Controlling for status in social interactions

In the book Impro, Keith Johnstone describes the techniques used to improvise interesting conversations between actors on stage:

When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn’t reproduce ‘ordinary’ conversation. They said ‘Talky scenes are dull’, but the conversations they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. […]
I asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motives, the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had. When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises. ‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvelously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret maneuverings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time.

It seems like he is saying that status is a universal controlled variable, everyone controlling their own in relation to others. We can decide what status, in relation to someone else, we want to be - higher or lower, or maybe equal. Johnstone is saying that audiences in theaters enjoy watching status ‘fights’ or little games where the actors try one-up each other. He is also saying that this feels like ordinary conversation, that people seem to be doing it all the time.

Is this true - in ordinary conversation, are we always trying to play the see-saw, and be a bit above the other person? Maybe in some types of good-will banter it is fun, but it can be tiring and irritating when some people try to constantly “win” in casual conversations.

As audiences, we enjoy big status-changing story arcs. A low-status underdog eventually wins over a high-status enemy in the classic hero’s journey. In a tragedy, a king or a prince loses his high status because of hubris and some meddling of the gods. We are captivated by the story because we want to achieve high status and avoid the fall to low status; or maybe we just imagine ourselves in their shoes, and feel their emotions without living their life.

I’m not sure how to define status, it seems quite abstract. If two people play a game, the winner gets high status, and the loser low. And we play many games, so maybe our sense of status is the sum of wins in all games? First approximation.

It also seems very physiological, close to the hardware. Viscerally, a win makes us feel good, and a loss makes us feel bad. This happens even when the win or loss belongs to our group, not necessarily to us personally, like in a sports match.


Interesting topic, Adam!

Maybe the status variable stands for who gets to set the goals in a conversation?
This reminds me of a cours I teach, in basic conversational skills for psychology students. I didn’t design the course so there’s no explicit PCT involved but lots of other ‘theories’. One of them is Leary’s interpersonal circumplex, which has two axes: dominance and affiliation. I note in practice (and in my course) that the dominance in a conversation (which is like the status variable you mention) is about who in the conversation can set the higher level goals. If you have the dominant position, you can set the goals and determine the content and structure of the conversation. With low dominance, you will follow the other party. The other axis,affiliation, determines whether you will work together on these goals or against each other. This is an indication of the pct conflict, interpersonally. You can actively oppose the goals of the other, or actively work together on goals that are aligned. In any conversation, the position of both conversation partners moves around in the circumplex. If it were just a fixed position, that would be very uninteresting.

So I think in this discussion it is helpful to think of status and dominance as 'who gets to determine what goals are being pursued? Who gets to determine what the references are and what their importance is?

I do realize that in strict control terms one never gets to set references for another person. But conversation is, often, a way of exchanging references, with all the messy limitations of interpersonal communication.


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Very nice topic! I think that the appearance of an ‘optimum’ level (not losing control but not asserting too much control) is a consequence of controlling a number of variables concurrently.

An influential pioneer in family therapy, David Kantor, identified four roles in conversations:

  • Movers initiate ideas and transition the conversation.
  • Opposers challenge ideas and the conversation.
  • Followers complete ideas and support the conversation.
  • Bystanders provide perspective on the ideas and conversation.

Refreshing my memory of this (from the 1970s), I came across this nautical metaphor:

Movers and opposers are the actors best suited to set direction. The mover is like a skipper charting new waters, while the opposer drops anchors to explore the current waters. Bystanders and followers mostly provide crew support.

And comments on the application to threaded online dialogue such as on Discourse:

First, when a compelling perspective is voiced in online conversations, it causes a pause that opens a door for actors to change roles. Second, followers are less relevant online, where conversations include adequate time to respond and an archive to keep thoughts clear.

We can productively mine the work of Erving Goffman for probable CVs and conflictual/collaborative control. He put his hypervigilance to work in a long pioneering career of observation and description. For overviews of ‘impression management’ see here and here. Important books relevant to PCT:

Sometimes the negotiation of control is avoidance of being perceived as having one’s CVs and reference values determined by others. This next is slightly updated from my 2009 Festschrift paper “Noam and Zellig”.

Tom Segev, an Israeli journalist and historian, is quoted saying:

You constantly hear it, constantly: don’t be a freier. That is the worst thing for an Israeli to be, a freier, in his own eyes, and also in the eyes of other Israelis. So never ever be too generous, be always on guard. Somebody is out there to take what is due to you.

I think it would be impossible to understand Israelis without understanding the whole notion of freierism. It is at the heart of Israeli culture, affecting how people work, how they shop, how they vote, how they think about themselves and the people around them.

From an Israeli point of view, Jews were suckers for 2000 years in exile, constantly being tricked and persecuted. The whole idea of Israel is to create a place where Jews were in control, where Jews would never again be freiers. And even though Israel is now a powerful state, the fear of being taken advantage of hasn’t gone away.

