Posts Tagged ‘power’

Skill and confidence are an unconquered army.
George Herbert

I’ve been battling with a lot of seemingly unrelated issues lately. On the one hand, there’s my deep-rooted procrastination about my MA thesis. My favorite means of procrastination has been hanging out on message boards, reading more than contributing. And then there’s my Shiva Nata in Finland project that’s been hovering at the edge of my active attention for a while now.

All of these issues share an element of being seen and watched. There’s the online presence I’m creating while participating in the message board culture, and a big part of that is noticing how others see me. I feel the need to contribute, either by asking questions or sharing knowledge, rather than just to agree with others using silly smileys. I need to feel Useful.

The Shiva Nata in Finland project is currently me trying to figure out a context in which I could teach Shiva Nata in Helsinki. To my knowledge, there aren’t that many Shivanauts in Finland. This means that I need to find enough people who are willing to give it a go and a venue to teach in – not to mention figure out a feasible mode of teaching. This would mean telling people that I’ve got this great thing and how would you like to be a part of it. Scary stuff.

The latest addition to this whole Vortex of the Terror of Being Seen came today, when I finally cracked open my thesis files again. My seminar paper is due in two weeks, and the next step towards that goal is to transcribe a section of my data – a videotape of me teaching a lesson.

“Dude. Seriously. Lame.”

The realization of the Vortex actually came a few days ago. I was trying to figure out why I suddenly felt the urge to purchase something that I don’t really need but that’s a Limited Edition Item that Everyone Is Bound to Want. I dug around the problem by journaling, and discovered a deep-rooted belief that I have:

“Unless I’m interesting or useful, I’m an embarrassing nuisance.”

Hmm. That’s interesting.

By having an interesting Limited Edition item, I myself would become interesting by association. With Shiva Nata, I would have to convince others that the practice is both interesting and useful, and so I would become interesting and useful by association.

The worst case scenario with either of these would be for me to show up and get greeted by evasive looks and an embarrassed “This was what you had for us? …Umm, it’s not even close to what we were hoping for. Maybe it’s best if you just go home.” My worst social nightmare is to be perceived as an embarrassing wannabe hangaround that no-one has the heart to get rid of.

Which brings us to an interesting point about my thesis procrastination.

My data, as I’ve already mentioned, consists mainly of a videotaped lesson where I navigate a group of teenagers through a drama process. The teenagers were new to the genre, and since teenagers are the undisputed kings and queens of the eye roll when they’re not one hundred per cent sure about a situation, there was much eye rolling to be had. It’s an understandable defense mechanism, and since the teenagers did participate and put in an effort, it didn’t damage the process too heavily. It was caught on tape, though.

And as I watch the tape, all of the embarrassed glances seem to be aimed straight at me, like daggers.

My brain knows that the thing I perceive as embarrassment is strictly, purely and only a characteristic of the participants who are feeling unsure of their footing. After all, there’s a new type of activity with a not-yet-familiar teacher, outsider spectators and video cameras. I mean, I’d be pretty insecure, too.

The part of me that holds on to the belief of me being first and foremost a nuisance, though, is going bonkers with this huge pile of evidence. “See? See?! I’m right! I’m one hundred per cent right and there’s a video to prove it! Ha! I knew it!” There’s a little goblin with a pitchfork tail running around, waving its hands, and bouncing around. Kind of hard to ignore.

A short recap. In order to work on my thesis, I have to transcribe 75 minutes of what is effectively a live enactment of my worst social nightmare.

Geez, wonder why I’m procrastinating? πŸ™‚

The dilemma of being seen

What’s difficult about this fear of being seen is its twin, the desperate need to be seen. Eye contact alone is hugely important in relationships. When raising children, the best thing you can do is give them your uninterrupted attention, complete with eye contact, several times a day.

When I was starting out as a kids’ group counselor as a teenager, our course leader advised us to seek eye contact during roll call. Whenever we’d say someone’s name and they’d answer, we were to really notice the answer and the person by maintaining eye contact for a few seconds before moving on. I’ve been on the receiving end of this policy and it makes a world of difference.

Being seen, being watched, is a vulnerable state, though. Maintaining eye contact can be a highΒ status marker, and high status is linked to power. When you’re being watched, someone is using power over you. That’s why it’s so difficult to go on stage thinking that there will be an audience. Waiting for an audience reaction is like standing against a wall blindfolded and trying to guess whether the guns shoot bullets or “Bang!” flags.

