Social status hacks from The Improv Wiki

by lsparrish5 min read21st Mar 201244 comments

61

Social Status
Frontpage

I can't remember how I found this, just that I was amazed at how rational and near-mode it is on a topic where most of the information one usually encounters is hopelessly far.

LessWrong wiki link on the same topic: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Status

The Improv Wiki

Status

Status is pecking order. The person who is lower in status defers to the person who is higher in status.

Status is party established by social position--e.g. boss and employee--but mainly by the way you interact. If you interact in a way that says you are not to be trifled with, the other person must adjust to you, then you are establishing high status. If you interact in a way that says you are willing to go along, you don't want responsibility, that's low status. A boss can play low status or high status. An employee can play low status or high status.

Status is established in every line and gesture, and changes continuously. Status is something that one character plays to another at a particular moment. If you convey that the other person must not cross you on what you're saying now, then you are playing high status to that person in that line. Your very next line might come out low status, as you suggest willingness to defer about something else.

If you analyze your most successful scenes, it's likely they involved several status changes between the players. Therefore, one path to great scenes is to intentionally change status. You can raise or lower your own status, or the status of the other player. The more subtly you can do this, the better the scene.

High-status behaviors

When walking, assuming that other people will get out of your path.

Making eye contact while speaking.

Not checking the other person's eyes for a reaction to what you said.

Having no visible reaction to what the other person said. (Imagine saying something to a typical Clint Eastwood character. You say something expecting a reaction, and you get--nothing.)

Speaking in complete sentences.

Interrupting before you know what you are going to say.

Spreading out your body to full comfort. Taking up a lot of space with your body.

Looking at the other person with your eyes somewhat down (head tilted back a bit to make this work), creating the feeling that you are a parent talking to a child.

Talking matter-of-factly about things that the other person finds displeasing or offensive.

Letting your body be vulnerable, exposing your neck and torso to the other person.

Moving comfortably and gracefully.

Keeping your hands away from your face.

Speaking authoritatively, with certainty.

Making decisions for a group; taking responsibility.

Giving or withholding permission.

Evaluating other people's work.

Speaking cryptically, not adjusting your speech to be easily understood by the other person (except that mumbling does not count). E.g. saying, "Chomper not right" with no explanation of what you mean or what you want the other person to do.

Being surrounded by an entourage, especially of people who are physically smaller than you.

A "high-status specialist" conveys in every word and gesture, "Don't come near me, I bite."

Low-status behaviors

When walking, moving out of other people's path.

Looking away from the other person's eyes.

Briefly checking the other person's eyes to see if they reacted positively to what you said.

Speaking in halting, incomplete sentences. Trailing off, editing your sentences as you got.

Sitting or standing uncomfortably in order to adjust to the other person and give them space. Pulling inward to give the other person more room. If you're tall, you might need to scrunch down a bit to indicate that you're not going to use your height against the other person.

Looking up toward the other person (head tilted forward a bit to make this work), creating the feeling that you are a child talking to a parent.

Dancing around your words (beating around the bush) when talking about something that will displease the other person.

Shouting as an attempt to intimidate the other person. This is low status because it suggests that you expect resistance.

Crouching your body as if to ward off a blow; protecting your face, neck, and torso.

Moving awkwardly or jerkily, with unnecessary movements.

Touching your face or head.

Avoiding making decisions for the group; avoiding responsibility.

Needing permission before you can act.

Adjusting the way you say something to help the other person understand; meeting the other person on their (cognitive) ground; explaining yourself. E.g. "Could you please adjust the chomper? That's the gadget on the kitchen counter immediately to the left of the toaster. If you just give it a slight rap on the top, that should adjust it."

A "low-status specialist" conveys in every word and gesture, "Please don't bite me, I'm not worth the trouble."

Raising another person's status

To raise another person's status is to establish them as high in the pecking order in your group (possibly just the two of you).

