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Certain schools of acting teach that every human interaction boils down to a negotiation for status. Every gesture made, word spoken, and action taken is an attempt to either elevate or lower one's status in relation to the other person. If you think about it for a moment, you'll see just how true that is.
In a shop one day I watched a woman walk up to a cashier and ask for a pack of cigarettes. The shop was out of her brand. Most people would pick a different one or go to another store, but not this lady. She insisted. The cashier glanced at the line forming and, somewhat vexed, repeated they were out. The woman tried to engage the cashier in conversation. She didn't seem to mind holding everyone up. She felt she deserved attention, and she wasn't going to allow the cashier to lower her status by depriving her of it. But from the cashier's point of view, her own status was being lowered. She prided herself on her efficiency, and this customer was keeping her from doing her job. She snapped at the customer—which only led the customer to greater hesitancy and indecision. Meanwhile, everyone in line was grumbling. I'm sure they felt the customer was wasting their time—and lowering their status.
Finally, the manager came over. He led the woman away to another register, where he indulged her. From his point of view, as manager and mediator, his higher status remained intact. From the customer's point of view, her status as someone worthy of attention and service also remained intact. They both felt they had the upper hand. The customers were satisfied, as was the cashier, who could get back to work. When I left, the customer was still happily browsing cigarettes.
And me? As the detached writer/observer, I found my own way of maintaining status by choosing to thrive on the situation rather than becoming exasperated by it.
Some status negotiations seem obvious: a prisoner and a warden, a teacher and a student, a king and a peasant. But status negotiations occur in every relationship, no matter how loving or intimate. Mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives continually jockey for the upper hand. We even manage to elevate our status by seemingly lowering it. Witness a group of women complaining about their ailments. "You think you've got it bad? I can hardly walk!" The one with the worst ailment seems to be lowering her status, but in fact she's proclaiming herself champion in the battle of pain.
Create conflict by infusing every character interaction, no matter how mundane, with status negotiation. Don't forget status negotiations between grown-ups and children, and between pets and their owners. My husband and I recently spent 47 minutes attempting to get a 7-inch parakeet into her cage. That, my friends, was one doozy of a status negotiation.
Read Impro, by famed acting teacher Keith Johnstone.