Saturday, August 11, 2012

Social status: the underground river

Status is a touchy subject in the West.  We spent a long time believing that nobles were fundamentally better than serfs, and nowadays most overt assertions of authority are considered gauche.  We don't bow to our president, and in most newer business settings we don't even use titles or honorifics: some companies take pride in everyone from janitor to CEO going by their first names.

But that doesn't mean that our society is an egalitarian utopia: parents are legally responsible for their kids, managers are responsible for their reports, police decide whether or not you get a ticket or go to jail.  And we expect people to be fair and judicious and limited in their exercise of authority, and to treat others as equals the rest of the time.  And overall I think that's a great way to operate.

More subtly, though, people also believe in respecting their elders, deferring to people with more experience, respecting "sweat equity", and special statuses like "I was here first".

This leads to a lot of ambiguity.  Should a rookie cop lecture a retired veteran about gun safety?  Should a new manager defer to a senior worker?  There are many stories about incautious Lieutenants trying to assert authority over salty old Sergeants.  Remember, all this has to be resolved without compromising our egalitarian ideals.
Contrast Asian languages, where you literally can't get through a sentence without expressing status!  

In Cambodian, for example, the generic word for "you" is only used in formal documents.  Otherwise it's always "older sibling", "younger sibling", "aunt/uncle", "grandma/grandpa", or a dozen other titles.

The very best leaders are good at keeping everyone pointed in the right direction without ever offending our sense of egalitarianism.  But it's a tough skill to cultivate: I've spent hours writing emails that try to balance a clear vision for how I think things can move forward, and what I need from other people, without sounding like I'm trying to order them around or subvert their own judgment.  Even in writing this article, it's hard to balance conveying my enthusiasm in a confident and engaging way, while still encouraging people to question my assertions and contribute their own insights.

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