Ask their permission to do something.
Ask their opinion about something.
Ask them for advice or help.
Express gratitude for something they did.
Apologize to them for something you did.
Agree that they are right and you were wrong.
Defer to their judgement without requiring proof.
Address them with a fancy title or honorific (even "Mr." or "Sir" works very well).
Downplay your own achievement or attribute in comparison to theirs. "Your wedding cake is so much whiter than mine."
Do something incompetent in front of them and then apologize for it or act sheepish about it.
Mention a failure or shortcoming of your own. "I was supposed to go to an audition today, but I was late. They said I was wrong for the part anyway."
Compliment them in a way that suggests appreciation, not judgement. "Wow, what a beautiful cat you have!"
Obey them unquestioningly.
Back down in a conflict.
Move out of their way, bow to them, lower yourself before them.
Tip your hat to them.
Lose to them at something competitive, like a game (or any comparison).
Wait for them.
Serve them; do manual labor for them.

Tip: Whenever you bring an audience member on stage, always raise their status, never lower it.

Lowering another person's status

To lower another person's status is to attack or discredit their right to be high in the pecking order. Another word for "lowering someone's status" is "humiliating them."

Criticize something they did.
Contradict them. Tell them they are wrong. Prove it with facts and logic.
Correct them.
Insult them.
Give them unsolicited advice.
Approve or disapprove of something they did or some attribute of theirs. "Your cat has both nose and ear points. That is acceptable." Anything that sets you up as the judge lowers their status, even "Nice work on the Milligan account, Joe."
Shout at them.
Tell them what to do.
Ignore what they said and talk about something else, especially when they've said something that requires an answer. E.g. "Have you seen my socks?" "The train leaves in five minutes."
One-up them. E.g. have a worse problem than the one they described, have a greater past achievement than theirs, have met a more famous celebrity, earn more money, do better than them at something they're good at, etc.
Win: beat them at something competitive, like a game (or any comparison).
Announce something good about yourself or something you did. "I went to an audition today, and I got the part!"
Disregard their opinion. E.g. "You'd better not smoke while pumping gas, it's a fire hazard." Flick, light, puff, puff, pump, pump.
Talk sarcastically to them.
Make them wait for you.
When they've fallen behind you, don't wait for them to catch up, just push on and get further out of sync.
Disobey them.
Violate their space.
Beat them up. Beating them up verbally, not physically as in martial arts or how you learned UFC fighting in an gym, in front of other people, especially their wife, girlfriend, and/or children, is particularly status-lowering.
In a conflict, make them back down.
Taunt them. Tease them.

The basic status-lowering act

Laugh at them. (Not with them.)

The basic status-raising act

Be laughed at by them.

Second to that is laughing with them at someone else.

(Notice that those are primarily what comedians do.)


Note that behaviors that raise another person's status are not necessarily low-status behaviors, and behaviors that lower another person's status are not necessarily high-status behaviors. People at any status level raise and lower each other all the time. They can do so in ways that convey high or low status.

For example, shouting at someone lowers their status but is itself a low-status behavior.


Objects and environments also have high or low status, although this is seldom explored. So explore it. Make something cheap and inconsequential high status. (This fingernail clipping came from Graceland!) Or bring down the status of a high status item. (Casually toss a 2 carat diamond ring on your jewelry pile.)

Source: http://greenlightwiki.com/improv/Status
Retrieved 20 March 2012

61

44 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:00 AM
New Comment

(There seems to be a sort of assumption 'round these parts that high status is better than low status and that dominance is better than submission. I think that this should not be unquestioningly assumed. There are many goals that can usually be more easily achieved by someone in a lower status position, e.g. discovering truth or learning from people. There are many exceptions, but high status tends to make people prideful, petty, unreflective, stupid, unwilling to change, unwilling to compromise, incautious, overconfident, &c. The benefits of material wealth, better mating options, better ally options, &c., are not obviously worth the costs; sometimes there are ways to get those things without risk. One would be wise to worry about slippery slopes and goal distortion.)

I see what you're doing there — trying to trick everyone else into ceding the high-status ground. Very tricky ;).

Am I the only one who, seeing that comment, talking about status and tricks, immediately misread the name as "Tyrion Lannister"?

