Conversation and Status Signals

6b5a8ec17674f24f5782fb8208ffe002.jpgFollowing my notes on Status Anxiety and my thinking over the last several years about leadership, rivalry, mimesis, facilitating film-focused conversations, the subtleties of friendship, and so on, I came upon Dave Pollard’s blog entry today titled “The Politics of Conversation.” He references Keith Johnstone’s book Impro, in which Johnstone “explains how pervasive dominance and submission behaviours are in human interactions.” Johnstone’s example (the one Dave shares) is the complicated dance done by two people walking towards each other on a sidewalk, a dance we’ve probably most of us done hundreds of times in our lives. It’s a dance I do multiple times most days now. The question is, who moves over, and when, and how?

Then Dave references Peter Collett’s The Book of Tells, which “teaches you to read status displays in body language,” describing the dominant and submissive displays (signaled by body, hand, eye and face signals, and in speech), and he uses a photographic example of people in a meeting, reading their body language for status information.

The questions he asks are:

  • Are “non-hierarchical, leaderless political and economic structures — communities of peersunnatural?

  • Are these status displays, and our apparent unconscious need to make them, interfering with communication, and undermining the achievement of consensus, collaboration and non-hierarchical problem-solving?
  • Are there things that facilitators and conversationalists can do to suppress power displays and displays of submission, so that listeners focus on what is being said, not how it is said or by whom?

My initial response is the same as Liz’s in the comments — suppressing the submissive and dominant behaviours may work in a pinch (though I have strong doubts about whether this could be done effectively, since so much is unconscious, even perhaps to the observer/facilitator, who is of course also a participant) but it doesn’t get at the core of the issue, which is the thinking, the underlying mimetic desire and rivalry.


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