Here’s a little post I wrote when away on a remote island in Fiji recently …
Last night I witnessed a classic example of how ‘status’ can get in the way of daily interactions we have each other.
The Set Up
Whilst sitting at a table eating dinner and noticed a tall western man (let’s call him Andrew) and a Fijian resort worker (let’s call him Tevita) almost collide with each other at a doorway that they were both walking toward – they were both blindsided.
The Initial Reaction
As witness, I nearly dropped my fork as they almost collided … Tevita carrying a very large stack of dinner plates and glasses. Both men stopped with fright, teetered for a moment and then smiled at each other with relief. I must say, I shared their relief as I watch this event unfold.
After you … No no, after you!
I couldn’t hear the exchange of words from my table, but their body language made it clear. Here’s what happened next …
Tevita said, “After you” with a typically broad, Fijian smile. Andrew replied, “No no, after you” – All was still friendly so soon after the near collision.
A this point, the mood shifted and became a little uncomfortable – again I could sense this shift from the other side of the room.
Tevita took a small step away from the door and again said (something like), “It was I who could not see, after you my friend.”
Andrew’s body language shifted dramatically at this point and it was clear that he was not going to walk through the door first. He also took a small step back from the door and his then arms folded across his chest. He spoke briefly and probably said, “No … I insist, after you.”
By this stage, the status game was in full flight. I had embodied the tension of the exchange and I’ll admit to muttering under my breath, “Just go through the doorway first … he is just doing his job!”
Andrew’s shift in status was quite dramatic. His body language and posture started out just like Tevita’s. But he (for whatever reason) decided that Tevita was to accept his offer to go first. It appeared to me that Andrew had turned this into a win-lose exchange where the loser goes first. As he folded his arms, deliberately and slowly, he also gain an inch or two in height. His light, smiling face became sterner and his eyebrows raised.
Tevita could see the change as well. His own body language revealed a man in conflict. His shoulders slumped as Andrew’s stiffened. His smile remained but his face had that ‘backed into a corner’ look about it.
Soon after, Tevita walked through the doorway first, smiling and I saw him mouth the word “Vinaka”, which means thank-you. Andrew’s arm remained folded and he nodded as Tevita walked through the door. Andrew had the look of a man who had won a battle … his body language said it all and more.
My reflections and interpretations
Witnessing this 30 second exchange actually got me quite worked up. I felt sorry for Tevita and some resentment toward Andrew. It appeared to me that Andrew was incapable of walking in Tevita’s shoes and see the situation from Tevita’s viewpoint. Had he done so, he would have humbly accepted Tevita’s invitation to walk through the doorway first.
The next day, Andrew and I happened to be at the bar ordering a beer at the same time. I sparked up a conversation and discovered that Andrew is the General Manager of a big dairy business in New Zealand. When I revealed my profession, he turned his gaze to the ocean and politely indicated (and I quote) “we have tried that facilitation stuff in the past but it just doesn’t work for us … we know what we want.” And with statement, he appeared to lose interest in me and said, “Enjoy your beer”.
Wow! This guy really knows how to make others feel worthless! I’m glad that Tevita and myself don’t have to work for him.
I’ve learned a lot about the concept of Status from Improv Theatre through Viv McWaters and Johnnie Moore. These lessons are observable in every day interactions … the holy grail is learning to observe and reflect on our own status games. Like many, I have some significant blind-spots here.