I have to concur and further emphasize that the most impressive people aren't those that rigidly lock themselves into the high status mode in every transaction. Sure, being limited to only high status moves is better (for most people in circumstances we are familiar with) than being limited to only low status moves but being able to use either as the situation arises is far more useful. And I don't just mean being able to submit to the more powerful, for all that is useful.

(This and the grandparent strike me as quite important and counter a very deep unstated assumption in most every discussion of status I've seen on LW. I think that this is top level post material!)

Are you of the opinion that people on this site, in their daily lives, are erring on the side of implementing too many high status moves? Or that the people you met in SF while at the mega-camp were doing this stuff too much (Michael Vassar and Eliezer aside)? I agree that the optimum isn't either extreme, I think the nudging should be towards high status behavior.

And does anything in the original post endorse the high status behaviors over the low status ones?

Are you of the opinion that people on this site, in their daily lives, are erring on the side of implementing too many high status moves?

No.

Or that the people you met in SF while at the mega-camp were doing this stuff too much (Michael Vassar and Eliezer aside)?

On average no. Some possible exceptions.

I agree that the optimum isn't either extreme, I think the nudging should be towards high status behavior.

Yes.

And does anything in the original post endorse the high status behaviors over the low status ones?

To precisely the extent that my reply to Will suggests that it does. (Um, no?)

This feels like a cheap shot at "successful" people - a social urge to insist that someone can't "have it all". I distinctly recall a post by Eliezer at some point that he hung out with rich, intelligent, successful individuals and they did in fact manage to have fun and enjoyable lives as well - despite a common media portrayal that such lives are intrinsically "hollow."

I'd also say you're conflating "status within an interaction" and "social standing". I haven't seen anything that suggests that being well respected and looked up to by your peer group is particularly damaging, whereas being CEO of a Fortune 500 company does seem to mess one's judgment up rather badly. I routinely enjoy quite a few perks of high-status presentation, despite being relatively middle-class in actual social standing. My boss and co-workers value my opinion, and I have a lot of freedom because people trust me to act responsibly. At the same time, since I don't have a lot of formal standing, there's not a ton of attention on me, and there's not a huge amount of pressure to avoid failure.

Just a note of caution. These are the behaviours that actors use to simulate, for the purpose of entertaining an audience, the external signs of status relationships among their imaginary characters. If you imitate that list of things in real life, you're copying a simulation of an appearance of a fiction.

So? An actor's behaviors would be convey no information if we did not already recognize them as real-world indicators of status. While the high-status/low-status continuum outlined in this post is constraining and is in no way a definitive representation of how people project status, it is a useful metric and broadly true. If we imitate actors, we are imitating a simulation of an appearance of how high-status people act, not a fiction.

To put it simply, high-status people do these things in real life and that's why these behaviors are reflected in the movies.

A couple other thoughts:

  • Even if our indicators of status are socially learned, it doesn't diminish their effect whatsoever.

  • (Warning: abstract speculation) To an extent social interaction is at its core a group of minds playing roles as various actors, exchanging emotional, physical, and intellectual information through the medium of this play called 'social interaction'. This process is most fluid when it is all subconscious and there is no separation between the mind and its acting role, but we should not disparage actors as displaying 'simulated' behaviors when we ourselves are nothing but actors using the same sort of tools to express ourselves.

Of course Johnstone isn't making these things up out of thin air. But he developed that work for the stage, and what happens on stage is not reality, it is a simulation of reality. And a simulation intended, not to be faithfully realistic, but to tickle the audience, and I think that the idea that an audience wants to see an actually accurate picture of reality on the stage is one that does not exactly jibe with the general views held on LessWrong. (Try it on Overcoming Bias, and I'm sure the instant pattern-matching response will be "fiction is not about reality".)

