My colleagues at work as well as former training participants have found the concept of status insightful to understand some interactions they were struggeling with. Status is used a lot in theatre. It may overlap with hierarchy, but it is not the same. So what do I mean with status? It is a very volatile position of perceived power in a given situation. Typically, we differentiate between high status and low status. However, this differentiation may be misleading, as the high and low are never fixed, but always in relation to one another. Maybe it would be more accurate to talk of higher and lower status, but the convention runs differently. In a high status, the person will typically use more space, speak longer, louder, or to the very extreme, is not afraid of pauses or staring others down. In a low status, the person will rather stay in the background, speak less, avoid eye-contact, may use a lot of fillers or make themselves physically smaller, by crossing legs, crossing arms, bending the head. I suppose you have some pictures in your head, as you read this. The benefit of the higher status is more power, the benefit of a lower status is more sympathy and shelter. The tricky thing is that status gets negotiated non-verbally. This is why people may fight, while the argument is not at all about the subject they are talking about. Imagine two people, who each want to assume a higher status over the other. But it goes the other way around as well, which is typically less obvious. Two people may compete over the lower status. Think of an everyday dialogue in front of a door which goes like "You go first", "No, you go first". In theatre, status can be used to create tension. The audience tends to hold the breath, when hierarchy and status do not match, for example with the king, who behaves like a servant and the servant, who behaves like a king. At some point, this tension needs to be resolved, if you don't want your audience to get frustrated. The other element of tension with status, is when the status of a person switches. This means that the person in the high-status gets to be in the low status and vice versa. The example to the right highlights such a situation. Recently, I have found some research on the topic, and I am glad that science is now onto this as well. One piece of research said, that status negotiation is not unique to human beings, but a lot of animals negotiate their status - who gets to eat first, who is the leader of the group etc. True. Why do colleagues find this so helpful? Firstly it sheds light on some interactions they find difficult to understand. Secondly, as they become conscious of this dynamic, a space for cognitive decision opens up: Do I take part in this? Am I OK to leave this position to the other? If not, what can I do to assume my position? Some people said that being aware of this concept helped them to detach themselves from the expectation to react in a certain way. They started to look at it as a kind of game or dance and were able to vary their own behavior.
Status switch: About a year ago, I was sitting at a bus stop. I was exhausted. For the last ten days, I had been taking my son to kindergarten to get him settled in. He did not take it particularly well and I found the level of noise at the kindergarten demanding. While I have always been appreciative of the work of nursery and primary teachers, after those days, I was bowing my head to them. A man, a drunkard, walked up to me and asked for money. (Note on the status: him low status, me high status). I was so exhausted, I could not have given anything to to anybody, so I said no. The man looked me up and down and paused for a moment. I expected him to leave, but he did not. (note: this is the moment the status switched) Then he said with some pride in his voice: "At least, I have managed to get drunk today". It was, as if he was sharing his key to success with me. (Note on the status: him high status, me low status). Of course, getting actually drunk, is not an easy task for an alcoholic. He smiled at me and trailed off. And I felt better, too. Because I gave him something, I could not have given with money. I gave him the opportunity to feel good about himself.