“Respect everyone. Fear no one.” I love this saying, which I first heard in reference to bicycle racing. The rider shows up for a race or a ride and sees the other riders. That rider might take some riders too lightly based on appearances and be unpleasantly surprised. Or that rider might be intimidated by others—and thus potentially defeat her- or himself.

This all relates to status behavior, the appearance of power or impotence, and it is something that exists in animal behavior. That means it exists in human behavior because we’re animals and in theater because theater is largely a reflection of human behavior.

Status behavior should not be confused with status symbols such as fancy cars and flashy jewelry. Status behavior is more primitive than that.

Dogs provide a good example of status behavior. High status behavior is the suggestion of power. A dog makes itself bigger and takes up more space through stance and even raising its hackles. It may bare its teeth and may assert itself through sound by growling or barking. Challenging this behavior could result in a problem.

Low status in dogs is about displaying submission. The dog makes itself smaller, drawing in its tail and ears and perhaps stooping or lying down. It whimpers rather than growls. This is a picture that conveys the message that this dog is not a threat and is eager to please.

These displays of power and submission help dogs maintain societal structures and keep them from having to fight to sort out every challenge. Other animals use status is similar ways to maintain social and hierarchical order.

People generally don’t go to such extremes in expressing status but their status behavior is dramatic nonetheless. It is fascinating to observe, perhaps more so because we are often unaware of the status messages we are sending. Status plays a more mysterious role in human societies because they are more complex and rely on more artificial hierarchies, such as titles.

Status behavior is important in improv and my favorite section of Keith Johnstone’s iconic book Impro is about status. I have used an exercise based on his “Sir/Smith” script hundreds of times in improv classes and rehearsals.

Playing status well is a key to interesting acting, whether tragic or comic. Many comedic situations are about a character playing a status that doesn’t match his or her power. The essence of tragedy is about the hero or heroine maintaining high-status behavior despite losing power.

Outside of theater, we all employ status behavior in everyday life. Most of our interactions contain some component of status. Status is so integral to our interaction that it can be hard to be conscious of it. Skilled communicators know how to use high and low status to get across their messages and to connect with other people.

Certainly there is more to effective communication and interaction than just displaying raw animal high-status behavior. Imposing behavior doesn’t help convey warmth, comfort, trustworthiness, or respect, to name just a few things. By the same token, utter submissiveness doesn’t inspire confidence. So the goal for effective and enlightened people must be to balance status behavior.

When I think of status, I think of two axes (as in the plural of “axis,” not the cutting implement). One axis is purely animal behavior, the aggressive dog at one end and the submissive at the other.

The other axis, perpendicular to the first, is the ethical axis. At one end it is about destructive behavior and at the other it is about constructive behavior. If the animal axis is horizontal and the human is vertical, we might think of the top as being the high moral ground.

Respect Everyone

I think most of us want to be constructive and ethical—you know, good. But it can be challenging to know what doing the right thing is. Perhaps “Respect Everyone” can be a guide. If we’re respecting everyone, including ourselves, that will generally lead us to high moral ground and will guide our animal-axis behavior appropriately. This is particularly relevant when we’re coming from positions of power.

Fear No One

The animal axis is primal and I think “fear no one” works well with this construct. When we fear no one, we are standing up for ourselves and others. It strikes me as having to do with situations when one is not in power. And not fearing someone doesn’t mean you can’t show deference when it’s appropriate.

Certainly I don’t want people to be hyper-aware and self-conscious while ordering a coffee but I do think we can all benefit from awareness of our status behavior and conscious choices about how we employ them.

Do your status-behavior choices help or hinder your messages, your interactions, your goals?

Specifically, when you are trying to appear confident, do physical cues—things like avoiding eye contact, making yourself physically smaller, and lack of breath control—convey low status? When you are trying to express empathy or delegate authority, do your posture, facial expression, and tone of voice send the message that you actually don’t care?

Maybe you want to resolve a conflict but you are sending animal messages that you want to dominate. Or perhaps you are trying to convey authority but your insecurity is seeping through the cracks and undermining your efforts.

If you want to master status behavior, start by observing. Watch people in restaurants and meetings. Try to be aware of your own behavior and you may even want to try to master it by taking an acting or improv course.

Yes, you can respect everyone and fear no one but it takes conscious effort, practice, and technique.

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