Applying Keith Johnstone’s Status Seesaw

A guy slips and falls on a banana peel. Classic. Well, classic-funny if it’s a fancy looking gentleman with a monocle and a top hat, but kind of sad and distressing if it’s a feeble old man with a cane.

Why?

Status.

Every interaction is a status game. Keith Johnstone breaks it down better than I’ve ever seen it in his book Impro. He says to think of it like a seesaw.

Every line in a conversation, every positioning in body language, every choice of words, pushes a seesaw to either raise, lower, or hold steady two (or more) people in a status game.

When the fancy gent slips on the banana peel, a high-status person falls (literally) and we the onlookers, regardless of status, rise (relatively, in amusement).

When the old man goes down, his already low status gets lower and we feel a pang of empathetic pain as we’re pushed even higher.

As the status seesaw moves, the interaction evolves and our emotions are triggered. It’s always happening. It’s a part of being human we can learn to be more self-aware of. Start looking and you’ll see it everywhere.

A “Good morning” from the boss to the receptionist isn’t just about the boss’ good wishes, it’s about the way the receptionist receives the words.

Is the seesaw tipping to raise the boss’ status because it’s a formality and no response will be heard? Is it a genuine leveling request to invite a conversation (and thus lowering the boss’ status)? Is it creating tension or relieving it?

Every interaction is encoded with status. That’s right, every physical conversation, email, post (!) – you can almost think of the status seesaw as a rollup of word choice, body language, and anything else that applies in the medium being used. This is why learning to be more conscious of these details can be such an eye-opener, both for how we see others and ourselves.

Johnstone describes status as something we have, do, pretend, and play. Whether we’re acting on a literal or metaphorical stage, or writing for one, having the status seesaw in our minds as a mental model is massively useful. I can’t recommend Impro highly enough.

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