One useful solution to this problem is to put on a different role. Actors do this as a part of their profession, but other performing jobs do require some kind of role protection. There is the role protection of the uniform – a police officer in uniform is first and foremost a police officer, not Jake, except among his peers. The same goes for clergy members, store clerks, and other professions where you represent your position, not your personality.

Teachers don’t have uniforms, at least not in the Finnish educational system. The role protection must be an inch deeper, in the behavior of the teacher. I’ve been very happy with the way I’ve grafted my Teacher Me, a character who can maintain discipline and create a warm ambiance in the classroom, who is reliable and inspiring. And, most importantly, who deflects all kinds of status threats effortlessly.

The problem with the thesis data, however, is that it’s not my Teacher Me doing the transcription. It’s Student Me, and she’s completely unprotected from the eye-rolling power of the teenagers. She does not have the shield of experience on her side like Teacher Me has, and the “You’re a nuisance!” goblin has a clear shot whenever it pleases.

This is what I fear with the social circle around the Limited Edition and the Shiva Nata in Finland project. If they see me the wrong way, they’ll want nothing to do with me. If I just show up, plain old Me, no interesting gadgetry or sacrificial usefulness, they’ll see I’m an embarrassing nuisance.

AndΒ if I feel I’m seen the wrong way, I feel the need to quickly create a barrier against the Nuisance Goblin. When I do that, I lose contact with myself, and with that I lose any potential of creating actual human contacts.

I wish there was an elegant, sophisticated solution to this problem, other than Shiva Nata and journaling, followed by Shiva Nata and some more journaling. But at least now the Nuisance Goblin has been brought to my attention, and I can start negotiations so as to not have it running around in my head anymore. This has also been an exercise in letting myself be seen, warts and all.

Thank you for stopping by, and for lending your proverbial ear and eye. If any of this sparks any ideas, I’d love to hear them in the comments. Until next time – keep catching your own insightings!



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Between friends differences in taste or opinion are irritating in direct proportion to their triviality.
W. H. Auden

Yesterday, I got to witness a meeting unlike anything I’ve ever seen. An actual, official meeting, where the chair walked out midway through. There was a lot of antagonism in the air, and a lot of it took place between two people – the rest of us were more or less indifferent. As it was my first time seeing the group and watching them interact, I had a blast observing the way the situations developed.

The situation was essentially that a smaller group of people had been in charge, and some group members from outside that inner circle had expressed their criticism a few days before the meeting. In writing. With a few derogatory adjectives thrown in for good measure.

The content of the text was partly accurate, partly inaccurate, but a part of it was clearly about the kinds of people these inner circle members were – according to the writers’ opinion. Understandably, these members were quite irate after being personally attacked.

All this became apparent through the status battle between the two main figures. There was only one member of the inner circle present at the meeting, although he did have some support from the sidelines. It was one of those “Ooh, you didn’t just say that to him, did you?” kinds of conversations that was painful yet fascinating to listen to.

“This is just my opinion”

Both sides did have their justifications, but both of them made crucial communication errors that ultimately escalated into one of them, the chair, leaving the meeting midway through.

Both of them expressed their own opinions as factual information, backing it up with anecdotes of experience. Furthermore, when the attacked party mentioned that they were quite insulted by the writing, the writer expressed his right to have an opinion, and that the recipients should not be provoked by it.

Wait, what?

Yes, you’re entitled to your opinion. If you think the other person is incapable of doing their duties as well as an annoying, stuck-up elitist, it’s perfectly all right to think so.

But come on, writing a memo for an official meeting and expressing your opinion about the person – not their actions or accomplishments – in no uncertain terms? When it has absolutely no bearing whatsoever to the agenda of the meeting? Oh please.

And then, when confronted with the hurt you’ve caused, defending yourself by saying that others shouldn’t be provoked by your opinion, and that it’s not about the people, it’s about the topics?

Having a strong opinion doesn’t justify being obnoxious.There are ways to criticize people’s behavior without criticizing the people themselves. And if you have insulted and hurt someone by expressing your opinion, the grown-up thing to do is to acknowledge the hurt and be sure to rephrase your opinion. Unless your original goal was indeed to create dissonance and hurt people.

