Ming the Mechanic:
Space and Status

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Space and Status2004-07-01 19:26
7 comments
picture by Flemming Funch

Dave Pollard is reading Impro by Keith Johnstone, a book I read years ago when I was doing improv comedy. Absolutely delightful book. Dave shares some great insights, in part from some parts of that book that I don't remember. I've better dig it out again. Now, for example, about Status and Space:
Imagine that two strangers are approaching each other along an empty street. It's straight, hundreds of yards long and with wide pavements. Both strangers are walking at an even pace, and at some point one of them will have to move aside in order to pass. You can see this decision being made 100 yards or more before it has to. In my view the two people scan each other for signs of status, and then the lower one moves aside. If they think they're equal, both move aside. If they both think they're dominant (or if one isn't paying attention) they end up doing the sideways dance and muttering apologies. But this doesn't happen if you meet a frail or half-blind person: You move aside for them. It's only when you think the other person is challenging that the dance occurs. I remember doing it once with a man in a shop doorway who took me by the forearms and gently moved me out of the way -- it still rankles. Old people tend to cling to the highest status they have had, and will deliberately 'not notice' others while clinging fiercely to the (often walled) inside of the walkway. A bustling crowd is constantly and unconsciously exchanging status signals and challenges, with the more submissive person stepping aside.
Ah, it is coming back to me. We used to do acting exercises based exactly on how status and space relates. A high status person (or rather, somebody who perceives themselves to be high status) will try to fill the space and own the space, and will try to put others in as small a space as possible. And a low status person will try to do the opposite, and squeeze themselves into as small a space as possible. There are all sorts of body language signs that go along with that. Auditory, visual and kinesthetic clues. A high status person might grin, showing their teeth, speak in a loud voice, wave their arms around, etc. Or, even more effective, they might do it in the understated aristocratic way. Having long pauses of silence while they speak, and speak very softly, so everybody else has to be quiet and wait for their next word, which will be some 20 dollar word that only half the audience understands, and they'll force others out of the way by being immobile, but staring straight at their counterparts. It is great fun to play these things deliberately in improv. Hilarious things come out of for example letting two people try to outdo each other in high status. Or low status, trying to be more insignificant than the other. You first; no you; no don't think about me; oh no, I was just about to crawl into this sewer and evaporate, so really, you first.

Beyond comedy, there's really a lot to say about how we relate to each other in the real world, and in this case, how we use all sorts of cues to jockey for position, both up and down, and how we sometimes challenge each other to a duel. Dave writes:
Johnstone is interested on how this subliminal body language and status-checking can be exploited, to both powerful and comedic effect, on the stage. I'm more interested in its implications for human behaviour in a crowded world. I didn't believe the above passage was true until I started observing people (and myself) moving in crowds. You can easily pick out who sees him/herself as dominant, and who's going to move aside, a mile away by their demeanor and body language. It's hilarious to watch. Older people almost always expect, and subtly signal to younger people to move aside, even young people in gangs with attitude. And they do move aside, belying their whole superficial demeanor. Women tend to defer to men of the same age, but old, frail and pregnant women somehow trump everyone else -- everyone moves aside for them. I watched adults puff themselves up and brace for collision with children (especially those of cultures that let their kids learn these status rules slowly) rather than simply get out of their way. In one case I watched a very respectable, well-dressed middle-aged man actually deliberately kick a child out of the way, and then apologize to the mother (not the child) that he (the man) 'wasn't paying attention'.

I never realized how arrogant I must appear in crowds. I tend to dislike them, 'pretend not to see' people in them (much to the dismay of people who later tell me I 'rudely' ignored their smile or nod or wave of recognition), and take on a hurried, distracted, disinterested, hostile and elbows-raised demeanor. It works very well, except with some children, and except when I have to pass people from behind.
I'm fairly aware of these things, and notice a lot of that too. I myself am for one reason or another usually acting like a rather low status person when I'm just walking around among strangers on the street, pretending like I'm invisible. Which of course I'm not. People always scan each other, whether they're consciously aware of it or not. In other types of social settings I typically act high status. Which is certainly the most effective if you have something to accomplish, like speaking to a group, or networking, or just having a good time.

