|By Diane Medved|
When I mentioned status signaling to the dozen guests at our Shabbat table, everyone started complaining at once. Those under 30, a tech worker, a law student and an undergrad, were disgusted viewing their peers’ displays—from the athletes at an Ivy League campus who ride a certain electric scooter, to the ubiquitous Carhartt caps warming heads at our local UW.
Other guests noted the lack of subtlety with which co-workers place Hydro Flask water bottles on their desks in Zoom calls, demonstrating they’re wisely hydrating and sparing our environment by refilling. The outdoorsman groused at the proliferation of Yeti coolers at picnic tables, (and their gourmet contents). The medium-sized Yeti without food weighs 23 pounds and costs about $325. But those in the know understand that your ice won’t melt for days.
While we like to think purchasing expensive, impressive non-essentials—like sneakers, watches, clothes and workout equipment–makes sense because they’re high quality, anything worn or used in front of others also sends a message to that audience about us.
In the past, say 40 years ago, people showed off their higher educations, ritzy neighborhoods, fancy cars, luxurious vacations and even furs. Those once-valued attainments are now eschewed, some even reviled, replaced by radically different standards.
Part of the reason for the shift is the source of our trends. Rarity, quality and cost still play into the definition of what’s cool, but foremost now are the influencers of TikTok and Instagram, as well as local organizations, gyms, and friendship networks.
Money, of course, can’t fail to impress. Fancy cars of the 1960s earned gawks if they were massive, like a Cadillac, or phallic and sporty like a Maserati, and loaded with “luxury features”—in those days that meant leather interior, air conditioning and horsepower.
Now? Teslas are parked on every block, demonstrating an ability to buy powerful, long-range electric vehicles and at the same time show concern for the planet. A 2022 Hedges and Company analysis of Tesla owner demographics found the average household income is just over $150,000; and the average owner, three-fourths of whom are male, is age is 53. While just 65% of Americans own their homes, 88% of Tesla owners do. Two-thirds have no children at home, so If you’ve got the wherewithal, why not?
But Tesla’s reputation got complicated, as company founder Elon Musk, once admired for his fearless innovation, welcomed Donald Trump back aboard his newly acquired platform, Twitter. Driving a Tesla now brings a layer of potentially uncomfortable political messaging: “Yes, I support electric vehicles, but don’t assume I support Donald.”
Products and their promoters can be intertwined to the ultimate detriment of devotees. When Kanye West abbreviated his name to Ye and then tweeted antisemitic comments, he was soon restricted on Instagram and Twitter, and cut from his $1.5 billion deal with Adidas, dropping his Forbes wealth rating down to $400 million. Ye also lost contracts with Gap and Balenciaga, and owners of Yeezy sneakers may see the value of their footwear plummet. Or, possibly, skyrocket.
The context defining whether one’s purchases or actions are status signals or status spoilers can flip instantaneously.
The point of status signaling is to win others’ approval, by showing you know quality, and can afford it. This only works if viewers of your demonstration grasp its value. If you’re the only stroller geek in your new mom cohort—and the rest of your crew doesn’t recognize the superiority of, say, your new Bugaboo Donkey stroller that cost $1,400– then your babe will have a smooth ride but you earn no cred for it. Another young-mom trend that apparently signals good taste, according to November’s Wall Street Journal, is decorating babies’ rooms in only neutrals, to coordinate with gray/beige schemes in the rest of the house. Dubbed “sad beige” by some snide influencers, the minimal palette in the nursery led Baby Gap to create designated beige sections in some stores, and caused a 67% jump in searches for beige baby clothes on the website Etsy in just one year. Such bland environments for tiny ones leave certain grandmothers I know itching to introduce some brightly colored…throw pillows? Wall art?
A trend toward health and fitness has brought status to the formerly mundane. Like consuming water. If your friends agree that hydrating is a laudable pursuit, then they might be wowed by your $50 Stanley Quencher bottle, which fits a humungous 40 ounces of H2O (or coffee, freshly ground, brewed in your Miele) nicely in your car’s cup-holder. In the Wall Street Journal’s article “A Cup to Lord over Colleagues,” we learn that there’s a waiting list 150,000 units long, unless you’re willing to pay $100 or more to a scalper. Called “the Patagonia vest of water bottles,” (cluing you into another status must-have) the Stanley “allows its owner to flaunt a combination of trendiness, disposable income, and, (due to its copious size) presumably, bladder control.” Brittany Stenersen, a hairdresser, turned the attention her bottle received into a marketing tool, luring a crowd to her hair-products sales event by raffling off a Quencher.
Such an accessory is one of the few signals of both status and virtue that a work-from-home culture allows. Status comes from owning one of the hard-to-nab vessels, and virtue from the clear intent to consume an admirable amount of liquid. Not all sources of status also convey virtue—which is earned when one’s action or object enhances what’s seen as healthful, charitable, or especially, environmentally cleansing. One’s virtue—good character, laudable morals–escalates with activities/possessions already praised within one’s group or clique—like hosting a fund-raiser for a mutually-approved candidate, or helping clear invasive plants in Pioneer Park.
When it comes to attracting others’ admiration, a 2018 series of studies confirmed a strange phenomenon the authors call “the status signals paradox.” When seeking friendships, we think that our status symbols—like wearing a Tag Heuer watch or driving a BMW—will increase our likeability. And yet when we see others with the flashy car or watch, we are less attracted to them than if they were to wear a generic watch, or drive a Honda.
We also use status signals in the reverse, to “countersignal” and gain positive distinction by downplaying our high-status characteristics. A 2005 book on dating by Neil Strauss describes a successful pick-up artist who charmed the ladies with modesty while his competitors bragged. Those who already have respect, explains a 2021 Psychology Today article about countersignaling, feel no need to prove themselves. But people not recognized as meritorious who try self-deprecation find it backfires.
The article concludes, “low status people who countersignal lower their status even more. But high-status people who countersignal increase their status even more. A quote from Golda Meir captures this idea: ‘Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great.’”
There’s one more way that trend-setters gain their status, and that’s with “the red sneakers effect.” This refers to a 2014 study showing jarringly out-of-place clothes, like red sneakers in a professional setting, can actually bring a positive response: “Nonconforming behaviors, as costly and visible signals, can act as a particular form of conspicuous consumption…” where novelty and uniqueness are valued. In other words, where individuality is prized, the one who dares strike outside the norm can prevail.
Conspicuous consumption, a term coined in 1899 by sociologist Thorstein Veblen, brings status by exceeding one’s needs with better or more expensive consumer goods. With copious choices on how to conspicuously consume, many of us have moved beyond a desire to impress others to a state of mere amusement with the game. It regularly occurs to me that very few care how I (or my house) look today. Perhaps that realization is the most liberating status signal of all.
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of seven books, most recently, Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing your Marriage. She and her husband, author and radio host Michael Medved (770 AM, noon-3 pm) raised their three children in a Seattle suburb, and can now be seen picking up litter with their five grandchildren. Diane’s current project is The Case for Children; reach her at DianeMedved.com.