Everyone’s got one, and they tend to stink

Truth be told, the person in the receiving end didn’t come through with flying colors, either. From the very beginning, he discarded the memo as rubbish, even the valid points made in it, because the ending was so obnoxious. He also categorically trumped every suggestion made by the writer during the meeting. Furthermore, he repeatedly expressed his dislike of the writer – who was present – in front of the rest of the group, calling him replaceable, stupid and incompetent.

Even when his “side” tried to get us onwards in the agenda by telling him to discard the insults, he persisted in talking about the hurtful things the writer had said. In front of more than a dozen people, who had been patiently listening to the charade for almost two hours at that point.

Sure, he was hurt. Some of the other participants of the meeting did acknowledge the fact that he was hurt. But by fighting fire with fire, he ended up making a mountain out of what could have been a molehill.

From what I gathered, these people had had some antagonism before. In that case, in my opinion, it’s even more important to settle things face to face, without an audience.

Maybe that was the point, though. The audience. If people agree with me, my opinion is more valid than the other person’s opinion. In a private situation, I have no-one else to support me, and I might even have to admit I’m wrong in something. It’s easier to keep up a tough image when there’s the pressure of other people.

Thank you for stopping by, feel free to share your opinion in the comments – and keep catching those insightings!



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What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
T.S. Eliot

Familiar new beginnings

Every single New Year’s Eve I can remember, someone has cracked a joke about “see you next year” or “I swear I won’t do the dishes for the rest of the year!” or something clever like that. More often than not, that someone has been me. πŸ™‚

There is something very liberating about the thought of familiar endings and new beginnings. Familiar in the sense that you know there is nothing intrinsically different about the New Year that would force you out of your comfort zone.

There is, however, the same giddy feeling of transformation you get when standing at a railway station or an airport. The notion of literally being in the process* is appealing, either when going somewhere yourself or merely watching others.

*”Etymology: Middle English proces, from Anglo-French procΓ©s, from Latin processus, from procedere.” Merriam Webster Online

As my year of unfamiliar new beginnings drew to a close Wednesday night, I was contemplative more than anything. I was happy, of course, that a new year was about to begin, but somehow the giddiness was gone.

I guess my past year was so full of endings and beginnings, from the death of my sister to giving up two different long-term teaching gigs to taking up Shiva Nata to getting engaged and finishing my BA that, well, the end of a year just didn’t feel like a juicy new opportunity anymore.

As far as resolutions go, instead of planning a whole new me for 2009, I’ll try and get to know the person 2008 moulded me into. Should take a year or so. Between that and being open to the unforeseen possibilities the world has in store for me, I think I’m set.

Familiar vs. unfamiliar communication

By far the best part of my New Year’s Celebration was the chance to observe the dynamics between familiar and unfamiliar people. I especially loved the chance to watch nonverbal communication in interesting situations, although status transactions and communication strategies did intrigue me, too.

Background story: I attended a party hosted by a friend, and the guests included my friends, whose communication strategies I’m familiar with, as well as the hostess’s friends that I hadn’t met before.

Fascinating situation 1: watching, but not overhearing, two people have a conversation where one is visibly more eager than the other. Attack and defense, if you will. A step forwards by A, a step backwards by B. A touch on the arm by A, a crossing of arms by B. All during a seemingly friendly, smiling interaction.

The following act was, if possible, even more interesting. It included several people, both men and women, and the status competition was of World Series caliber.

Interestingly, some of the participants didn’t even seem to need to up the stakes, they did it without any self-consciousness or effort. Others, then, were visibly stressed by the fact that they were not the center of attention, and pulled out all the stops to regain their former glory.

There were also a situations where direct and indirect communication strategies intertwined, sometimes with a smooth transition, sometimes with a radical clash. This was especially the case later on during the night, when some participants had already inebriated the part of their brain that discerns between actual personal insults and friendly jabs. Pair that with the need to show compassion, and you’re set for a treat. Fortunately the situation calmed down before any real physical consequences.

So far, the greatest new skill I’ve gained from my drama teacher studies is the ability to watch people interact and be truly fascinated by them instead of getting annoyed or offended. This is something I’m really grateful for. The next step, then, is being able to explicate that experience into concrete elements that can be brought onstage or into language classes.

Thank you for stopping by and hanging out with me. As always, feel free to comment, and may the year 2009 turn out wonderful for catching your own insightings!



