Friday, August 2, 2013

SMALL TALK and STATUS GAMES - Art of Social Conversation

Art of Social Conversation

When I was in the Navy I had to attend many official parties and social occasions.

On most occasions I knew many persons and we enjoyed talking freely about topics of common interest.

However, there were some occasions, especially when I was “detailed” as a “rep” to attend formal inter-service parties or social functions in the civilian world where I hardly knew anybody.

What do you do when you land up in a place where you are a stranger and nobody is keen to talk to you.

1. You can get bored all by yourself and wait for the “torture” to end.

2. You can try to strike up a polite conversation about some mundane topic like the weather with someone who is not interested in talking to you.

3. You can have fun talking to people and enjoy yourself (and maybe the person you are conversing with will enjoy the tête-à-tête too).

Before I tell you how, let’s get back to the basics.


Why do we talk to people?

Why do people talk to each other?

Why do we converse?

Conversation is a medium of verbal communication.

The professed aim of conversation is to exchange information.

However conversation may have an ulterior motives too.

Sometimes you may speak to “get it off your chest” or to express emotions like happiness or anger.

Another reason for you to converse with someone may to establish the “pecking order” (your place in the pecking order).

Or you talk to someone because you want to alter, raise or lower, your “status” relative to the other person.

Thus, to put it in a nutshell, there are three reasons for verbal communication:

1. Exchanging Information

2. Expressing Emotions

3. Determining and Altering Status


Let us discuss the third reason for conversation: Determining and Altering Status.

Consciously, or sub-consciously, people are competing with each other for status when they speak to each other. 

Different individuals have different attitudes towards status.

Some are blatant about flaunting their status while others do so in a more subtle manner.

Some like to establish their superior status while others prefer to tone down their own status relative to the other person.

Let me give you some examples of Determining Status:

If a stranger asks you where you live, he may not be doing so for mere information, he may be doing it for ascertaining or establishing relative status.

“Where do you live?”

“Wakad.” (a middle-class suburb of Pune)

“Oh. I live on Boat Club Road.” (the most posh locality of Pune)

A snooty wife of a navy colleague once asked me at a party in the presence of others:

“In which school do your children study?”

“Kendriya Vidyalaya,” I answered.

“Oh. My children study in XXX School,” she said with an upturned nose, taking the name of a most elite school which was known more for its snob appeal than academic achievements.

In the first example the person did not know where I lived and was trying to “gauge my status” in comparison with his own.

In the second example the lady knew where my children studied and was trying to show-off her “higher” status as compared to other naval officers and families.

In the civilian world status is determined by material things like your wealth, the car you own, the locality where you stay, the school your children attend, or who you know.  

Where you work also determines your status. Working for a prestigious organisation adds to your status.

Your intellectual accomplishments, the institution where you studies, an ivy league college, IIT or IIM, also contribute to your status.

In the defence forces your material wealth and intellectual accomplishments do not matter.

In the army and navy your status is determined by your rank – yes, Rank is the only factor which determines your place in the pecking order in the military.

That is why your military rank is prefixed to your name, even after you retire.

The army and navy are highly status-conscious organisations.

Rank (or the rank of your spouse) governs social graces in the services.

That is why most senior officers (and their wives) will immediately state their rank so that they can assume a higher status.

However, on occasions, I have observed some senior officers not mentioning their ranks while talking “incognito”. 

They make efforts to deliberately lower their status so that the persons who they are talking to warm up to them and open up, and do not get intimated by the high rank of the officer.


Once, at a ladies club function, an army officer’s wife was desperately trying to find out from my newly-married wife whether I was senior to her husband or was her husband senior to me, so that she could appropriately establish herself in the pecking order.

My wife was quite clueless about my precise seniority.

During the conversation my wife mentioned the name of our neighbour, a senior army officer, who she said was my close friend.

The lady assumed that I was senior to her husband and showed due deference.

Later it transpired that her husband was much senior to me.

This was an unintentional status game.

To have fun when talking to a stranger you can intentionally initiate and play status games.

I once met a social-bee in Mumbai who asked me what I did for a living.

“I am in the navy,” I told her.

She immediately started dropping names and mentioned the name of a very senior naval officer who she claimed was her close acquaintance.

(“Name Dropping” is a sure indicator of “Status Games”. The lady was obviously trying to raise her status so I decided to play a game and alter status).

I casually said that the officer she had named was my subordinate.

First, she looked at me in disbelief, then, a hint of awe, and I decided to go in for the kill, asked her in detail about herself and brought her down to mother earth.

The other day I met an old school classmate of mine after almost 40 years.

I could not even recall him properly since he had been quite an undistinguished student and a mediocre backbencher.

However, he had joined government service, plodded along and  thanks to Assured Career Progression he had reached a reasonably high post.

He mentioned his position, said that it was the civilian equivalent of Brigadier, and asked me, “At what rank did you retire from the navy?”

I was amused, since I was sure that he knew all about me. After all he had got my details from another classmate who had been in the navy with me.

This guy was simply trying to show off his status.

“How does that matter,” I said, “I retired long back.”

“I want to know. Tell me,” he insisted.

“Admiral. I retired as an Admiral,” I said tongue-in-cheek.

“Oh. XXX said that you retired as a Commander,” he betrayed himself, “you worked at a university also, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I was faculty at YYY University,” I said.

He immediately started “name-dropping” saying that the present vice-chancellor of that university was a close acquaintance of his (in an attempt to raise his own status).

Of course, I put him in his place by discussing his academic “achievements” and sissy behaviour during our student days.

Going up and down a person’s timeline is a good way of altering status.

Later, in my blog, I will tell you anecdotes of the delightful fun I have had playing status games while talking to people.

Meanwhile, Dear Reader, whenever someone talks to you do try to discern whether the person is genuinely seeking information or expressing emotions – or whether he or she is playing “status games” with you.

Then, you know what to do.

Of course, the next time you land up at a boring party just walk up to someone you do not know and have fun by initiating and playing conversation “status games”.

Copyright © Vikram Karve 2013
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About Vikram Karve

A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer and blogger. Educated at IIT Delhi, IIT (BHU) Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures (2008) and is currently working on his novel and a book of vignettes and an anthology of short fiction. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles on a variety of topics including food, travel, philosophy, academics, technology, management, health, pet parenting, teaching stories and self help in magazines and published a large number of professional  and academic research papers in journals and edited in-house journals and magazines for many years, before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for 15 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing and blogging. Vikram Karve lives in Pune India with his family and muse - his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.

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