Status games: Absurd or necessary?

Person holding phone

Are you a green bubble or a blue bubble?

You know what I’m talking about.

Even if you use WhatsApp.

Heck, you’ve probably denied someone entry into your group chat because of the green bubble.

(Our surf group has displayed this savage behavior – so I’m not above it.)

The green bubble is a red flag in online dating, a delineator of teenage “in-groups” and, of course a TikTok trend.

And there are real-world ramifications to the color of your bubble. Here’s how a college student’s life changed once they ditched the green bubble:

But all it took was a group of people not letting me into their group chat in my Bio 1 class because the green bubble would break it. Not much after, I got an iPhone. The moment I did, my interactions with people changed. My best friends, started talking to me more. Friends were starting to randomly FTing me when they wanted to chat. Hell, my pull game was way more effective because I was a blue bubble when I was convinced I had sh*t spit game (Ironically my current girlfriend has an android lol). I 100% believe that people subconsciously treat the green bubble differently.

(I’ll leave it to you to Google pull game and spit game.)

If you’re reading this and saying that humans are decidedly f*cked — you’re seeing the absurdity and the necessity of playing status games.

I know you think you’re above that

You’re probably saying to yourself. Well I’m a self-aware-educated-Millennial and don’t engage in such uncouth behavior.

But guess again. Status symbols and their associated games are everywhere, governing massive swaths of our daily social interactions

Buying a Tesla. Updating your LinkedIn profile. Saying “I’m a social liberal, fiscal centrist.” Shopping at Whole Foods. Talking about GTD. Displaying your pronouns. Listening to Joe Rogan. Being a blue bubble.

There’s an infinite number of games that span politics, religion, social media, fashion, hobbies, racial/gender/nationalist identities. Most of the time we’re unaware that we’re even playing these games.

Yet we play them because striving is an essential feature of human nature.

Human beings strive to be successful. We strive to be the best Crossfitter, the best writer, the best parent, the best neighbor, the best dinner party host and the best CEO.

We feel good when we receive praise and devastated when status is taken away from us.

What is status?

Let’s start with what it isn’t. Contrary to what you may think, it’s not money. And it’s not power.

While both are tools that can be used to achieve status, money and power are not the “ultimate destination.”

In the book The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play It, the author William Storr describes status as:

When people defer to us, offer respect, admiration or praise, or allow use to influence them in some way, that’s status. It feels good.

And it doesn’t require massive achievements like winning the World Cup or IPO’ing your start-up. Storr continues:

We can feel the velvet touch of status repeatedly throughout the course of a single conversation or in the glance of a passing stranger.

Which takes us to the conveyors of status – status symbols.

Now inevitably your mind will go to luxury goods – Louis Vuitton, Rolexes and Lambos. And you’ll probably say something along the lines of “I don’t care about these things, so I don’t care about status.”

Photo by amir soltani on Unsplash

Guess again. Remember, status symbols are used to garner respect, influence and esteem.

If you’ve ever negotiated a specific job title – that’s a status symbol.

The books you choose to display as the background of your Zoom calls – status symbols.

(If you don’t agree, imagine you got on a call with someone with only grocery store romance novels. Or graphic novels. What would you say to yourself?)

Having a 6-pack. Or perfectly manicured nails – status symbols.

A 917 cell phone. Saying “I’m busy” in response to “How are you doing?”

In all these examples, these symbols can be used to convey to your peers (i.e. your in-group or tribe) some piece of information to garner respect, influence and esteem.

Why do we play status games?

Human beings have always been a social species. This dates back to our hunter-gatherer days – over 100,000 generations. In the pursuit of food, shelter and defense from the scary sabertooth tigers on the savannah, we had to work together.

On the Ezra Klein Podcast, sociology professor Cecilia Ridgeway called status a “brilliant social technology” that solved the problem of figuring out “a better way to hunt or we’re going to starve to death.”

We had to communicate, collaborate and form coalitions.

(Sounds a lot like Corporate America, right?)

And to ensure that these coalitions were effective, humans needed to create a set of rules.

Who leads? Who follows? Who’s holding their own? How do the gains get distributed?

How do the free-riders get punished?

And if you think about that last Super Bowl party you organized — you’ll quickly see that you tallied a sub-conscious list of those markers in your head.

Oh, that person sent a thank you card. (They’re sooo nice.)

They showed up late. (Sooooo inconsiderate!)

She spilled a White Claw and didn’t offer to clean it up. (That was a bit rude.)

That little boy was teasing the girls for not knowing the rules. (Questionable parenting.)

That dad thought a pregnant woman shouldn’t perform. (Sexist!)

And inevitably these micro-interactions will likely guide future coordination (or abandonment) with the members of the group.

Are status games required?

Now you’re probably saying to yourself:

I get that these games exist, but what if I want to opt-out?

So let’s go from the Super Bowl party to a random conference mixer.