But part of all that bothers me as much as Dave:
What disturbs me most is what this bodes for us idealists trying to establish non-hierarchical, leaderless political and economic structures -- communities of peers. Are such structures unnatural? Or do we simply need to learn to recognize the pecking order for what it is -- a primeval tool for minimizing conflict and deciding who will do the breeding -- and what it isn't -- a license to take an unfair share of wealth and power?
Hmmm. I think maybe a flat organizational structure is at best an even playing field. Not really a lack of structure, but an absence of arbitrary structure. It is allowing for structure to emerge naturally, as it seems appropriate. And to dissolve and turn into something else when its time is over.

It is unavoidable that there's some kind of natural selection and ad-hoc organization going on, and we couldn't do without it. If we're a group of people sitting in a circle to discuss something, somebody will speak. It can not be all of them at the same time. Somehow a sub-verbal negotiation takes place, based in part on who burns the most to speak, combined with various indicators of different roles and timing and relationships and balance. And status too. That's probably all fine, as long as nobody manages to turn any temporary 'advantage' into a permanent one. If the first speaker hogs the microphone for the rest of the meeting - that doesn't work, of course. As long as the relationship remains dynamic, and everybody fundamentally has an equal chance of participating, it can work.


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7 comments

2 Jul 2004 @ 20:47 by Jon Husband @24.87.29.115 : Transactional Analysis and Structure
I too as you might guess am absorbed by the changes we are all watching in what I call traditional hierarchy, and I have indeed been wondering about the naturalness of hierarchy, status, power, control etc.

I think we all want to have a sense of "control" in our lives in some way or other (some very personal ways to be sure, and certainly training one's mind to let go of the need for control is a form of self-control).

Ii just had an interesting conversation in a coffee shop today with Chris Corrigan, where we were talking about "territory". Chris noted us whte men and our societies are quite concerned about this, and have used it as one of the touchstone assumptions n setting up our societies, whereas indigenous people tend not to work from that fundamental assumption of territory, and this the power, status, control that comes with havin defined, bounded spaces. Blogs are interesting here - they do and they don't have territory and bounds, I think. Still thinking about that bit ...

I think I observe more and more instances of adult-to-adult language and behaviour on the web, and in this increasingly interconnnected world, as opposed to parent-child. A futurist I know, Ruben Nelson, is fond of suggesting that the next necessary step for homo sapiens in our civilization is maturity, self-awareness and the self-confidence necessary to move, in a critical mass sense, to interdependence, rather than independence.

At the 100,000 foot level, it could be argued that the dominant nation and culture at the moment, the US, is a nation and society that praises, if not reveres independence and individualism, whereas older societies (some of the European ones, Japan, etc.) are further along on the maturity curve. However, these nations and societies are also quite hierarchical in many areas.

What we have as a possibility are these conditions we've never experienced before - minds, imaginations and hearts all interconnected via keyboards and screens - maybe just when we need them to get to the next (necessary) stage of civilization - so that we can practice first discovering and then learning what interdependence means, and how to do it .... before we pollute or de-resource the planet to the point where an individual's status and power won't matter a fig.  



3 Jul 2004 @ 06:01 by ming : Interdependence
A lot of people are longing for it, I'm sure, but at the same time it imbues us with fear. Holding on to MY stuff and MY territory seems so much more safe at first glance. It probably isn't. Just gets us deeper into trouble. If you're holding on to the screws and I'm holding on to the screwdriver, we might not get around to seeing what they can do together. But I think we'll increasingly discover that it doesn't really work to just hold on to our pieces, which we mistakenly think are solid and dependable. Where the more real security probably is found in something much more dynamic and interdependent. But it is a whole different feeling, a whole different set of perceptions and sensibilities.  


3 Jul 2004 @ 10:07 by Jon Husband @24.87.29.115 : Power Systems
Here's an interesting look at how this work has been, I think, taken into the realm of organizations. Barry Oshry once wrote a book called seeing Systems and he then created a Power Lab where he runs week-long simulations of how power and status affect individual and group behaviours.

Here's a brief summary  



3 Jul 2004 @ 10:08 by Jon Husband @24.87.29.115 : Link
The html I inserted didn't seem to work

http://www.shambhalainstitute.org/2004/module_oshry.html  



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