3 Dumb Ways We Jockey For Status

Status symbols aren’t just titles, cars, and schools, but also about strange things like if you shave your head and how you act in an elevator.

3 Dumb Ways We Jockey For Status
[Image: Flickr user Paolo Camera]

If you look at the way we’re always implicitly evaluating one another, from what we order at restaurants to the way we arrange ourselves in elevators or the hair upon our heads, you can’t help but agree with the author Tom Wolfe, who in his wild wanderings within the American psyche found that “every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way is controlled by a concern for status.”


Even in the “meritocracy” of startupland, status is supremely sought after: Reuters reports that status predicts funding for organizations. Status skews work at an individual level, too: deferring decisions to the highest paid person in the room has a subtle way of smothering innovation.

But status isn’t only found in salary figures. As Andrew O’Connell writes at Quartz, we read it into all sorts of places.

By Shaving Your Head

A study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School came to a hair-razing conclusion: men with shaved heads are perceived as being more masculine, dominant, and having greater leadership potential than their longer-locked counterparts.

The strong, confident, clean look

It’s all about the shaved head: O’Connell reports that guys “seen in photographs with shaved heads were perceived as an inch taller and 13% stronger than men with full heads of hair.” And the kicker for aging guys: if you’re entirely bald you’re seen as most dominant, while if you have thin hair you’re seen as the least powerful. So maybe opt for that Mr. Clean look.

By Where You Stand In An Elevator

There’s a weird sort of ritual that happens when people enter into an elevator (and just before they dissolve into their smartphones): folks have to find a place to stand. Rebekah Rousi, an ethnographer in the conservative town of Adelaide, Australia, spent some time studying behavior in elevators and found that a “clear social order” emerged:

  • Senior men stood near the back of cabins
  • Younger men stood in front of older dudes
  • And women stood in front of the guys

What’s at work here was something weirdly gender normative: the more authoritarian figures stood in the most commanding space within the elevator and followed certain norms: guys watched TV monitors and checked themselves out in the mirrors regardless of who was around them, while when women were in the same elevators as guys, they would watch the TVs, avoid the mirrors–and not make eye contact with anyone.


By How Loud You Are

We often fall back on “messy proxies for expertise,” says University of Utah psychologist Bryan L. Bonner. Rather tuning into the content of someone’s argument, we use their “confidence level, extroversion, gender and/or race” in order to determine whether they’re right or wrong.

The problem, he says, is that there’s “very small” correlation between how confident someone is and how right they are. The case might be that they’re just excited rather than anxious, while a less socially aggressive, but perhaps more thoughtful, person’s contribution the meeting (and therefore status within the group) is crowded out. The solution: run a better meeting.

Hat tip: Quartz

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.