Status Displays : What’s really going on?

chimpOne of the tricks to getting to financial independence is thinking for yourself.

This is easy…as long as you aren’t a monkey that just does what the other monkeys around you do.  The Escape Artist has noticed that some of those other monkeys seem keen on using their money and time to play expensive status games.

So sometimes its worth getting a little perspective.  And who better to provide this than Desmond Morris? After graduating with First Class Honours in zoology from Birmingham University, Morris moved to the Zoology Department at Oxford University to begin his research into animal behaviour.

Morris was the curator of mammals at London Zoo for 8 years.  He was the author of over 50 scientific papers and 7 books before completing The Naked Ape which went on to sell over 20 million copies.

In his classic book People Watching,  Morris explains that in primitive conditions, the strongest member of a group goes to the top of the “pecking order” and the weakest goes to the bottom.  But in modern human societies, physical strength has been replaced by other forms of dominance.

Below is an extract from Chapter 10: Status Displays – Ways in which we Signal our Position in the Social Hierarchy

Muscle power has given way to inherited power, manipulative power and creative power.   The three high status types we encounter today are: Inheritors, Fixers and Talents and each has their own special way of displaying his dominance.  Instead of showing off his bulging muscles, the Inheritor shows off his ancestry, the Fixer his influence and the Talent his creative works.

It is sometimes said that money has replaced muscle as the greatest Status Display of all but this is not strictly true.  It is possible to be a penniless aristocrat, a poorly paid politician or an impoverished genius and still command considerable respect because of your background, power or creative skill.

But to be rich and powerful or rich and brilliant makes you doubly blessed in the “rat race” for high status.  It also makes you the subject of great envy, with a halo that has only a short distance to fall to become a noose.  The result of this is that Status Displays have become increasingly subtle in recent times.

In earlier days, the overlords were able to display their dominance as brashly as they liked.  Their clothes, jewels, their palaces and their entertainments were ostentatiously exposed to view.  This was made possible by guards, torturers and dungeons which dealt effectively with any objectors….But then a few hundred years ago, subordinates began to discover the trick of ganging up on their masters.  Ever since, dominants have been forced to play the game of high status with cunning and finesse.  It is this that makes the study of modern Status Displays such a fascinating pursuit.

The muting of Status Displays takes several forms. For the inheritors (eg royal families, heirs) the new situation has meant pomp without power and, for the Fixers (e.g. elected politicians, CEOs) power without pomp.  A president dresses soberly in a grey or blue suit and travels in a black vehicle not the golden ceremonial coach of royalty.

Moving slightly down the pecking order, we find another form of muting…in the development of the latest “in-thing”.  This is an action or an object which displays high status merely because its done or owned exclusively by high-status individuals.  It could be an in-drink, an in-restaurant, an in-holiday resort or in-clothing.  “In” is short for “in the know”.  This display is favoured by non-regal inheritors, the heirs and heiresses to family fortunes and jet set socialites.

However, since envy’s gentler face is imitation, there are problems.  The out people try to copy the in-people. Sitting in a dimly lit, converted slaughter-house (the latest in-restaurant) are 2 high status displayers.  They are drinking antler-fizz (the latest in-drink) and wearing Sudanese native beads (the latest in-jewellery) and dressed in black boiler suits (the latest in-clothing).  Only the very in-people know of these new fashions, but nearby is a gossip columnist scribbling down the details. Soon the word is out and the place is packed with imitators.  The in-people must move on, and the cycle begins again.

It would of course be naive to imagine that these in-people shun publicity.  That is not the point. What they do is to make a show of shunning publicity, but ensure that they do it inefficiently.  They can then complain that their favourite haunts / fashions / styles have been ruined by becoming too popular.

This gives them the chance of being leaders of social fads without appearing to want to be so.  They cannot therefore be accused of brazenly flaunting their Status Displays under the noses of those lower in the social pecking order.

Switching from the Inheritors to the Fixers we see a similar emphasis on “restricted display”.  Below the level of presidents and prime ministers, the top Fixers are the tycoons, administrators, high powered executives and financiers. This is the power without pomp brigade – grey men with immense influence who reserve their Status Displays for their inferiors.  In their offices their power is subtly demonstrated in a hundred different ways.  To the outside world many of these displays would be meaningless, but those close to the seat of commercial power know the signs. 

To give an example, there is the shoes display. Shoes of high status fixers are immaculately polished and identifiable by expert eyes as only coming from the top shoemakers.  Like all truly dominant primates, the top Fixers tend to be beautifully groomed and pay attention to details that the lower ranks miss out.

Another business display is the briefcase display.  Lower status executives have to deal with details (inattention to detail is an extremely high status display) and must carry bulky briefcases stuffed with files / papers / presentations etc.  Higher up the pecking order, the cases become slimmer in order to display that only vital papers are being carried.  But at the very top, nothing is carried at all. 

The arrival of the mobile phone began a new phase of telephone status display.  The earliest cell-phones were cumbersome, brick sized objects. Tycoons whose personal toys included football clubs could be seen clasping their brick phones to their ears during matches, displaying to those around them their ability to control the financial markets of the world without taking their eyes off the exploits of their favoured teams. As their size and price dwindled so, inevitably, did their status value.  Soon they were everywhere and high status individuals began to spurn them…restricting their use to private emergencies.

Office seating is another rich areas for status displays.  Under the pretense of providing expensive and comfortable seating for visitors, top men offer visitors low, soft chairs into which visitors sink to near floor level. So when both host and guest are sitting, the top man is literally on top.

