Sunday, 21 November 2010

Avoid the Joneses. Otherwise, Talk Sport.

One of the difficulties of being human (or perhaps any animal) is having to deal with status anxiety. Status anxiety is an obsession about how powerful other people are relative to you.

What I find is that among people who are obviously my superiors (e.g. my bosses) status anxiety is not a problem because it is clear what the relationship is. When I talk to my boss it is clear that he or she has more power over me and that he or she tells me what to do, and I dutifully follow these orders. I also try to learn from these people.

If I am among people who are obviously my inferiors then likewise I find that those at the bottom tend to show admiration towards me. When you are among your inferiors, you have a choice of either being cruel and belittling to them or alternatively you can be compassionate and try to guide, help, and develop these people. As Thomas Carlyle said, "A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men."

However, it is the relationship among people of more or less equal status that is difficult. The uncertainty about who is superior to whom spurs competition. Your colleague at work who is at the same pay level as you wants to think he is better than you by talking up how important his work is. Your neighbor across the road will want to impress you with hus expensive car.

The Avoid-the-Joneses Strategy

I get along well with my superiors and my inferiors, but not my equals. The mainstream solution to this problem is to tell yourself that buying status symbols and showing off is childish and silly, and not to be worried about it. In other words, when Jones shows off his new Ferrari and trophy wife, just forget about it.

The problem with this solution is that it ignores how much status anxiety affects us all. It is human nature that we feel jealous when our equals seem to be getting ahead. This is because we are losing control and losing power. When we see the neighbor showing off his luxury car and trophy wife, it will create pain. We must accept it. There is no point denying your own biological urges and trying to wish them away. These instincts will exist and will continue to exist.

The solution then is not to try to deny the problem or to try to forget about it. The solution is to simply not be friends with your equals and try to limit the amount of interaction you have with them. In other words, avoid your equals.

This strategy of trying to associate with people who are clearly your superiors or your inferiors, in my opinion, leads to peace and harmony because everyone knows his role and position. But how do you avoid your equals if these people are the people you work with, your neighbours, relatives, and so forth? Even if you try your hardest to spend little time with your equals, there is a good chance you will still have to be polite with them, to talk to them, and so forth.

Talk about Sports

If you are with your equals, try to limit the amount of time you spend with them, and try to talk about topics that do not create status anxiety, e.g. do not talk about personal finance, work, or money. It is better to talk about trivial topics like the weather, sports, film, or television. Many people already do this instinctively, which is why discussions about sport are very popular and why discussions about topics like wages are taboo.

The Implications of Class Mobility

People move around quite a bit. Your boss may lose his superior status because of a multitude of reasons. He may get fired or he may get divorced and lose all his money. But if your boss suddenly becomes less fortunate than you, this should not create too much anxiety for you. The real danger is if your inferiors suddenly become your equals or if your inferiors become your superiors.

Your inferiors may become your superiors in a very short period of time as they may advance more quickly than you. It is important then to estimate how likely it is that a particular inferior person you are talking to will advance in status to the point where he is equal to you. If it is reasonably likely, then try not to talk too much about topics that elicit status anxiety. Try instead to talk about trivial topics. The more risk averse you are, the more you should talk about trivial topics.

Image: Neither Fanboy

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