How to master the social status game

Sometimes the only winning move in the social status game is not to play.

Humans have been concerned with social status since the beginning of our existence. And rightly so, since we are uniquely social animals and, therefore, our social status is an external indicator of how good our life is.

Social status is evolutionary as opposed to formed out of culture. Tribes that still exist today have a social status element to the community governed by a hierarchy much like our ape cousins.

The higher someone’s social status the greater access to people and resources they have. They receive more respect and adulation, and more opportunities come their way.

Social status is relative. A drug dealer on a council sink estate may have more status among his peers than a middle-rank executive in a large multinational corporate office. Social status hierarchy depends on the environment people are in, the groups they are a part of and the game being played

And it is a game. A big game. Played by many and with the utmost importance and significance. It’s a game where players can get lost in themselves and forget why they are playing to begin with. A game that can take over a life and some cases ruin it.

What is social status? Wikipedia defines it as, “the position or rank of a person or group within a society.”

Remembering that social status is a game is the key to playing it.

Comparing one’s self with peers is not new. Keeping up with Joneses is an old yet popular idiom but since the advent of social media the the ‘keeping up’ is played out with more intensity.

Chasing and comparing status creates anxiety and causes rifts if you allow it to get out of control. There are two ways to stop this from happening.

  1. Don’t play the game at all. Go your own way. Don’t conform to any culture or social etiquette. Live life on your own terms.
  2. Treat it as a game that’s fun. Acknowledge the absurdity of it and revel in its hilarity. Play it when it suits you and bow out when you have better things to do.

Unless you have the means to be a self-sufficient hermit option 1 won’t work for you. We have to conform to social norms to get along with other people. Besides, it’s a nihilistic way of approaching life.

Option 2 is about seeing reality for what it is and not being attached to it. It’s about choosing the important stuff over the non-important. It’s about discovering your own values and purpose and going with them.

Playing the social status game.

The social status game is played in various ways, ten of which I’ve outlined below. Some have more weighting than others and each is subjective to the situation. None are good or bad, just merely factors in what increases a person’s social status.

1. Wealth

More wealth equals more status. Warren Buffett, the world’s richest man, lives a humble life in comparison to the money he has. Yet he is still revered due the wealth he has created through investing.

2. Material possessions

Look at Instagram to see the likes on big houses, expensive sports cars and luxury watches. Material possessions are a form of status signalling. “I can afford this car therefore my status is higher than yours.” Consumer culture tells us that if we own these possessions our lives will be better for it.

3. Career

An administrator has more status than a toilet attendant. A banker has more status than an administrator. A doctor has more social status than a banker (though may not earn as much money). A professional sports star has more social status than a doctor.

Career determines social status which is why some students opt to study a career that enhances status over something they are good at or enjoy. Sometimes forced by their parents.

4. Health and beauty

Someone who looks healthy and conventionally beautiful/handsome will have more social status in some areas of life than those that look unhealthy and conventionally ugly. Mate selection, for example, is where these people may have an advantage.

5. Appearance

Compare the reaction you receive from people wearing a tailored suit compared with jeans and t-shirt. Sometimes there is a stark contrast in how you are treated. A well-fitted suit commands respect and increases chances of success in the right environment according to some studies.

Appearance for status is subjective, however, and wear the same suit on that council sink estate I mentioned earlier and you may get mugged.

6. Reputation

Your reputation is what other people think and say about you. A good reputation is fundamental to playing the social status game. If your reputation is in ruins and you your social group excludes you then your social status diminishes. Reputation is not fixed and requires constant effort, meaning social status can increase or decrease depending on your work effort and environment.

7. Unique skills, talents or knowledge

Not only do these skills, talents or knowledge have to be unique but they must also provide value to other people. A unique skill of little value is of no use. It has to be a skill that is scarce and in demand and while that remains your social status will stay high.

8. Achievements

If an England footballer scores the winning goal in the finals of the World Cup his social status will rocket and remain there long after he is dead.

Rare achievements (like England winning the World Cup) create legend status. Even relatives of the individual benefit from it. Don’t underestimate the power of achievement in the social status game.

9. Network among those with higher status than you

“Surround yourself with people smarter than you” is advice often in the self-development community. Usually it’s on the basis that you will learn from them. They fail to mention that these smarter individuals usually have more status than you too. You are increasing your social status by association, also known as social proof.

10. Fame / celebrity / notoriety

Fame brings adoration. Rock bands have groupies. Hollywood actors have fans willing to camp out all day in the cold at a premiere. Even those who are infamous have legions of admirers.

Again, fame is subjective. If you’re the world’s pre-eminent bone marrow doctor your social status standing will be high among the bone marrow medical community. You will get access to people and events that may be unattainable to normal bone marrow doctors. Your social status is limited to your group, however, and to everyone else you are just a doctor.

Knowing it’s a game means you can opt out at any time.

Alain de Botton came up with the term ‘status anxiety’ and he also wrote a book and produced a documentary on it. In both, he discusses how the modern world plays on people’s predispositions and fears, causing anxiety around their position among their social group.

Imagine if you had to play the status game each day. Aligning your life to fit with other people’s expectations of what constitutes as high status.

Sounds like hell to me.

When it comes to the social status game, sometimes the only winning move is not to play.

See the status game for what it is: A means to an end and, instead, create your own values and live by them.

By doing this you create new rules to your own game where you define your own success.

As Nassim Taleb brilliantly put it:

“For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life.

“Let him be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.


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