Social Signals

A friend commented not too long ago about ‘upward facing’ social signals and the contrasting ‘downward facing’ social signals.

A confused moment fell over our group, so he elaborated: the way we dress and the things we buy can often be subtle or obvious social signals. These signals–logos, brands, accessories, styles, or trends–are used by us to consciously or unconsciously signal our real or aspirational social status or, more tellingly, our values.

These signals can be sent ‘downward’ to those who we perceive to be beneath us on the social ladder, or ‘upward’ to those we perceive to be above us on the social ladder. For downward signals, we want to communicate that we’ve made it, that we’re successful, better off. For upward signals, we want to communicate that we understand the rules and values of those above us, and that we want to join their ranks.

Sometimes we send ‘parallel signals’ to others in our social class to convey that we are a part of the group and share their values. ‘We belong. We understand each other.’ But most of the time it’s upward or downward.

Downward signals tend to be more ostentatious. The gold Rolex. The Porsche. The fur coat. The diamonds. While these may impress those who have less money than we do–or who we want to make think that they have less money than we do–they are hit-and-miss with impressing those who actually do have the same amount or more money than we do.

To many, these obvious displays are the first signs of New Money. Most people will say, Good for you! Congratulations. A few will be resentful. A few will be put off. Remember, though, it’s one thing to achieve a new net worth. It’s quite another to matriculate into a new social class.

Old Money will take a wait-and-see attitude. Will your manners and values catch up to your new net worth? Do you really have money? Or did you just buy the new things on credit? Peacock today; feather duster tomorrow, as the saying goes.

So beware of ‘downward facing’ social signals. They are often interpreted as condescension. Beware of ‘parallel’ social signals. They might be interpreted as unthinking conformity.

If you signal upward, you might tend to be a little more discreet with your purchases, a little more circumspect with your display. And you’ll want to work on your posture, diction, manners, and reading–in addition to dressing Old Money Style–in order to round out your social signals with a little polish and patina, a little grace and humility.

So take a moment to consider the social signals you’re sending out with your attire, possessions, and manner. We are always communicating. We do care what other people think. It’s only human. And it is important. Up to a point.

Then it comes down to one single, life-defining perspective.

Which is what I’ll discuss in the next post…

  • BGT





6 thoughts on “Social Signals

  1. This raises an interesting question. Is it possible to extricate yourself from status competition? Even if you say “I refuse to play the social comparison game”, isn’t that a way of saying you’re better than those who do?

    1. Why would that be a bad thing? Must we all stand on the same platform? I don’t think so. While OM is not about putting anyone down, it certainly is not concerned with blending in with what is trendy. This may give the appearance of ‘better-than-thou’ to those who might be offended at their unwillingness to conform. This blog, and Byron’s books are about a different social structure. Assume what you want but that can lead people down the wrong paths (of misunderstanding) as well.

  2. Good morning Amy,

    You are only playing the ‘social comparison game’ when you are ‘playing the social comparison game’. If you are doing/buying/wearing/whatever something (you) are comfortable with it is irrelevant what others think or say. As a friend said to me recently, life is too short to feel uncomfortable. If I may quote Sir Anthony Hopkins it might better express what I am trying to.

    “My philosophy is: It’s none of my business what people say of me and think of me. I am what I am and I do what I do. I expect nothing and accept everything. And it makes life so much easier.”

    Happy contemplating!

    1. Hello David. We are social creatures who live in a network of relationships from which we constantly get feedback regarding our words and deeds. There are stories of feral children who have never had any human contact and therefore lack any social conditioning, but for the rest of us, I don’t think it’s possible to truly not care what anyone thinks.

  3. A note of caution…downward displays in the workplace that are interpreted as condescension, may have long term consequences for your career or business. Envy and spitefulness are real obstacles. Polish, patina, grace and humility just may save you a lot of headache in addition to being the right attitude.

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