few months ago I wrote about Edward Hall’s book The Hidden Dimension, on the science of proxemics — the study of ‘social distance’, how we relate physically and psychologically to space and to overcrowding. A month earlier I wrote a fanciful piece about how people choose where to sit at a boardroom table and what that says about them. Now I’m reading Impro, by British playwright Keith Johnstone, which is ostensibly about the art of improvisational acting, but which has a great deal to say about other subjects, including proxemics.

Here’s a passage on Status and Space that especially caught my attention:

Imagine that two stangers are approaching each other along an empty street. It’s straight, hundreds of yards long and with wide pavements. Both strangers are walking at an even pace, and at some point one of them will have to move aside in order to pass. You can see this decision being made 100 yards or more before it has to. In my view the two people scan each other for signs of status, and then the lower one moves aside. If they think they’re equal, both move aside. If they both think they’re dominant (or if one isn’t paying attention) they end up doing the sideways dance and muttering apologies. But this doesn’t happen if you meet a frail or half-blind person: You move aside for them. It’s only when you think the other person is challenging that the dance occurs. I remember doing it once with a man in a shop doorway who took me by the forearms and gently moved me out of the way — it still rankles. Old people tend to cling to the highest status they have had, and will deliberately ‘not notice’ others while clinging fiercely to the (often walled) inside of the walkway. A bustling crowd is constantly and unconsciously exchanging status signals and challenges, with the more submissive person stepping aside.

Johnstone is interested on how this subliminal body language and status-checking can be exploited, to both powerful and comedic effect, on the stage. I’m more interested in its implications for human behaviour in a crowded world. I didn’t believe the above passage was true until I started observing people (and myself) moving in crowds. You can easily pick out who sees him/herself as dominant, and who’s going to move aside, a mile away by their demeanor and body language. It’s hilarious to watch. Older people almost always expect, and subtly signal to younger people to move aside, even young people in gangs with attitude. And they do move aside, belying their whole superficial demeanor. Women tend to defer to men of the same age, but old, frail and pregnant women somehow trump everyone else — everyone moves aside for them. I watched adults puff themselves up and brace for collision with children (especially those of cultures that let their kids learn these status rules slowly) rather than simply get out of their way. In one case I watched a very respectable, well-dressed middle-aged man actually deliberately kick a child out of the way, and then apologize to the mother (not the child) that he (the man) ‘wasn’t paying attention’.

I never realized how arrogant I must appear in crowds. I tend to dislike them, ‘pretend not to see’ people in them (much to the dismay of people who later tell me I ‘rudely’ ignored their smile or nod or wave of recognition), and take on a hurried, distracted, disinterested, hostile and elbows-raised demeanor. It works very well, except with some children, and except when I have to pass people from behind.

Imagine how this plays out in protest demonstrations! And in lineups, especially where first-come first-served is hard to observe because there are no clear lines, or where some lines move much faster than others. So here you are a dominant person, forced to wait passively behind a long, crowded line of ‘people of lower status’, while other people of low status move ahead faster or even cut into line. Foaming at the mouth time! Ever noticed that the people angriest in lineups are middle-aged businessmen? Maybe I’m finally starting to understand pecking orders: Why they’re important in nature, as a simple and automatic mechanism for social organization and balance. And how, in man, in our horrifically overcrowded civilization culture, they get inflated and perverted into political hierarchies and produce megalomaniacs and nuclear pissing contests.

What disturbs me most is what this bodes for us idealists trying to establish non-hierarchical, leaderless political and economic structures — communities of peers. Are such structures unnatural? Or do we simply need to learn to recognize the pecking order for what it is — a primeval tool for minimizing conflict and deciding who will do the breeding — and what it isn’t — a license to take an unfair share of wealth and power?

calvin1Impro has some other wonderful insightful observations on several topics. Here are my favourites:

On Creative Blocks: At a time when I seemed to have lost all my artistic talents, I began to explore [dream images] and hold onto and attend to them..Then I progressed to attending to mental images [things I pictured for example while reading]…The effect was so interesting that I persisted…I looked in the window [that I was picturing in my mind] and saw strange rooms in amazing detail…I belatedly thought of attending similarly to the reality around me. The deadness and greyness of my life and imagination were immediately sloughed off…The dullness was not, as I had thought, an inevitable consequence of age, but of education.

On Overcrowding: People travel a long way for a ‘view’. The essential element of a good view is distance, with nothing human in the immediate foreground. It lets us experience the pleasure of having our space flow out unhindered. Posture improves, breathing improves…These are all probably symptoms of human overcrowding.

On Social Distance: When you hand out leaflets on the street, you can’t just thrust them into people’s hands. You have to establish that you’re giving out leaflets, and then present one at exactly the right moment. If you get it wrong, people will either ignore you or be alarmed. [It’s a very complex social activity, hard to do well, as any election campaigner will tell you. It’s a submissive act, requiring great improvisational skills, and almost impossible for dominant personalities to master.]