After all, whether you’re the CEO of JP Morgan or a stay-at-home parent — we all have to go to mixers at some point.

As you make your way through this mixer Ridgeway plays out the conversations:

And pretty quickly, people will ask, what do you do? What are your thinking? And you will usually try to find a way to introduce one of your games into the arena in order to position yourself in the conversation. And all these games have a core similar rule that they follow, how you gain status in the situation, you gain esteem in the situation. But they deploy different sets of information, basically different standards of value. Like OK, it’s cool to be nerdy. It’s cool to know this. It’s cool to know about sports. It’s cool to know about art. It’s cool to know about politics.

Even if you chose to be completely quiet in the room and only answer questions with a yes/no — you still would be partaking in the status game, by communicating your disdain for it.

And your tribe would be paying close attention.

The mere presence of other individuals makes you a participant in the game — irrespective of whether or not you choose to opt-in or opt-out.

Status games are good for your health (Wait, what?)

“Social status is a universal cue to the control of resources. Along with status comes better food, more abundant territory, superior health care.”

According to psychology professor David Buss, being high status is good for your health. And as I researched this essay, I desperately wanted to find a silver bullet pointing to the damaging consequences of status games.

Instead, it was the opposite.

Dr. Michael Marmot showed that in British society “how high a civil servant climbed in the game of civil service predicted their health outcomes” — irrespective of their wealth.

In a lab, baboons were fed diets that were high in fat and cholesterol until they developed dangerous levels of atherosclerotic plaque. (I know, disgusting.) The researchers learned that the higher the status of the monkey, the lower the probably of illness.

Even more stunning, as the researchers conspired to alter the hierarchy, “the risk of illness changed in lockstep with the change of their status.”

(Are you for real?)

And once again, if you’re seeing the Green Bubble or the social mixer as a cue to opt-out, Storr says you may want to reconsider:

Frequent defeat in the status game has us scuttling off to the grey safety of the back of the cave. In the sanctuary of those shadows, our inner monologue can turn on us, becoming hypercritical in a process known as self-subordination. We talk ourselves down in an onslaught of insult, convincing ourselves the fight is useless, that we belong at the bottom, that we can only ever fail.

But I absolutely love doing “the thing”

Your next objection is a valid one.

You’re probably saying, “Well I genuinely enjoy the stylishness of Nike Air Maxes” or “I love reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners.”

And one can have a genuine, separate interest in things while merrily going on in your life. But once again, remember that we’re social creatures who don’t live in a cave. Here’s Professor Ridgeway:

Yes, you’re reading the books. And when you’re all by yourself, maybe all that’s happening. But you can’t wait to talk to your friends about them to engage in some dialogue about them. And don’t you think this person is a better novelist than that person, or this is a more incisive political analysis in this book than in that one? Don’t you think so? Or have you read that? No, I haven’t read that. Well, you should read it. How can you not read that? And so on.

You’re instantly back in the status game. Even if it’s not a vicious competition.

[Status games] are part of the way we make our living or how we manage our lives. But status ends up being everywhere because it infects all these things. Because so many of the things require coordination with others to do properly. 

Aren’t status games also absurd?

Your visceral reaction to status games probably harkens to the impish behavior of the Crypto Bros during the bull market.

You don’t have to look any further than botox’d out influencers and self-righteous billionaires to wonder: when does it ever end?

And you’re right. Because status (like success and achievement) is the ultimate positional good. The value of a positional good comes from its relative value in comparison to another similar good. Said differently, status is relative.

Herein lies the first piece of bad news.

If you strive to be smart, there will always be someone smarter than you.

If you strive to be attractive, there will always be someone more attractive than you.

If you strive to be rich, there will always be someone richer than you.

Ok, fine. There is the richest person in the world – so he (Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH) doesn’t need to compete. But when you look at the recent behavior of other eccentric billionaires – you can see the race to the top comes with some self-inflicted wounds

Which leads to the second problem with positional goods.

Once you make it to the top, you’ve got to defend it from an angry mob who wants that top position.

It’s an exhausting and self-defeating way to live.

(Oh, and we all die – so your looks, brains and skills will all decline with time.)

So where do we go from here?

When I began the research for this essay, I thought there’d be a definitive answer that status games are bad and should be avoided at all costs.

To my surprise, they can’t be avoided. But can we bring some self-awareness into the equation?

Can we at least be honest with ourselves that we’re doing it for the status? Can we read a book without putting it on our coffee table, starting a book club or Tweeting about it? (Can we shift our behaviors towards more atelic activities?)

It seems to me that status ping pongs between being an “essential nutrient” (per William Storr) and an “absurd game for losers” (my words).

So I created a little chart that we can hopefully use to guide us:

It’s not scientific. It’s not research-backed. But it’s simple. And feels right:

Once you start humble-bragging (point B), it’s probably time to rein yourself in.

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