Social Status: Building It and Using It
Monday, 25 April 2011
Social status: it's more than just something you get or don't get, have or don't have. Lots of people don't see it that way, though; they tend to think of social status as simply a dividing line between the people who are "in" and the people who are "out."
The line, though, is not so clear. And even within the "in" and "out" groups, you can point out distinctions: the guy in the "in" group who's really only in it because he has some connection people need, otherwise they wouldn't include him at all; the girl who's "in" more than her girlfriends, who are kind of just along for the ride with her. The guy who's "out" but still has connections in the "in" group and only seems to be "out" by choice. The girl who's "out" and so far "out" it seems impossible she could be anything else, because that's how she chooses to define herself.
Then there are the people who seem to step around conventional social status entirely; the ones who exude intrinsic status and can flow seamlessly among groups and be included quickly and easily wherever they see fit. These are the people we're talking about when we talk about ultimate social calibration; these are the folks who've stepped off the ladder and come up with a different way for moving socially.
Because as it turns out, there's more than one way you can build and maintain and use social status, and climbing up the social ladder of the closest "scene" is only one of those.
Let's start by talking about what status is good for.
Drawbacks and Benefits of Social Status
Status is one of those things that most either hate or chase after when they don't have it, and most others hate or jealously cling to when they do.
Generally, you'll see these kinds of feelings about social status:
People Without Status:
- "Who needs social status? It's just for mindless followers plugged into the system. I'll never play their game, and I'm going to do everything I can to show the world how silly they are."
- "Oh how I wish I had status. I need to be very careful to make the right contacts and impress the right people and not be seen with the wrong people if I want to build my status up. I've got to make it in."
People in Possession of Status:
- "Being well-known socially is such a headache. So many people resent you and try to take from you or backstab you. I almost wish I was an unknown sometimes."
- "I need to maintain my status. I must make sure that no one impugns my honor and everyone respects me and no one gains in status over me, meanwhile I need to be surpassing those above me. I've got to make it to the top."
People don't usually stop an analyze these thoughts though, of course; they just have them.
Beliefs about the nature of social status are among the core beliefs that most people never stop and consider. It's quite rare to hear someone in metacognition inspecting his own views on status; our position socially and our view on our status and that of others is so core to how we identify ourselves that we rarely question it.
For most people, their view of social status is just "how things are," and any view anyone else might hold to the contrary is, of course, clearly misguided.
But the world, as it turns out, isn't black and white, and neither is social status.
Social status isn't good, and it isn't bad. It's just a tool, and it's a tool that, if you know how to use it properly, you can maximize its benefits while minimizing its drawbacks.
Here are the benefits of social status you'll want to maximize:
- It allows you to more easily get what you want in social situations
- It allows you to make friends and build alliances with a greater number of driven, successful, high quality individuals than you'd otherwise be able to
- It allows you to retain the attraction and loyalty of women in difficult situations – even when not present.
And here are the drawbacks of social status you'll want to minimize:
- It's stressful and lends itself to constant monitoring of one's status in comparison to others' status
- It leads to falling outs between friends and lovers over status-related issues (such as perceived insults, condescension, or status-jockeying)
- It leads to out-group resentment and in-group envy
So, some potentially potent benefits, and some equally potentially poisonous drawbacks. Having relatively high social status means you can often accomplish things others can't, like having service industry people make exceptions for you (cook you things that aren't on the menu, give you a refund outside the normal policy, hold the train or airplane for you, etc.), getting access to other high status / high value people (higher ups in your industry, women in high status positions like actresses or models, etc.), and avoiding social penalties (just take a look at how often celebrities, politicians, and businessmen avoid jail time when indicted for crimes).
Relatively high social status also means you may very well get stuck with a number of stomach-churning disadvantages: friends turning on you, time being wasted obsessively checking and cross-checking your status versus others', people eying you jealously and resenting your success or gunning for your spot.
In the face of all this, a lot of folks might wonder if social status is even worth the hassle. Really, is a little special treatment and some cooler, more successful friends really worth the trouble of having to watch your back and eye your social competitors?
As it turns out though, you can maximize benefits while minimizing drawbacks. And where you'll want to start is with the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic social status.
Extrinsic Social Status vs. Intrinsic Social Status
There are two basic kinds of social status: extrinsic and intrinsic.
