The dynamic dance of status (featuring the cast of Jaws)

One of my favourite films of all time is Jaws. I remember seeing it for the first time when I was probably too young to see it and loving the action and the suspense. However as I got older I began to love the film for a different reason – the characters. In particular the three characters that are the only people on screen for almost the entire second half of the film: Martin Brody the Chief of Police of Amity Island played by Roy Scheider, Matt Hooper a Marine Biologist and shark expert from the National Oceanographic Institute played by Richard Dreyfuss and Quint, a professional fisherman and captain of the Orca commissioned by Brody to catch the shark, played by Robert Shaw.

I came to realise that it wasn’t the action of these three characters trying to catch a killer shark that I found worthy of repeat viewing but the interaction between them as they continually attempt to change each other and are simultaneously changed by each other as the story unfolds. It is a masterful piece of writing and acting to be able to simultaneously have this interplay going on between the characters whilst telling the story. It helps us better understand the characters and form an opinion about each of them, choosing whether we care about what happens to them or not. I wonder what the film would be like if it instead simply focused on the action of hunting and assassinating a killer shark?

I was reminded again last year of these characters when I attended a workshop in London run by Impro legend Keith Johnstone. At the workshop (and in his seminal book Impro) Keith devoted a huge amount of time to helping us better understand and play with status – they dynamic dance and shift of power that is an inevitable consequence of the process of human interaction. (..and is likely also true in the animal kingdom). Whilst I personally believe human social interaction is far too complex to be reduced to any one model or explanation I find Johnstone’s simple ideas and exercises an incredibly powerful lens through which to better understand what we witness and are part of on a day-to-day basis and to realise that status (and power) is not something that somebody has but something that somebody does.

Johstone suggests that status can never truly be equal as each moment sees a subtle shift in the dynamics of a relationship. He describes status as a ‘see-saw’ – as one person’s status goes up, another’s goes down. He helps articulate typical behavioural and embodied traits of playing high and low status – physiology, stance, breathing, language, use of space (etc) and suggests that there are four basic ‘moves’ in any status game:

  • Raise self = lower other
  • Lower self = raise other
  • Raise other = lower self
  • Lower other = raise self

His simple exercises encourage participants to secretly choose a status they wish to play in a scene and then to ‘fight’ for their position in the pecking order. Through doing this one can learn how the status see-saw idea plays out in practice and the advantages and disadvantages of any particular position for any particular situation – it isn’t simply the case that a particular status is good or bad. These scenes are even more insightful if stereotypical pecking orders are reversed – the servant is higher than the master, the schoolgirl is higher than the teacher, the defendant is higher than the judge, Chaplin’s tramp is higher than the establishment.

I became curious as to what the status dance between these three characters in Jaws was so watched the film again recently with Johnstone’s ideas in mind. As a result of this I picked three particular scenes to study in detail and have added some subtitles and a little pecking order graphic to capture my thoughts as to what is going on between the characters.

Scene 1: This scene is one where the three characters come together for the first time and a fight to establish a pecking order ensues. I began with a stereotypical pecking order: Brody top as Chief of Police, Hooper middle as an educated Marine Biologist and Quint bottom as a fisherman.

Scene 2: A new pecking order is established when the three board the Orca and head out to sea on the basis that Quint is the Captain, Hooper is an experienced able seaman and Brody is very inexperienced aboard boats (he gets to shovel the chum!)

Scene 3: On board the Orca in the evening, after many whiskeys a different, more subtle and ultimately bonding status game emerges.

I’m not suggesting that my subtitles are correct, in fact as I went through the editing process I realised I had missed many subtle shifts and cues and some of the complexities of characters lowering themselves in order to raise others. I’m simply sharing my experiment as an invitation to be more curious as to the wonderful, dynamic dance of status that we witness to and participate in on a day to day basis and how Johnstone’s simple ideas of pecking orders can help us make more aware and choiceful about what status we play in any particular situation. You don’t have to watch Jaws in order to do this…simply take a look around you wherever you are at the moment and think to yourself “I wonder what’s going on here?”