On Education: Most schools teach children to be unimaginative…Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better teaching if we thought of adults as atrophied children. Many ‘well-adjusted’ adults are bitter, uncreative, frightened, unimaginative, rather hostile people [anyone you know fit this description?]. Instead of assuming they were born that way, or that that’s what being an adult entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education and upbringing. Many teachers express surprise at the switch-off that occurs at puberty, but I don’t, because first of all the child has to hide the sexual turmoil he’s in, and secondly the grown-ups’ attitude to him completely changes. A story written off as childish fantasy in an eight-year-old may be taken, at fourteen, as a sign of mental abnormaility. The adolescent therefore has to learn to ‘fake’ everything.

On Art: We have this idea that art is self-expression, which is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated…Imagining should be as easy as perceiving. [In children, it is.]

On Acceptable Behaviour: Sanity is a performance…It’s a matter of presenting yourself as safe… When people are perceived as unpredictable, they are socially rejected…And it’s no good telling a student he won’t be held responsible for the content of his imagination [he will]…so the student must pretend to be dull…People’s normal behaviours destroy other people’s creative talent. All the social weapons we use against other people we also use, inwardly, against ourselves.

On Assuming an Identity: Our faces get fixed with age, but even in young people you can see that a decision has been taken to appear tough, or stupid, or resigned. (Why Stupid? Because then people expect less of you). Sometimes in extreme situations people will break out of their usual expression and you can’t even recognize them…Our personality is the Public Relations department for the real mind, which remains unknown. It always seems to function at some level in terms of what other people think. If I am alone and someone knocks on the door I ‘come back to myself’. I do this to check that my social image is presentable. Though I may later get ‘lost in the conversation’ [and get outside my personality]. People isolated for long periods report ‘personality disintegration’. [Perhaps this isn’t madness — maybe they become who they really are].

A final caution: Despite its insights, this book is hard work — it’s written for those who know the jargon and rituals of acting, and for the rest of us it’s tough slogging.

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  1. dustin says:

    Interesting. I am a member of Mcgill Improv, and some members have introduced that book in the past with regard to improv techniques. The status relationship was picked up as a key concept. It’s very enlightening to think about ‘status’ when observing things. Pretty much every human interaction thing can be seen as a status relationship of some sort.

  2. dustin says:

    Oh, I meant to leave this link as well, just for fun:http://www.geocities.com/mcimprov/

  3. I read Impro years ago, while I was doing improv comedy, and I remember it as being absolutely great. But I don’t remember most of what you mention here, so I’ve better find it and read it again. Excellent article!

  4. Rita Booker says:

    thankyou, thankyou, and thankyou again! this topic is exactly what i’ve been looking for in the past months. in dealing with intercultural dynamics, i constantly try to give a new dimention to my executive coaching. you bet it’s all about pecking orders there…but of course studying body language in this way, like actors do for a living, would never cross my clients’ minds ;-) i’m on my way to go get this book, right now! any other recommendations on literature that combines such fine observations with this killer type of humor?

  5. Don Dwiggins says:

    This reminds me of an old story, one of many told of the Victorian political rivals, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. In this story, the two met, coming from opposite directions, in a narrow alley. It was clear that one of them would have to step into the gutter to let the other pass. Gladstone drew himself up and huffed “I never step aside for scoundrels!” Disraeli, with a sly smile, stepped into the gutter and replied “I always do.”So, who got the status points?

  6. Av says:

    Very interesting stuff. I love people watching, especially in crowded environments. I have noticed that people have different space needs in crowds depending on gender. At a very crowded party, or concert, or sports event etc. where body touching is nessesary to pass by someone. When passing a female, I would normally pass by them face to face. When passing another guy, I would be more likey to pass them back to face.

  7. Dick says:

    So glad that ‘Impro’ is still getting read. Alongside Viola Spolin’s ‘Improvisation for the Theater’, it was indispensable to me in my early days of Drama teaching. A brilliant book that – as you have demonstrated – reaches way beyond its declared territory.

  8. Jon Husband says:

    Dave, do you know of the work of Barry Oshry – seminal book is “Seeing Systems”.Here’s a short summary, with links along the right-hand side to others who are looking at the large implications of structure, systems, status, power and how to move forward from “here”Barry Oshry’s work

  9. Don: Disraeli did, by ceding the status he implicitly recognized that it was his to cede. He also got in an insult, proving his superior wit :)Dave: This is something I had never, until now, realized that I was doing. Thanks for the insight. The ever-classic “How to Win Friends” goes over some of these things, as well. It’s amazing how fast the subconscious chews on and spits out our conscious posturing in favour of our unconscious language.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments and links. If anyone has any answers to Rita’s question — other very accessible books on cultural dynamics — please post them here. Bottom line to me from this book was the same as for Abram’s “Spell of the Sensuous” — the need to (re-)learn how to pay attention and see what is really happening, and to (re-)learn how to imagine and see what is really possible. We mostly live in a world where both reality and wonder are muffled.

  11. i love IMPRO. i keep meaning to write an article about KJ’s argument regarding the ways in which school “educate” the creativity right out of us (i teach college writing and rhetoric and work in filmmaking, which is something those of us teaching college writing are doing more and more. moving beyond simple conventions, which requires creativity, is very important). i appreciate your post for condensing the book so nicely :)

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