I'll define each.
Extrinsic social status is status dependent upon outside influences; one's external social circumstances, if you will. A movie star who's liked because he's been in a few recent blockbusters, for instance, or a sports player who's liked because he's on a winning team. A guy who's liked socially because he leads a certain group or organization or he's dating a beautiful high society girl.
Extrinsic social status is what the majority of people go for, because it seems easier, more tangible, and more readily achievable. "All I have to do is make it to the top spot," someone thinks, "and that top status is mine!"
The path is straightforward, the goal understandable: make it to the top. And once you've made it there, the world will be yours.
And for sure, there are some definite benefits that come with high extrinsic social status: you become very public, which means people are constantly being exposed to you and you're difficult to forget about or ignore; and as the leader or head or top guy in your domain, you become the default expert everyone turns to for guidance, advice, support, or an opinion. People defer to you, and treat you like a powerful person.
But there are some strong drawbacks that come with extrinsic social status as well. Because securing that top spot in the extrinsic social hierarchy doesn't mean you've won, victory is forever assured, and now you can rest. Rather, it means you're King of the Hill – for the moment. But now you must defend that hill. The movie star needs to keep finding blockbusters to star in. The sports player needs his team to keep winning. The man heading up that certain group needs to keep heading it up, organizing things, and ensuring that his group is the top group, and the man dating the beautiful high society girl needs to make sure he keeps dating her and that she stays as desired as ever.
What happens is, though, things don't go according to plan.
The movie star stars in a couple of duds, and suddenly he isn't the star everyone's talking about anymore. He's yesterday's news. The sports player's team loses in the playoffs, and suddenly the fans aren't filling the stadium anymore. The guy in charge of his group stops having time to plan events, or the people in his group find newer, hipper groups to join; the guy dating the beautiful high society girl breaks up with her, or some newer, more beautiful girl enters the scene and his girl fades from the forefront of that scene.
All the while, the man with top extrinsic value is fighting a losing battle to hold off the competition and stay relevant. Because one truth that's absolute in life is that you can never stand still; you are always either getting better, or getting worse.
And when you've made it to the top of a social hierarchy, there's nowhere else to go but down.
Enter intrinsic social status.
Intrinsic social status is the kind of status that extends beyond external social hierarchies and circumstances. Intrinsic social status comes from the individual himself, not from his external social rank. In other words, it's personality-dependent, rather than situation-dependent.
The Notorious B.I.G., one of the world's top rap artists until his murder in 1997, mentioned in an interview wanting to develop the kind of personality that would have people respect him and think of him as a cool, likeable guy even if he hadn't put out an album in years. He didn't want to end up being one of those washed up performers one day that people showed no respect to because his extrinsic status had dried up and disappeared.
What B.I.G. was talking about when he talked about developing the kind of personality people just like and respect and think of as cool is intrinsic social status. He was talking about being the kind of person that other people just respond to.
The movie star with intrinsic social status is the one people still think is a cool, likeable guy even when he hasn't had a good movie in years. The sports player with intrinsic social status is the one people still look up to even though his team fails to make the playoffs year after year. The guy with intrinsic social status is the one people respect and admire even if he doesn't lead any groups or have a high society girlfriend.
Intrinsic social status is about who you are as opposed to what you do. And it gives you most of the benefits of extrinsic status without most of the drawbacks. Actually, it even gives you a few benefits that extrinsic social status doesn't.
When you have intrinsic social status, you can flow effortlessly between groups. You aren't eyed suspiciously as "that guy who's known for X." Rather, you're just a cool, likeable guy whose company others enjoy.
When you have intrinsic social status, you don't get people tooth-and-nailing it trying to scratch away your position and take it for themselves, because... you don't really have a position. You're just a cool guy that people like.
When you have intrinsic social status, you're not concerned with fighting a losing war to maintain the status quo with you at the top of the pile. Instead, you've developed yourself to an extent that people simply like being around you, and that's something you will have forever. Furthermore, it's something you can always improve upon: you can always get a little better at meeting new people, a little better at making good first impressions, a little better at getting to know new acquaintances.
Unlike with external social hierarchies, there's no ceiling limiting how far you can go when you're developing your intrinsic status. The only limit is your imagination, and your will to change.