Many high status features are completely arbitrary.  But there are nevertheless a few general principles that run all through this maze of dominance signalling.  One is time and the other is service.

There should always be less time than is needed and more service than is needed.  The top man must always appear to be unbelievably busy.  Subordinates must always be kept waiting on principle, diaries must be full, interview times strictly limited.

Once away from the spotlight the top man can dawdle and linger, but once visible in the seat of power, the clock must rule.  To do otherwise would imply that his time and personal qualities are not in great demand.

As regards service, this is even more vital for the truly dominant. Servants have always been important but now they are rarer and have, as a result, acquired an even more valuable high-status flavour.  So the chauffeur driven car has become an important demonstration of real power and authority.

There was a flutter of unease among the higher strata of London recently when a high status males took to cycling around the city as an anti-pollution demonstration.  Laudable as this was, the thought of cycling becoming a new Status Display was too much for the other top males and so they reacted with ridicule. 

The same applies to those that walk to appointments despite the fact that walking can often prove faster in city centres than crawling through traffic jams.  What the top males were really objecting to was that one walker looks like another, and the status display of sitting behind a chauffeur and having car doors opened and closed for you is lost.

The Talents have their own status displays: their works.  The composer displays with his music, the scientist with his discoveries, the sculptor with his statues, and so on.  They are ranked according to the recognition of the things that they make, rather than the way they behave.

Typically, Inheritors and Fixers make nothing. When they die their social events and their business deals die with them, but creative talents live on, remembered by their works. This gives them such an enormous advantage in status terms that they seldom take much trouble with the other aspects of dominance display.  In fact their lack of regard for the usual Status Displays almost becomes a status display of itself.  Eccentricity of dress and behaviour is commonplace for them and they enjoy social freedoms unknown to other rat racing citizens.  Their work speaks for them.

What of the other (lower status) members of the social hierarchy?  The status difference differences amongst them are expressed in a number of ways.

There is the Imitator who copies the activities of the high status individuals.  If he can not afford a valuable painting, he buys a copy or a reproduction to hand on his walls.  His house is full of fake antiques, imitation leather and plastic pretending to be wood. Instead of honest simple crafts, he prefers mock-expensive products.

Then there is the Boaster. Blatant boasting is the status display of the small boy but this usually fades with adulthood. Where it persists, it becomes more subtle. It is converted into namedropping and casually steering the conversation towards areas of boast. High status individuals are not of course immune to this but they usually contrive to have someone else do their boasting for them, thus providing a social niche for another category: The Flatterer

There is also the Joker: another low status type who manages to increase his dominance slightly by entertaining his companions. By amusing them he puts himself in demand; unable to gain their serious respect, he gains it by humouring them.  [TEA note: was he referring to me here??]

There is the Talker: the man who never stops talking and thereby holds the centre of attention for more than his fair share of a social encounter. And finally there is the Arguer, who prowls the social scene, waiting to pick a verbal fight. By disrupting the smooth flow of social intercourse he too draws attention to himself and slightly increases his standing in the process. [TEA note: internet trolls !]

Is it just me or does anyone else find utterly hilarious the amount of pointless effort, money and emotional energy that goes into playing these status games in the corporate world and elsewhere?

There is always some clown who is willing to outspend you.  So, if you think about it, the game of spending your money to try to signal high status is all a bit silly really.

So why not try using it to buy your future freedom instead ?

10 comments

  1. The status displays in society is very well described! Does it mention what people who go for FI are like? The Monkey who grows trees and replanting the seeds and growing more trees to build a farm to so that one day he can live off the trees. I suppose we would fit more under the creative talents persona.

  2. less4success · · Reply

    Don’t forget the FIRE status displays of FIRE age, savings rate, and ridiculously low withdrawal rates 😉

  3. FIRE kiwi · · Reply

    Love it as usual EA. This FIRE kiwi laughs to himself every day as he eats off his non matching china, strolls on his threadbare carpet, drives his ten year old car, and works when he wants to. All whilst enjoying a life in a wonderful warm provincial town in New Zealand.

    1. And I thought I was the only nutter in the land! In th Bay of Plenty.
      Just recently FI and enjoying it. We’re off travelling for 6 months soon.

  4. As always, spot on. Trouble is, imitating correlates with corporate success (which you need to a degree in order to escape). There are whole books on how to be successful by imitating the “big hitters”. I find the best I can do is imitate the cheap things and make a virtue of undermining the expensive things.

    1. Playing with Fire · · Reply

      Any suggestions or further examples?

  5. Fascinating post, recongnise many of these characters. square peg makes a valid point in the corporate world in order to improve ones income its often required to “play the game” just do so in the knowledge that it is just a game, and once you’re ready to FIRE you can choose to drop those pretences

    1. Thanks!…Love these comments…esp L4S’s idea of FIRE status displays…

      Cigano, SquarePegMoney – Yes, totally agree…in the accumulation phase, playing along with the status game is often essential. The trick is to target any display spending with precision! Big car => mostly ineffective and expensive. Good shoes => can be a good investment. Etc etc

  6. A better analogy in nature is the mountain sheep. Rams participate in displays of butting heads. The biggest ram wins, and he gets to mate with whichever ewes he wants. Pretty soon, he gets tired out. The smaller rams that lost, or just did not tire themselves out with the display, now get to mate. As it turns out, the less well endowed (hornwise) rams become the fathers of more lambs.

  7. I talk a lot. I like being funny and arguing and giving science_based advice. I thought it was genetic. I thought I did it to fight boredom. I thought I wanted others to benefit from my readings. Maybe I just can’t help ending to go up in the ladder. So sad.

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