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Are you threatening me?!
The Great Cornholio

In yesterday’s post, I looked at some basic principles of status transactions. If you want to check out the specifics, feel free to read that post as well. Basically status transactions are about who has more power in a conversation or a social situation. High and low status can be expressed both verbally and nonverbally, and status is always relative to the situation and always fluctuating, depending on what is said and how.

When you elevate your own status, either nonverbally (sitting up straight and leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, or speaking slower, for example) or verbally (disagreeing with the other guy, challenging their knowledge, one-upping their story or belittling their experiences), you pose a status threat.

The other guy can either accept his lower status and adjust to it, verbally and nonverbally, or answer your threat with another threat. If he chooses to pose another threat, you then need to respond. Rinse and repeat a few times, and you’re set for a struggle.

I have some friends that I love dearly who always seem to activate this status competition mode in me. No matter how mindful I try to be about just reacting to their stories with “Wow, that’s interesting, so how did that make you feel?”, I’m tempted to jump in with “Wow, that’s kinda like when I…”. In some strange way, the situations pose a threat to – what? My ego? Some aspect of my identity?

Recognising the Threat

In a way, it’s interesting to suddenly notice you’re in a status competition with a friend or a family member. The first thought that occurs to me is “What am I trying to win here?”

Where there’s a competition, there’s a prize. Getting to the top of the “smartest”, “funniest”, “most broke”, “least addicted to TV” ladder must, then, be really important for me, if it’s worth that much effort. What does this tell me about my values? Do I even want those things to be important to me?

The other question is “Why do I need to compete?”

Does my fellow competitor really think I don’t know about music, can’t crack a joke, or don’t have enough experience in this particular area? Do I really need to prove myself to them? Do they even care?

If I know I’m relatively good at something, I don’t need to enter in a competitive debate about the topic. I know what I know and what I don’t know, and I’m willing to be proven wrong. If I’m unsure about my footing, though, I might well try and increase my status artificially.

Besides, proving someone else wrong seldom makes them think you’re right. Especially if they were challenging you to begin with. They’ll just be thinking you’re an insufferable know-it-all, because you’ve seriously crushed their status.

Back to the real-world level of my status competition with a friend. When I get to this part of the thought process, I’m usually willing to let the other guy climb in status, especially if they know more about the topic than I do. If I need to correct them in some fact or other – i.e. perform a status threat – I’ll try to do it from a lower status.

The Martyr Syndrome

It can, of course, work the other way around. Some people are very skilled at adopting and keeping a low status. You might know at least one person like this.

Whine whine whine, I’m so miserable, everything’s lousy, I can’t do this, I don’t know how this thing works, I don’t have the time to learn, you’re so good at this, could you help me, I’m so lousy, you’re doing so well…

By lowering their own status and elevating yours, this person might be craving recognition, hoping to be heard and noticed, trying to avoid work and responsibility by getting you to do their job, or something else to that effect.

Either way, it sounds like a strategy a small child would use to get Mom’s attention. Chances are the person has used the strategy since they were a kid and noticed it works with specific kinds of people. When you adopt a low status, someone who enjoys a high status will show up and take care of you. At least that’s the hypothesis.

Personally, I feel fine in most status positions, but I don’t feel comfortable when I’m forced to adopt one or the other. Low-status players don’t really give the other guy a choice, since it’s very difficult to undercut a martyr’s status. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why I got really irritated by some people even if they didn’t do anything specific to insult or irritate me. Then I learned about status transactions. *ding!* Insighting.

Nowadays, when I’m talking to an undercutter (feel free to use the term), I try to avoid adopting the high status. If I can, I’ll mirror the person’s body language and voice as closely as possible, and focus on listening to the person. I might ask a few clarifying questions, but I try not to provide direct advice, as that might be seen as a status elevation.

As with every communications strategy, status transactions are not the ultimate answer to everything. Also, depending on the culture, the high status and low status markers may differ greatly. Still, if you have a friend or a family member whom you adore and who still drives you nuts, it may be worthwhile to consider your relationship and communication patterns from the status point of view.

And if nothing else, you can get yourself into delicious new situations by outdoing or undercutting people in random conversations. Especially if you tend to adopt a status from a specific end of the spectrum, it might be eye-opening to try out the other end.

If playing around with status transactions yields any insightings, I’d love to hear them in the comments. As well as anything else you want to tell us.

And until we meet again – keep catching those insightings!