Developing Intrinsic Social Status
How do you become intrinsically high status? There are a few things to focus on:
- Warmth. I found this an intriguing concept when I first heard about it years ago, and I find it an essential element of my own interactions today. I remember hearing how people always said upon meeting American President Bill Clinton that he made everyone he met feel incredibly warm and personal, as if he'd known them for years and genuinely cared about them. Later I read in Leil Lowndes' wonderful book How to Talk to Anyone the great piece of advice that you should be as warm toward everyone you meet as if he or she was an old friend.
Adding warmth to your presence opens so many doors it's a little hard to believe before you start doing it. Warmth is disarming and makes others want to accept you right away; they feel as if they already know you and have a good relationship with you. It makes getting to know them once you're talking to them immensely easier (because there's no "wall of unfamiliarity" there like there is usually with strangers), and it makes them want to get to know you. Who is this new person who feels so welcoming and familiar yet they don't know? Many people simply want to find out.
- Interest in others. The man who excels at winning over new people is the man who's genuinely interested in them. When you enter a group of people and truly want to get to know them – not to pretend as much, because you're merely trying to gain entry to their circle, like most people are, but when you truly want to understand them better – they tend to welcome you in. Everyone likes someone who's interested in really getting to know her.
Something you may find useful to keep in mind if you don't naturally find others interesting (I always have, personally) is that by learning about others – no matter who those others are – you give yourself more reference points to understand the world from, and prepare yourself better to be successful at life and to relate successfully with future people you meet similar to those you're getting to know.
- Forcefulness, Power, and Coolness. Check out the posts on sprezzatura and the Law of Least Effort for an understanding of the underlying dynamics of how people assess coolness. Basically, when most people try to accomplish things socially, they do so in a way that ends up with them expending too much effort to do so – and thus come off less forceful, less powerful, and less cool. If you work to develop an air of effortless about yourself, you'll find people come to like and you respect you all the more, because they view you as a man worthy of their respect and admiration.
- Conversational Ability. Succeeding at all things social requires some degree of success as a conversationalist. It's impossible to come across a high status man without being able to communicate one's interests, get to know others, and relate and be relatable. Developing your skill as a conversationalist is an imperative for any man who aspires to embody and use intrinsic social status.
- Directness. Getting to the point in one's dealings with others is a very high status trait. Lower status individuals tend to beat around the bush, hesitate, and stall. High status people just get to it. Being direct – still socially gracious, mind you, but direct nevertheless – gets you straight to the heart of the matter, and most people, when this is done tactfully, tend to appreciate this and respond to it very well.
- Fundamentals. Much of what people respond to in intrinsically high status individuals is nonverbal: body language, posture, eye contact, facial expressions. Voice tone is another one that's incredibly important. Intrinsically high status people have high status fundamentals. It's the primary way that others assess their intrinsic status upon first meeting them.
As you develop in these areas, and build your proficiency in the qualities of a man who's intrinsically high status, you'll begin noticing that people respond to you increasingly warmly, respectfully, and at times deferentially. Men and women both are extraordinarily attuned to the signatures of status, and that includes both high and low status signatures (check out the post on ultimate social calibration for a further breakdown of the traits of high and low status individuals).
The benefits of developing yourself as an intrinsically high status man are far reaching and well worth the effort. Best of all, once you have intrinsic social status, you're freed from needing the constraints of extrinsic social status – you don't have to tooth-and-nail it to the top of a social hierarchy, you don't have to make yourself into an A-list celebrity or be the team leader of the best team in sports, and you don't have to be a headlining DJ or a party promoter at the best club in town. All you have to do is show up, be yourself, and be sociable and be meeting new people, and you'll find you get treated well and others appreciate having you around.
Best of all, when the limelight fades and the 15 minutes of fame that whatever source of extrinsic social status others were tapping disappears, those with intrinsic social status still get the respect and admiration they always had.
Extrinsic social status isn't bad; there's certainly nothing wrong with being successful and enjoying some of the benefits of that success. But for the long haul, for creating lasting social status that doesn't peel and chip with time and a changing social landscape, focus your attention on the intrinsic side of things – you'll end up with a much deeper, much more genuine respect from others, and one that translates far outside the reach of any situational status you could develop instead.
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