Today’s topic is status symbols and how we use them as human beings. And maybe if you take it a level down, is it a strike against your character if you knowingly use them? And is it even possible to avoid using them even if you want to? I touched on this a little bit yesterday, but there’s more to be said. I go back and forth on this subject, just like everything else if you’ve been reading these entries. Let’s get started.
People are constantly putting out, and trying to pick up on signals. From people, animals, technology, etc. We are getting signals all the time, basically non-stop. And processing them quickly is a critical life skill. If you had to stop and try to interpret every single little thing going on around you it would be tough to survive. And the signals come in a lot of forms. From people and other living things you get body language and non-verbal cues in addition to actual spoken language and tone. From technology you get directions generally aimed at triggering a specific behavior across a wide range. When to cross the street, when to check your email, when your heart rate is at a certain level, etc. We take in the signals and react accordingly, but according to what? If it’s familiar, and we are conditioned, the reaction is second nature, not requiring any conscious thought. How do we get conditioned though? Through experience, and interpreting the responses of others around us would be my guess although I really have no idea. Society at large conditions us. If you’re making a loud ruckus in public and harassing other people, it would be clear to see via the reactions of others that this type of behavior is not taken to kindly. Try talking to loud at a library, same type of thing.
Much in the same way, I believe that society conditions us to make judgements on other people we don’t even know. From your initial interaction, when you haven’t spoken to the person, or had any type of correspondence really, your assessment is based purely on what you take in visually. And that visual representation is translated into a persona. A lot of it is going to be based on how you look, and I don’t want to dive into what is human nature when it comes to seeing and interpreting a person, versus what might be biases at the individual level. But there are the obvious ones – gender, race, physicality, etc. I would consider this to be the foundational layer. The person being seen doesn’t have control over these factors themself (outside of general fitness maybe), and for the most part can’t control how the person across from them interprets them either. But they do start to have control over the next layer – this is where status symbols come in!
At first I was thinking about status symbols purely as material goods but I think it goes a little deeper. Let’s start with the material part first though. Clothing, jewelry, automobiles, addresses. These things are very clearly displayable and can very powerfully direct a person in a specific direction. The obvious one being this person is wealthy or this person has good taste. The specific symbols will vary depending on group – bother the signaler and the person being signaled to. That wasn’t very clear. I see it as a mapping table almost. If someone is wearing a lot of gold and two people see him or her, they probably both would interpret the jewelry as a symbol of wealth, but one could then see that as tacky, and the other one as classy. And maybe that would depend more on the person making the interpretation. So you need to know your audience I guess, or your signaling could easily backfire!
I have a theory about people who use this type of material signaling. It’s all anecdotal from my own experience though, so take it with a grain of salt. If you have an inclining that you are being seen as lower than those around you, probably stemming from your own self-esteem problems more than anything else, but maybe from a real hierarchy too, you might be inclined to over-index on material signals. So if I thought people looked down on me as an Indian guy, I would want to show my achievement and wealth to bring myself back up, and what’s the easiest way to do that? Buy a nice car, wear brand name clothes, etc. I don’t think everyone who buys luxury, or most who do even, are doing it because they believe in the quality of the products or want to support the manufacturer. They are doing it so others see, and react in a positive way ideally. Maybe to generate envy on some level? So should you infer that everyone who buys a lot of symbols is insecure? I don’t know.
Then there’s another interesting phenomenon I’ve seen where people go over the top to reverse signal. If someone knows they are at the top of the power hierarchy, they will do what they can to play it down via appearances. The tech entrepreneur sitting on seven figures who still wears old t-shirts and jeans every day comes to mind. This person is absolutely signaling too, but they are doing their best to show that the money hasn’t changed them, or it’s not important to them, or they don’t believe in symbols maybe. They are reading their audience, or maybe just the group they are interested in signaling to. The people who know them already know their personal details, and will pick up on the modesty of their presentation and translate it into a assessment of their values. Other people who don’t know them won’t even bat an eye when they see them, reducing unwanted attention, dramas, etc.
My favorite is extremely subtle signaling. It’s a real art-form! I see this everywhere now, it seems to be common in people in the circles I follow (yuppie, tech people). They, we maybe, I’m guilty as well. We don’t want to come across as too gaudy or eager to show off, but we want people to see that we’ve made it and are doing well at the same time. What to do? This is where humble bragging of all kinds comes into play, I see it most on social media. Find a way to show what you’re doing, where you are, what you have on, etc without directly alluding to it. Let people pick up on the signaling on their own. But we, I’m the audience and the perpetrator, have gotten much more adept at picking up on this, so it’s harder to get away with. Again, the audience matters. The people it’s targeted to are aware and may react cynically whereas a whole group of others might take it at surface level and genuinely be impressed. That doesn’t do the signaler much good though.
I see status being presented in ways far beyond materials possessions now. It comes through a display of your values, or at least how you want others to see your values. Your words can be a signal, and again I see social media as the place where all of this comes to a head. How you spend your time, what your priorities are. I see a lot of virtue signaling out there, and other people going over the top in proclaiming their commitment to health and wellness. I don’t give these types of public displays much weight though. For one you already know that I’m cynical, but even more so, I question whether any of these people would be willing to do what they are doing if there wasn’t an audience. Is it all just a performance then? Some type of theater. It can come across as very preachy and disingenuous. There are so many weird symbols for all the different niches out there, I don’t even know where to begin. For mine, it’s pretty trivial things like getting invited in betas for new products, your personal webpage, etc. Does anyone really care? They must or people wouldn’t do it. My preference would be people do what they think is right, let that be an example to whoever sees it, and let that be the end of it. But maybe I’m just a curmudgeon unwilling to adapt to the tools available in this modern world.
So it’s natural and probably unavoidable for us to look for symbols and also to put them out. I don’t think you can judge people who do either. So what’s the point of this whole essay then? Ahhh, maybe just to make sure you’re aware of them, and to be aware of how susceptible you are to them? And to encourage you to not make yourself a piece of display art? But I can’t really argue that because I still use them too. I’m in the subtle camp, or try to be, but I’m sure someone pretty similar to me can see through what I’m doing pretty quickly.
What would happen if we didn’t signal at all? People would probably not interact that much and walk around clueless as to what the others around them are thinking. That would not be a better alternative to showing off I guess, so let’s stick with this as the lesser of two evils and just be aware of it.
Thanks for reading and I will talk to you all again tomorrow. 50 Minutes. 1651 Words.