Status Dynamics

How Status, Power and Authority Relate, Interact?

This Blog is inspired by a chapter in Keith Johnstone's book "Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre" and my experience.

Status is the aspect or dimension of relationships both personal and public that is about but is a little different to power, attention, authority and trust. It is the mother and daughter of all these. The competition for status can be friendly and purely verbal or gently non-verbal or can be violently physical. According to Keith Johnstone you can be a status or play status behaviours and this difference is important. I'm not sure about this one since like trust I think status is relative in the sense that it exists in relationship. I guess you could talk about having trust, confidence in yourself, in the way you feel and communicate with yourself, when alone and bored, with your mind wandering.

Have you ever wondered how charisma works? Have you ever wondered where conflict arises from in most relationships? Have you ever wondered about the difference between authority and power? Have you had a boss, a teacher or someone else in a position of authority who seemed to get nothing done and who seemed to be overpowered by their employees or students though was liked personally?

Some people can sit quietly in a meeting or social gathering and everyone seems to be aware of them and people seem to spend a lot of energy seeking to impress them. While other people talk a lot about serious subjects, are always seeking the centre of attention yet are considered untrustworthy. They are seen as try-hards. Some people can talk slowly in considered ways and no one interrupts, they always get the point across. Others may be intelligent and talkative but are always being interrupted. Some people always seem tight and controlled in away the seems anxious and stressed while others will also seem in control but in a relaxed way. Some people are always being harassed and disrespected like they have a target on their back. While others seem to attract fights and still others can walk through even the most dangerous areas yet get left alone or make friends where ever they go.

All of these are the product of status dynamics.

Status is communicated non-verbally with yourself then


Here is a great example of status play. It's a competition to get the highest status by being the greatest victim, from having the hardest life.

So what's going on here? You might have a different idea of what is happening. Like most people you may think analyzing it takes away from the humour. To me the power of it is that it has deep lessons and is hilarious.

This is victim strategy in action. There are, of course, real victims and survivors of terrible events who deserve our respect, attention, compassion, mercy and charity. However survivor mentality or victim strategy is where people gain identify, power and status from this position as victim and use the experience to move themselves and others to do their bidding through guilt and/or shame. It is no different to people trying to be impressive because they have a good job or good education. It can be negative for them because their mind body their unconscious can draw to them and/or worsen problems as a result of 'nocebo', the negative side of placebo. Sensitivities and intolerances can be turned into full allergies, for example.

Another example of status dynamics at play is this bullying scene from Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid"

In this scene we see lots of different status games and power trips playing out, across each other - between the two children, The Tramp with various people, the woman and the bully and The Tramp The status reversals are what makes this movie scene so funny. The first one is the bully boy after stealing The Kid's toy gets beat up by The Kid who is much smaller than the first bully. The people all gather round to watch not like adults who should stop children fighting especially when one is much bigger than the other, but they behave like kids in a school yard like it's fun to see fighting. The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin, assumes he is rescuing the kid, but after he realises the kid is winning treats the whole exchange like boxing match between adults with him as the kid's coach. This takes the low status of a little kid giving him the status of a champion adult fighter - high status at this time. Then the scary bully big brother of the bully boy who started the scene arrives and proves he is really strong and scary and worthy of high status and power. He even knocks out a high status high powered person policeman. But he turns out to be powerless against the tramp because he can't hit him. The tramps strategy for the fight is a low status strategy of ducking and running away (because it's considered cowardly in the way it's carried out) which further intensifies the humour, because the high status strategy of the bully - big punches - don't work at all. Then just as the bully is about to win and finally take his power, a woman arrives who is apparently lower status according to social norms but behaves high status and both men bow to her and stop. She takes the high moral ground, high status, with both of them. The Tramp again goes low status by tearing up though checking out the weapon of the brick. The woman gets the bully on his honour to turn the other cheek pushing him to be high status again. The Tramp then proceeds to use culturally low status (cowardly) strategies like kicking, surprise attack and the brick weapon to beat the bully.

Here's another subtler example of status play in humour. It is easier to show these status plays in humour because they're quick where in tragedy it is usually longer. When King Lear, Macbeth and Oedipus refuse to let go of high status when they have lost it and destruction results from it takes a lot.


Julia Roberts character is seeking high status by holding information and teasing the Shirley Mclean character who is an habitual high status player. Her daughters and friend each try to one up her but she manages to block them at each turn. She maintains her high status all through the scene.


Tragedy and Status

Here's an example of how status works in tragedy. Eddard Stark fighting for his honour, he says. Holding onto to his high status in his own eyes and only willing to give in up when he is offered away to go even higher when he sacrifices it for his daughters. Then the young new king decides to take him down by killing him. The king being young and not understanding how status works doesn't get that killing Eddard Stark actually lowers his status rather raises it.


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