong eye contact with her. She said nothing further, but the person with whom she was speaking, made excuses of denial. Meanwhile, I said nothing (again, a high status move). In another classic move, this woman "shooshed" me once when I was just talking to someone around the workplace. I looked her in the eye and told that her that I don't respond to "shooshing". She didn't respond.
I think that when relationships are functional, we hardly notice status at all. People just smoothly get on with it. The social satisfaction gained in this functional world will keep everyone humming along, usually until something changes, for example, someone new arrives. It's no wonder that "stranger comes to town" is one of the archetypal stories we've been telling down through the ages.
As a freelancer, I'm often the stranger coming to town, paid to observe and to challenge. To do this, I need to be secure and good willed. Mostly it works.
In the crowds of Christmas shoppers, it can be interesting (and useful) to play high status. Why not try it next time you're trying to go somewhere? Imagine you are the top dog, the big cheese, the king of the jungle and that you are entitled to take whatever path you choose. Carry this thought and make eye contact and watch people move out of your way! Have a go at doing the opposite and see what happens when your status is low. Further fine tune your observation skills by studying the status people in your workplace hold. See if you can identify what it is that makes a person high or low status.
It can be a real eye-opener.