Status Prudes

Most people think a lot about sex, and often in relation to the people around them.  In some subcultures it is OK to say most such thoughts out loud, but most societies prudishly discourage sex talk, except in unusual circumstances.  This avoids awkward situations, but also forces people to use weaker clues to infer folks' sexual interests. 

Societies also vary in how "prudish" they are about status talk.  Social status, a shared perception of individual quality, is central to every society.  In some societies, like high school or the ghetto culture as depicted on The Wire, it is mostly OK to directly jockey for status; you can tell someone you are better than them, or that they have a loser car.  In contrast "egalitarian" societies  discourage such talk; such jabs must be made indirectly enough to allow plausible deniability.

Now as with sex, discouraging status talk avoids awkward situations; direct status jabs often escalate into challenges and battles.  But this prudishness also reduces the signals people have to infer the social status of others, and this influences what counts for social status; societies vary in the relative weight they put on wealth, beauty, physical power, achievement, awards and degrees, popularity, institutional affiliations, and so on.

When "pissing" contests and "trash" talks are allowed, they tend to be influential in perceptions of relative status.  Most school bands, for example, have finely-graded public member rankings, which change based on challenge contests.  Physical fight outcomes are very influential in male cultures that allow such things, and rumors that trash folks are very influential in female cultures that allow such things.  Without such direct status signals, however, people must rely more on other clues about social status, such as jobs, degrees, wealth, beauty, etc. 

Note that status prudishness is a matter of degree. Yes, it may be impolite to directly take visible actions that explicitly indicate someone's status, especially relative to you.  But this rule usually only applies to people "near" your status level; it is acceptable to fawn over movie stars or to pretend a bum isn't there.  More prudish societies may require you to ignore status over a wider range of status differences, but every society allows acknowledging large enough differences.

So how does status prudishness influence what counts for status?  First, it reduces the importance of contest and rumor specific skills.  Second, it reduces the ability of folks around you to influence your perceived status.  When contests are OK, folks around you can gossip about you, challenge you, or they can influence the shared judgment about who "won" contests.  But if your status depends more on what school you attended or what job position you have, the people around you will tend to have less influence over such things.

So when the people around you have less influence over your perceived status, who takes up that slack, and gets more influence?  It seems to me that in our society it is mostly higher status elites who get more influence; they decide who gets into what school, who gets what job, etc.  And high enough people are allowed to let their relative status influence their actions toward you, creating visible signals about your status that others can observe.

Relative to societies where most people have a say in ranking folks around then, status-prudish societies tend to delegate this ranking task to elites.  This may in fact produce a better society, but it seems odd to call this more "egalitarian"; people still end up being ranked, and the power to set those rankings is concentrated more into elite hands.  Refusing to acknowledge inequality is not the same as reducing inequality.

This all applies to my intellectual world.  When evaluating someone intellectually, I tend to downplay their degrees, publications, affiliations, etc. and focus on how they handle themselves in intellectual conversation.  But most academics have more prudish norms, and consider it rude to challenge prestigious visitors to thoughtfully discuss topics beyond their prepared speech.  Thank goodness my favorite lunch partners share my imprudish tastes. 🙂

I think this also explains some of the popularity of democratic politics and fractured mass culture; these are places where we see ourselves influencing the status of others.

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