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The Status Game

  • by Charlie Jackson

My third ever improvised comedy class back in 2015 changed the way I looked at social dynamics and relationships outside of comedy and theatre (and showed me how to gain super powers 😉). It was a class on status. Not social or economic standing, but status as in the perceived power or dominance of an individual in a given interaction or relationship. And that evening it helped me prevent a pushy estate agent from getting me to sign for a place that would have made me sad inside.

Take control of your status - text written on colourful background alongside image of Charlie Jackson (man) with his arm up in the air celebrating

With more improv training in status I became better at connecting with others and coming across in a more positive, relatable and confident manner. Learning status can help you become more successful in various aspects of life, from helping people see you as the expert you are to connecting better with them as equals. Plus there’s endless fun playing a high status character that breaks down half way through a scene to become low status.

Everything we do that others see and hear will affect our status in some way. The way you stand, speak, move your eyes, make use of silence or scratch your bum 🍑. It all moves you up and down the status ladder. You’re doing this already (especially the bum bit) but probably without realising. With training you can harness these subtle clues more and identify them in others.

High/ Low Status Characteristics

In class we start by identifying the different traits of high and low status characters. This helps us when we play them in scenes or take on these characteristics in real life, as well as identifying them in others.

High Status

  • Often fills the space, takes up room, makes themselves feel big and open

  • Are comfortable maintaining eye contact

  • Can maintain silence and stillness, they don’t rush

  • Have a strong/ confident voice

  • Are deliberate with what they say, don’t often use ah’s and um’s

Low Status

  • Can make themselves seem physically smaller than they are, hunch up, cross their arms

  • Don’t hold eye contact for long or at all, often looking around quickly

  • Are always fidgeting and can’t stay still

  • May speak timidly and softly

  • Often ask questions, permission and speak quickly

There’s many more and all of these can be played by the opposite status as well, but with a bit more nuance and other concessions to make it work.

Status Everyday

There’s a lot of subtle things missing from the lists above, in fact everything we do changes how others see our status. And this can affect us in a lot of ways. Perceived status can be key in:

  • Being seen as confident and capable at work (pitching the right amount of high status)

  • Not being seen as a pushover or letting people take advantage of you (too low status)

  • Coming across as caring, understanding and seen as an equal (often through matching others status or being lower)

  • Not being seen as an arrogant dick (classic high status behaviour)

So if you want to improve your behaviour in these areas, status is the thing for you 🙌. Having better control of it allows you to adjust that balance on a case by case basis. As people perceive and respond to status differently. Your boss may respect you more if you act confident and high status, however they may be the kind of person that feels challenged by this and would prefer to see you as slightly lower status. So being able to adapt is key.

Harnessing Status

In improv classes on status we look at playing characters at different levels of status (often in exercises where you’re assigned 1-10 on the status ladder) and then seeing how to transition your status during a scene. We also do status battles, where people compete to behave as the highest or lowest status (which are hilarious). You see these kind of “one-up” competitions happening in real life, practicing how to take it to ridiculous levels can be quite fun to bring into a low stakes real life situation. Next reunion when everyone’s comparing jobs try competing for the lowest status to an absurd level (see the 4 Yorkshire Men sketch).

Here’s some ways that you could apply status changes:

  • Someone at a meeting is trying to blame you for a mistake and raise their own status in the process. Instead of being flustered and trying to butt in to defend yourself (low status), acting calm, maintaining eye contact around the room, and waiting for a comfortable opportunity to speak (higher status) may help you come across as in control of the issues and not worried.

  • One of your employees seems to be having a difficult time and you want to check they’re okay. You may want to make yourself seem smaller, speak more softly (lowering status) but maintaining silence and stillness (higher status moves) to give them room to share and trust in you, as they can see you listening keenly.

  • Your in a fierce debate about ethics and morality that’s getting no where. The next time someone accuses your viewpoint as morally grotesque, you agree with them and calmly state how your a bad person and will be going to hell conditional on such a place existing (shock and surprise are a great tools for de-powering high status individuals or confusing them so much they don’t know how to respond, which can dramatically lower their status in a moment. A risky move though, but good for moving conversations on in a light way).

Coming back to the estate agent. After my first class in status I was at a viewing for a new place to rent. The pictures were great, but in person it was a bit “meh”. The estate agent was acting very high status (not leaving me room to speak, taking command and saying how all the bad things were positives), my people pleasing British politeness wanted to agree with everything they said or try and ask questions in a flustered and rushed way. Instead I stayed more silent and took my own time walking around the space. It felt like I was a playing a character of a calm Lord surveying his estate. It kinda threw the estate agent, they then started asking if I liked the place and what was wrong with it. I didn’t go for it in the end. But I remember it feeling like an important moment where someone would have usually had an edge over me and I felt powerful enough to reverse or even the odds in that situation. Just through subtle physical changes.

What To Do About It

Try playing with some of the different high/ low status characteristics we described. Start with small changes to see if you feel any differences and if you notice a change in how others treat you. With strangers or low stake situations try out bigger changes.

Otherwise take some improv classes. We do some and there’s lots of other great schools and further reading here. If you're interested, I can conduct a specialised workshop on this topic for both performers and non-performers, get in touch.

Having spent a lot of time getting to freely play with high and low status characters in extreme and subtle ways, I think it has helped me a lot in relating to others and coming across in a more positive way, for all my relationships.

So go forth and be status magicians! Any questions? Let me know, happy to explore this further.


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