What you see on stage is symbols of reality, not copies of it. As such, it can be worth studying these things, and even practicing them on stage. Even on the stage of real life, as long as it's with strangers you do not expect to see again. But if you imitate in real life the signs of status that a theatre director trains his actors to use as theatrical tools, and expect to produce status in reality, then, well, this is what you are doing:

In the lush days of manna from the Potomac a small town ran out of people who were in need of largess. All had jobs except the village half-wit. They finally set him to polishing an old brass Revolutionary cannon in the public square at $20 a week. He carried his own whistle in his pocket, to blow before he went to work, at lunch and when he quit. After four or five weeks of polishing, he appeared before the selectmen of the village to resign. "What do you want to quit for?" asked the Mayor. "Well," said the half-wit, "this is the best job I ever had, but I've saved up enough money to buy a brass cannon! So I'm going into business for myself."

That is, imitating the outward form of a thing without understanding how it works. See also "cargo cult" (and, for that matter, "management fad").

And now a more general rant.

Honestly, reading LessWrong I sometimes feel like I've wandered into a bozo version of "The Invention of Lying", one set in the real world, in which the Ricky Gervais character and his chums are the only people to whom lying comes as a stunningly new idea. And they set out to get anything they want by lying, and for a while it works because no-one's expecting such idiocy, but eventually people get wise to them and they end up puzzled by why it isn't working, when it obviously must.

Status signals are a known thing in the real world. False status signals are a known thing. People who habitually make falsely inflated status signals and imagine they are being taken seriously are a known thing. They are called "buffoons", "blowhards", "charlatans", "impostors", "humbugs", "phoneys", "all hat and no knickers", and with a thesaurus I might double the list. Even in the enclosed world of geekdom they are a known thing: Dilbert's boss. That is not something to practice being.

People who habitually make falsely inflated status signals and imagine they are being taken seriously are a known thing. They are called "buffoons", "blowhards", "charlatans", "impostors", "humbugs", "phoneys", "all hat and no knickers", and with a thesaurus I might double the list.

You mean the ones who are bad at it.

We're drifting towards fully general counterarguments here. "There are perfect liars everywhere! How could you ever know there aren't?" "Finding no evidence for the conspiracy is proof of the conspiracy!"

In reality, liars have a more difficult job than unmaskers. The only person Dilbert's boss is deceiving is himself (and maybe his higher-ups, who I've never seen shown in the strip). All of his underlings know his real character. You just have to ask, "What has this person done?" And, of course, look for the answer.

The only person Dilbert's boss is deceiving is himself (and maybe his higher-ups, who I've never seen shown in the strip).

They are there all the time. Look for a guy with a particularly elongated head. Often talking to dogbert.

They have an easy job if they piggyback off of lies people already believe. Like say, faith healers.

I completely agree. My point was not that one should display these behaviors to become high status (though there is value in fake-it-till-you-make-it, going out and doing these is a quick one-way ticket to looking like a disingenuous sleaze, you would be far better off working on inner game), but rather that these do have a basis in reality.

In light of your response, I had misinterpreted your original post. I took

If you imitate that list of things in real life, you're copying a simulation of an appearance of a fiction.
as
Any imitation of this in real life is a copy of a simulation of an appearance of a fiction.

and it was that that I was addressing.

Lowering another person's status [....] "lowering someone's status" is "humiliating them." • Contradict them. Tell them they are wrong. Prove it with facts and logic.

There's your two-sentence summary of why human rationality requires dedicated training.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Um, or more tactful argumentation. Try this: "This is an excellent idea! Let me try to add something else to it..." and slowly lead on to an idea that is actually correct and let them slowly buy into it, and sooner or later they will figure out on their own that then the original one cannot be correct.

A lot of the status-lowering behaviors are, if not low-status, at least associated with obnoxious personalities. This is a great piece, but I wouldn't mind seeing even more codification of the behaviors, especially separation of "high-status status-lowering behavior" (e.g. "Nice work on the Mulligan account") versus "low-status status-lowering behavior" (shouting), "Low-status status-raising behavior" (lose at something competitive), and "high-status status-raising behavior" (express gratitude).

Why do I feel that the LW community is getting defensive about these things by trying to discredit the post by attacking it indirectly? (e.g. proposing that high status isn't all that great, saying that it's plagiarized, accusing it of being fictional evidence) I find them to be, for the most part, quite correct.

