You talkin’ to me?

Travis Bickle puts the big question

The drive for status is a powerful force that shouldn’t be ignored by urban policy-makers, not least those with an interest in cities. It explains much about the way people behave in urban areas, like why they might live in a McMansion or drive a Prius (I’ve written about status a number of times before – e.g. here, here, here and here).

Status can also throw light on other issues, like why some people brawl with complete strangers and why some couples split up. George Mason University academic, Robin Hanson, offers an interesting illustration of the connection between status and conflict in this piece, Status drives poverty?

The sometimes controversial economist starts by citing a passage from a new book, Promises I can keep: why poor women put motherhood before marriage, explaining why low income urban single mothers break up with their partners.

The authors, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, point to conflicts between partners over money. Fights and antagonism don’t erupt because the man doesn’t earn as much as someone with higher skills or because he can’t find a job. Rather:

Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

They say money is an important factor in why co-habiting couples break up, but it’s not the only one – so is status.

This brief comment by Professor Hanson makes a wider but insightful point:

I suspect much of what makes some cultures more successful than others is how they help folks to avoid seeing unpleasant interactions as direct challenges to their status.

Something that might be merely annoying or vexing in one culture can be profoundly challenging in another, demanding confrontation and even retribution. One of the commenters expands further on this idea with an example. He asks you to imagine you and your staff are in a meeting with another manager and his team. During the meeting the other manager says things that challenge your status.

In the United States after the meeting your group members might say. “Boy, that guy was a jerk.” The issue becomes the other manager’s problem.

In Latin America your group member would most likely say, “Boy, that guy was disrespecting you.” The dynamic of that comment changes everything. Now you must confront the other manager as challenging your status. The onus is on you because leaders must take action against a show of disrespect.

Basically, the whole US culture separates unpleasant interactions from status challenges very well.

I’m sure there are many exceptions in both the US and Latin America to this generalisation, but the key point is it is more likely in some cultures that differences will be seen as ‘disrespect’. Anyone who watched the two satellite-linked politicians spit the dummy and walk out on Jenny Brockie during this week’s SBS Insight program, Greek Ruins, will probably see Professor Hanson’s point.

This insight is relevant to local issues too, like street violence. Understanding how a difference is perceived by the various parties is surely important to finding ways of avoiding it escalating into open conflict. Who knows, maybe there are even ways of changing the idea that an unpleasant interaction must be a direct challenge to one’s status.

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2 Comments on “You talkin’ to me?”

  1. Oz says:

    Total agreement…the dynamics of self-esteem, self-realization, saving face, retaining honour and dignity, and being considered worthy by ones peers, friends and family are all factors seldom widely considered in urban planning and design.

  2. Michael says:

    Interesting topic and no doubt an underrated issue. I think the implications extend well beyond Mc Mansions and Prii. In fact the Prius seems to be positively trivial. The experience of public transport probably is a much more important issue to do with status or the predilection of young men to engage in hooning. I wonder if trains and trams give people more status than buses which feature low frequency, meandering routes, noisy engines and have virtually no precedence over other traffic and therefore get stuck in traffic.


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