The quotation is from Ira Glass’s radio program, “This American Life.” The narrator recounts an argument with a hotelier that at root was a dispute as to who had the privilege of saying that he had been wrongly charged for a telephone bill and that he didn’t have to pay it. They were in full agreement about the substance, but screaming at each other about who got to dispose his status as not having to pay the bill.

The program may be heard at, and provides many other striking examples illustrating frierism. There is more discussion of the Israeli CV “Freier” at

and elsewhere.

As a relatively (and deceptively) uncomplicated example of where we can reframe systems observations for possible CVs, consider Kantor’s four roles. The brief characterizations that I listed came from the website of someone who had learned from Kantor. Taking off from a similar encapsulation, here are broad indicators of a very few of the possible variables that the participants M, O, F, and B might be controlling:

  • M: Initiate and provide direction. M is overtly identifying M’s CVs and their reference levels, cannot or does not want to control them alone, and is controlling a perception of the other participants controlling those variables at M’s desired reference levels. M may be controlling a perception of safety by means of perceived strength and dominance, or perceived indispensibility to an organization, etc.
  • F: Support and provide completion. F may be controlling M’s CVs at M’s reference levels but also controls avoidance of conflict. F may perceive that control of M’s CVs facilitates F’s control of F’s own CVs (inputs, environmental stabilities, etc.). F may be controlling a perception of safety by means of an alliance with M.
  • O: Challenge and provide correction. O may be controlling other CVs and/or may be controlling some or all of the same CVs at reference levels from M’s. O may perceive M’s assertion of control of the direction of conversation as inherently conflicting with O’s control in general
  • B: Observe and provide perspective. B may control to avoid conflict. B may control the proposed CVs with low gain. B may control (some of) the CVs as inputs to perceptions that the others are not controlling.

Of course the roles have no agency of any sort. As a first approximation, we would expect they are side effects of the participant’s controlled perceptual variables and their reference values for them, in the same way as rings and arcs in crowd behavior are a consequence of controlling proximity in two senses, attraction to a point of interest in the environment and avoidance of approaching another agent too closely. If a fellow agent was the point of interest (a ‘speaker’) and if there were few enough crowd members, we would see a conflict between attraction and avoidance resolved at an optimum distance. So in the creation of these conversational roles we would look for more than one CV and possible conflict among them.

Likewise, just as in actual crowds the rings and arcs can be perceived and perceptions of them can be controlled, in the same way participants in conversation can perceive one another’s preferences and include them among environmental variables that are available as links in feedback paths, or may control or attempt to control them.

Yeah, it does sound like it. My first image were the detectives and suspects from movies. The detective will ask the questions, and the suspect will answer. If the suspect tries to ask a question back, the detective will assert the dominance by saying “I’m asking the questions here!”. The status roles are predetermined and static. The affiliation axis could be the “good cop - bad cop” position?

So, asking a question would be a dominant, higher status behavior. If the person who is asked decides not to answer, stays silent, or starts a different topic, then he is in control of the conversation and stays higher status. In ordinary conversation, we switch the roles and sometimes ask, sometimes answer. But I suppose asking questions could also be done in a low status way, as in asking for help.

In Impro, the theater group discussed different behaviors in interactions and classified them in status positions, so they can practice:

  • Eye contact: maintaining is high status, diverting your eyes is low if you divert and glance back later. If you divert your eyes out of lack of interest, and then don’t look back, it is high status.
  • Beginning a sentence with a short “err” is low status, but making it a long “eeerrrrrr” is higher status.
  • Keeping your head very still and not moving it is high status (this was very surprising to me) Actors who were playing authority figures needed to practice this to be convincing to audiences.
  • Keeping your hands close to the face is low.
  • Moving smoothly is high, jerkily is low.
  • Toes inwards - low, toes outward - high.
  • Taking up a lot of “space” - sitting with legs and arms spread - high.
  • Speaking in complete sentences - high.

(page. 46). Once the status becomes automatic, as it is in life, it’s possible to improvise complex scenes with no preparation at all. The status exercises are really crutches to support the actor so that instinctual systems can operate. The actor then feels that everything is easy, and he doesn’t experience himself as 'acting’ any more than he does in life, even though the actual status he’s playing may be one very unfamiliar to him.

They take it as given that people in ordinary situations, outside of theater, always play some status interactions. They are generally more comfortable in one status position in relation to specific people - always playing lower to your parents maybe, and always playing higher to your children, but with some friends you can play minimal status differences, where you can switch between up and down.

Another interesting implication is that people can choose which status to play, so there is a higher level in the hierarchy. There is something we can achieve by playing a particular status role.

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Movers seems to be necessarily high-status. Opposers might be trying to go from lower toward higher status? Followers are lower, and Bystanders might be both.

Oh, that could be very interesting, trying to see status here. There are probably status signals in every message, but we don’t have body language like in in-person discussions. so it might be more subtle, something about sentence structure?
( we do have emojis! colon : , then “more…” :smiley: )

The person who starts a thread (the mover) is momentarily high status. A moderator is always high status. I remember in a another forum, we used to have the post-count number displayed under the avatar. That was kind of a status symbol.