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I’m rather embarrassed, General Solo, but it appears that you are to be the main course at a banquet in my honor.
C-3PO, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Anyone who’s ever done theatrical improvisation will probably recognise the name of Keith Johnstone, since he is one of the big guys. A lot of key impro concepts – offering, blocking, accepting, status transactions, spontaneity, acting ordinary – come from Johnstone’s approach.

One of Johnstone’s key ideas is the concept of status transactions. In every social situation, there is a constant negotiation of power going on between the participants. This power struggle is evident in both verbal and nonverbal communication, and the power balance can change in an instant. Any participant may at one point have a relatively high status in one situation and a significantly lower status ten seconds later.

Seeing status markers

Some nonverbal markers of high status include slow movement, long eye contacts, still head and hands, and occupying a large space. A low speaking voice and slow speech with plenty of pauses can also lift your status. A great example of a high status character is The Emperor in Star Wars.

Nonverbal low status markers, then, include fast, “twitchy” movements, rapid glances, touching your hair and face and moving your head by e.g. nodding, as well as trying to take up as little space as possible. A small, breathy voice, stuttering, and rapid speech also contribute to the effect of low status. Consider Gollum in Lord of the Rings – a typical low status character.

Status is always relative. Some of the funniest impro scenes I’ve seen – and acted in – have been a product of a simple premise: Try to keep your status a bit higher, a bit lower, or precisely equal to the status of a specific actor. The fluctuation comes both from the involuntary physical movements and the content of speech in the scenes.

Status is also independent of “good guy”-“bad guy” distinctions. The Emperor and Gandalf are both very high status characters, albeit polar opposites on the ethical spectrum. Similarly, take Gollum and C-3PO; low status, different ethical aspects.

Hearing status markers

Verbal status markers are a bit trickier. Status threats can arise from several different kinds of interactions, but usually there’s some kind of a disagreement or debate going on.

Consider the following situations:

“Jan” and “Meg” are sitting in a restaurant, looking at the menu.


Jan: The omelette looks really good. I think I’ll order one.
Meg: Me, I’m feeling more like a steak. It’s not that expensive here.
Jan: No, it’s very reasonable. Some wine, perhaps? Maybe even champagne?
Meg: Champagne sounds wonderful. Two bottles to start with?
Jan: Sure. Waiter!


Jan: The omelette looks really good. I think I’ll order one.
Meg: Twenty dollars for an omelette? Sheesh. All I need is a salad.
Jan: Oh, yeah. The salads look great, too. I think the small one is quite enough for me.
Meg: I’m really not that hungry. I’ll just have some fries.
Jan: Okay. Waiter!

– – –

In both these scenes, the participants are negotiating their status in the situation through their relationship with money. In I, Jan and Meg are both trying to outdo the other by going for more and more expensive options on the menu. In II, on the other hand, they’re undercutting each other by opting for smaller and smaller portions of food.

If continued into full-blown scenes, I can imagine the first scene ending in Jan buying the entire restaurant, whereas in II the two actors might end up ordering two glasses of water – without the lemon wedges.

The See-Saw

All this becomes interesting when you mix the nonverbal level with the verbal level. You can get away with posing a serious verbal threat to someone’s status if you mitigate it somehow. Mitigating techniques include verbal hedging and indirectness devices, such as maybe, might be, possibly, I don’t know if… and so on. You can also mitigate the threat by lowering your nonverbal status so you’re less likely to appear truly threatening.

This is why court jesters got away with spewing the most insulting claims about their kings – their nonverbal status was already so low that they just couldn’t be considered a real threat.

This is also why a teacher has to be really careful with cracking jokes about her students – the difference in status might make a playful pun feel like a crushing judgment. If the teacher has a strong, confident teacher identity, her students can joke about her til the cows come home without her ever flinching. As soon as the teacher flinches, interprets a joke as a serious threat, and reacts as such, she’s forfeiting her inherent high status and entering an endless battle ground. Don’t ask me how I know this. πŸ™‚

(For the record: it’s of course necessary to tell students if a certain kind of behavior is unacceptable and insulting. It’s even okay to tell a student one-on-one that their behavior insulted you. It’s quite another thing to shout at a fifteen-year-old in front of class because you feel threatened as a teacher.)

When the situation is more equal, interesting things start to happen with respect to the status transactions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll look at ways in which people either compete with or undercut each other in terms of status, the thoughts that sparks in my head, as well as the ways to deal with the situation using verbal and nonverbal status devices.

You’re welcome to join me in the comments. Until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings!



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