1 – I do not own the copyright of Jaws. It is copyright of Universal Pictures and the book is copyright Peter Benchley. I just had the idea of using some clips to illustrate an idea.
2 – I skim the surface of Johnstone’s ideas about status in this blog. I highly recommend you buy a copy of Impro which has an entire chapter devoted to it.
  1. Paul Brand says:

    Interesting stuff Steve. I noted in the Jaws case that there is perhaps a difference between the two moves where a person raises or lowers self, compared to the two relating to other. In the self moves, the object ( the self who moves there own status) must be present or at least involved – though it could of course be passive – changing status by simply not intervening when external causes suggest a change in status. Or so it seems to me. For the other two, the object (the other, who is raised or lowered) may or may not be present, involved or even aware that the move has taken place – ie their apparent status in the group – as seen by others, is what is changed. Undeed the lowering of status of an absent member of the group (I tell everyone something bad about him) is a dual move – because by changing the absentees status, I am also implicitly raising self. Or so it seems to me.

    Is this all stuff that Johnstone goes into in his explanation?


    1. Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. Yes, I guess you can raise or lower the status of those not present but can only do it in the perception of others, who then may act into that perception when they interact with the other person. Is an interesting thought. Johnstone goes into more in his writing but his ideas are deliberately simple and left for the reader to experiment with and elaborate on.

  2. Nicole Ell says:

    Hi Steve,
    This is fascinating and I can’t wait to attend your session where we take a deeper dive into status. I have covered this topic with you before but seeing it in a film has really brought it to life. This has opened my eyes to status, extremely refreshing!

    1. Hi Nicole, thanks for the comment. I think you are spot on in talking about how to bring the theory to life. It is all to easy to read about this stuff and think ‘I get it’ but unless you are really curious and prepared to experiment with yourself and others I don’t believe we learn much at all. Look forward to playing more at the status workshop soon.

  3. EAMalinowski says:

    Steve, great stuff as usual. I ran out and bought Johnstone’s book one other time when you recommended it in the blog and read it. I found the section on status to be one of the most compelling for sure. One of the areas that fascinates me (with my dual worldview of computer scientist/OD Practitioner) is online presence and status. It’s such a rapidly shifting phenomenon and so difficult to “manage” one’s own power. I love your blog in that you experiment with “being out there”, being vulnerable and unprotected mostly in your thoughts, experiments, views, etc. in a forum that is so much more difficult to manage than that of workshop where you are leading a group of willing participants to learn what you have to offer. One of your recent blog posts about conversational fat, and some of the comments you received is a great example of the difficulty of managing online status. It’s tough to not be diminished by feedback and status games online. For the record – your boldness, playfulness, and willingness to experiment openly are power/status at the highest level. To thine own self be true…

    1. Hi Ed, thanks for the comment. You raise a really interesting question about online status that I hadn’t really considered before. Online anonymity and identity yes, but not online status games so thank you. I’m left wondering what impact this online persona has on the ‘raise self’ and ‘lower others’ dynamic. Instinctively I wonder if it is easier due to the anonymity but am sure it must be far more complex than that. You are right, it is a risk to put raw thought out there yet it is also somehow easier. I do try to write in a way that is simply grounded in curiosity and questions as opposed to a higher status “this is the way it is” yet the very fact of having a blog and publishing it regularly is, I guess, a high status gesture that evokes very varied responses from those who come across it. The comments point you make is also interesting – not only how the comments and put downs impact the author but also the author’s decision as to whether to publish them or not – censoring them would be an attempt to raise self and lower the status of the commenter but as the commenter is no longer present it all gets a little more complex. Then there are all those who read a blog that you don’t even know have read the blog – just because they didn’t comment it doesn’t mean they didn’t love/hate it – real ‘third person inquiry’ status stuff where you have no idea of the impact or use of what you put out there. Fascinating comment Ed – thank you.

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