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You may not know of the 1968 demonstration of the effect of perceived status by Jane Elliot, a teacher in a rural classroom in Iowa. But it may have been one of the most important contributions to a discussion like this, even if today we might think it somewhat unethical. I cover it in PPC IV.5.2, and refer to it in many later places in the “sociological” Volume IV.

The basic core of the story is that the students wanted to know why Martin Luther King was shot, and Miss Elliot asked them if they would like to experience having higher or lower status, as whites and blacks had. They unanimously said they would, and Elliot told them (with a fictitious chemical reason involving melanin) that brown-eyed people were “better” than blue-eyed people. The results were quite startling in their severity. Blue-eyed kids started having trouble with classwork they had been able to ace, they moved off the sidewalk if a brown-eyed kid was approaching, and the brown-eyed kids took it as their right to bully a blue-eyed kid, even one who had been a “best friend” before the class. The next school day, Elliot apologized and told the class she had got it wrong, and blue-eyed kids were actually better. The roles reversed, but less dramatically. You might find the story interesting enough to check out in PPC IV.5.2.

Here are the PPC links again:
Vol I
Vol II
Vol IV

Perceived status matters, and one’s perception of one’s own status in a particular context matters to one’s ability to do other things, while not always, if ever, being a controllable perception.

I remember from my first year learning about psychology an example from social experimentation. It came from a study of some Chicago gang. One of the gang members was a highly skilled ten-pin bowler, except when the gang leader was playing, when no matter how he tried, he bowled poorly. I suppose he could have controlled his status if he successfully challenged the gang leader, but that’s a dangerous gamble.

You can see the same effect in animals that have harem-formed families with one male and several females. A young male driven out of another family may well try to challenge the boss, and might live to regret the attempt.

Status matters, but control of one’s status in a given community context is seldom easy. Instead, reference values for more easily controlled perceptions may be affected by one’s status.

On further thought, I realized that status is a social phenomenon. The behaviour of those with whom you interact allows you to perceive your status in a particular context, but to change your status in that context, you have to influence those behaviours, which is difficult when it is only one “other”, but much harder when there are many “others” whose collective actions show you your status in their individual opinions.

Your status in some context may be that of a role you are playing, such as judge, street-sweeper, film-star, janitor, or President, rather than that of you as a person. A high-status role can take the place of Jane Elliot’s “better” eye-colour discrimination, giving the holder collectively controlled “rights” over lower-status people, such as judges have over the lawyers in the court. The lawyers can perceive but not alter their status in that judge’s court.

In short, your status is not yours to control by action on the environment, even the social environment.

Because our status, like our beauty or ugliness, is in the eye of the beholder. We can only influence, not control, what other people control and how they control. But we can control our perceptions of such matters, the success of that control depending upon our access to such influences, our perceptions of them, and our ability to control those perceptions.

There’s a parallel between influencing populations in the outer environment and ‘populations’ in the inner. We cannot control our autonomic responses, nor in particular the somatic perceptions that are the basis of emotions, but we can influence them. We generally cannot directly control salivation, heart-rate, sexual arousal, but we can influence them by imagining the smell and taste of a freshly cut lemon, viewing pornography, and so on, or we can control perceptions such as a lemon and a knife to obtain environmental inputs instead of imagining them.

A child learning to live in a body is also learning to live in a social world.

I get your point, that influencing our status is like influencing who wins an election. But I think Jane Elliot’s demonstration suggests there’s more to it than that. One’s status constrains one’s abilities to control. The degree of constraint is probably widely distributed over a population all in similar circumstances, and a few may act to change theirs, but most will not. Why, for example, might a blue-eyed girl who had always aced her multiplication exercises suddenly start making mistakes, after she had been told that blue-eyes were not as good as brown-eyes? There’s more to it than a simple control of a perceived “status” variable.

As a linguist, consider the “status languages” involved in the different words used in languages such as Korean by women talking to men, children talking to adults. younger talking to family elders and vice-versa in all those cases.

In English, consider the different ways the boss talks to a worker and vice-versa: “Mornin’, Fred” “Good morning, Mr. Green.”. A businessman father invites a couple of his business friends to dinner. he introduces them to his children as Mr. with a surname but the child is introduced as “Bert” or “Clarisse”. The child knows by this, if not by the assumed adult-child relationship, who is of higher status, and has no opportunity to act to change that relationship.

The worker doesn’t try to take the place of the boss, the obvious way of influencing the worker’s status, but the worker might try to form and to lead a union, which might elevate his/her status in the minds of the potential union members. The perception of status depends on whose mind the person may try to influence through offering suitable disturbances.

If the boss and the subordinate participate together in a team sport, their relative status may be quite different. A corporal may captain a cricket team and order the general about on the field (though usually by saying something like “Sir, would go to mid-off” rather than “John, mid-off”). The language identifies the dual character of the status in two different contexts according to the roles played by the persons.