We should instead be investigating /why/ it might be that each of these items is high/low status, or perhaps thinking about how we can subtly use these items in real life. For example, the perception of arrogance arises when a person tries to be higher status than he actually is. If LW as a community offends newcomers by seeming arrogant, then we should be trying to identify where we might be inadvertently blaring high-status. (Of course, respecting the truth should remain the highest priority).

we should be trying to identify where we might be inadvertently blaring high-status

I continue to think this post should not be in the sequences recommended to beginners. I found the status-blaring repulsive and nearly gave up on Less Wrong in my first week or so.

Why do I feel that the LW community is getting defensive about these things by trying to discredit the post by attacking it indirectly? (e.g. proposing that high status isn't all that great, saying that it's plagiarized, accusing it of being fictional evidence) I find them to be, for the most part, quite correct.

High status isn't all that great, relative to how it is occasionally portrait. I mean, it's damn handy but also comes with down sides. (I don't support any complaints about plagiarirism or fiction. Those are all fairly straightforward.)

We should instead be investigating /why/ it might be that each of these items is high/low status

Most of them seem rather straightforward - they represent implications about the ability of one party to control the behavior of or outcomes for another. We could go (and at times have gone) into details more thoroughly. We could even try to trace the why back to stories about sex, killing and apes.

or perhaps thinking about how we can subtly use these items in real life.

Don't most of us - even most people - do this constantly? If we didn't we'd have enormous problems socializing and living our everyday lives! We'd probably get fired for a start.

For example, the perception of arrogance arises when a person tries to be higher status than he actually is.

Higher status than the observer perceives them to be. The difference is critical. Sometimes we wish may wish to signal that we have status of approximately the level a particular individual or group desires but sometimes their approval is of little instrumental benefit.

If LW as a community offends newcomers by seeming arrogant, then we should be trying to identify where we might be inadvertently blaring high-status.

It's useful to know and occasionally even worth changing.

I didn't get the impression of the comments being defensive, so much as just pointing out caveats that are worth noting to start with.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Some are defensive, some are just noting that high status is not necessarily conducive to achieving goals outside the social sphere.

The importance of status is very dependent on how much you need other people to work with/for you, and how much they need your results. Also how said people view status itself.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Compare the defensiveness in response to Defecting by Accident - A Flaw Common to Analytical People. Rather than, e.g., trying it out.

When I was seventeen, I worked in a restaurant. One afternoon I was on my knees cleaning the floor. My manager walked by and stepped on my hand - he weighed about 275 pounds, and it hurt. "Sorry," I said, removing my hand from his path. He said nothing.

Yes, status play makes for good drama. ("House" is enjoyable mostly for that reason.) But I question whether it has inherent value in real life. I don't think either of us came away from that interaction better than if he had apologized and I had not.

I think it's a matter of picking your battles. It's a bad idea to fight for status with someone who can fire you.

Low Status behaviors: ... editing your sentences as you go

Unfortunately, this seems to be a habit of thoughtful, precise people (i.e. nerdy LW types) trying to ensure that they're understood and not making any mistakes.

Adjusting the way you say something to help the other person understand; meeting the other person on their (cognitive) ground; explaining yourself.

Huh. Is it a coincidence that several markers of good thinking habits do double duty as low-status behaviors?

At first I was going to say that those were actually the two examples I didn't agree with. I was going to ask, "Does it really signal low status to properly manage the inferential distance? Wouldn't it be the opposite?"

But once I tried going on to writing the next sentence, I realized something. It's high status to be ahead of somebody in the inferential distance. How often have you witnessed an argument where one person used a bunch of jargon from some science, their opponent asked them to close the inferential distance by defining those terms, and then the first guy acted as if the second had no business in the discussion if he doesn't even know what those terms mean?

If the goal was simply to communicate one's ideas, such behavior would be a fundamental incompetence: improper management of the inferential distance. But when the prize isn't greater understanding, but social status, it can be useful to refuse to define your terms.

Is this what the article had in mind, or what?

It's high status to be ahead of somebody in the inferential distance.

Only if you are ahead in something that is socially respected. Otherwise you are just weird. Knowing a lot about rock music can make you a high-status expert. Knowing a lot about Star Wars trivia usually just isolates you.

How often have you witnessed an argument where one person used a bunch of jargon from some science, their opponent asked them to close the inferential distance by defining those terms, and then the first guy acted as if the second had no business in the discussion if he doesn't even know what those terms mean?

Then it's not only about the inferential distance, but also about the second person trying to follow the first person; which gave the first person opportunity to signal higher status.

Imagine a situation when the first person speaks using some scientific jargon that nobody understands, but the second person just says something funny and perhaps a little offensive, and the whole room laughs with them. Where is the high status now?

Good points I think. Thanks.

Is it a coincidence that several markers of good thinking habits do double duty as low-status behaviors?

Good thinking habits require being careful. Being careful is associated with being afraid. Being afraid is associated with being low-status.

To project high status, you should practice your art secretly, and only show public your best results -- your achieved goals, your skills, and the respect of other people.

Our instincts are just evolutionary selected heuristics: sometimes they detect an activity as low-status even if the result of activity is high-status. It often makes sense... in an ancient environment.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

Have you ever thought about this: one of the core aspects of specifically human social intelligence as opposed to other species is to read emotions from each others faces, and humans have more facial muscles to express these emotions than other species, yet, an "alpha male" will usually have an expressionless, stony face? And men who have expressive facial mimics (Rob Schneider, maybe Steven Buscemi etc.) come accross as kind of submissive? So one of the most core human characteristics is not used by the highest status folks?

Uhm, countersignalling? "I am so powerful that I do not need this ability."

Specifically: "I am so powerful that I do not need the abilities that make cooperation easier; others obey me anyway."

High-status behaviors: [...] Speaking authoritatively, with certainty.

Wow. That explains a few things.

Argument by sounding good. It's argument from authority with oneself as the authority. This can be a trap if you're good at it, i.e. believing yourself more than is epistemically warranted.

I don't recommend deliberately doing high status behaviors to raise one's status. I tried doing this most of my waking hours once, but it was psychologically unsustainable and eventually resulted in a minor breakdown.

Work on your inner game first. Maybe experiment with owning your low status behaviors. E.g. if you notice yourself walking in an uncomfortable way, deliberately accentuate it because you just don't care.

Well, don't do it to a stupid extent, no. But I find this list an excellent summary of useful skills to learn to project. Of course, I'm an arrogant so-and-so with a self-opinion well above observable results ...

The above is mostly from Johnstone. Previously on LW. (ETA: not textually from the Status chapter in Johnstone's Impro, but quite clearly cribbed from it. The whole list needs a garland of "citation needed" annotations - none of these assertions have any evidential backing AFAICT.)

Slight formatting errors, lack of space around some italic text eg "Statusis pecking order."

What are people's views on the compliments aspect of this, surely it is a mark of high status to be able to give compliments to people knowing that you are in a secure enough status situation to be able to do so?

I.E the same theory behind a manager telling his staff well done for a project is an act of total confidence... He doesn't feel threatened by boosting their status as he knows by doing so it will not affect his own.

I just put out much more up votes than usual while reading the comments. I usually get confused whenever someone with high status ignores the well founded opinions of a low status person. I saw charismatic high status people break things due to sheer ignorance. It hurts.

What might be missing is an emphasis that status is not a black/white distinction. There is an apropriate level to each situation which can and should be trained.

I really hate it when competence and appearance of competence run on oposing signals. Bad enough that they are often unrelated. Basically I spent effort to train to be a better listener and better at understanding only to have to train that out again -- in appropriate situations.

Now I consider it valuable to be able to present a suitable status, but even more to be able to actually communicate with people who might not show the appropriate status.

It would be great to see more exercises for this.

I doubt adopting these cues is of any benefit--high status individuals can afford to not care about others. Still, it explains some annoying behavior I've noticed in others and for which I punish dearly.

How and with what results (short term, long term) do you punish?