Interviews June 2004

The Status-tician

Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains

You write that "our ‘ego' or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring the helium of external love to remain inflated, and ever vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect." Why does "our mood blacken if a colleague greets us distractedly"? This would seem to be a minor occurrence in the grand scheme of things.

I think we are very attuned to negative interpersonal signals, just as we are, say, to bad smells—maybe because a bad smell might be a prelude to real danger. We're aware of funny glances people give us, and exhibit a sort of paranoia, sometimes with legitimate concern. This makes up the tragicomedy of everyday life. Particularly office life. Relationships are full of this as well: Someone might say, "You sounded weird on the phone last night." "No I didn't." "Yes you did." "You hung up a bit too quickly." All that kind of stuff. These sensitivities are alive and well in office life as well, but there's no room to say to one's boss, "Why don't you talk to me? Please love me. Are you about to sack me?" We can't say those things, but of course it's what we feel.

Obviously some people are more attuned to these hidden communiqués…

Yes, and those who are least attuned to it have a sort of blithe self-confidence. It might be the work of an early, very supportive upbringing in which a parent might say to his or her child, "You're a champ!" And that can have the side-effect of making someone incredibly insensitive or unaware of themselves.

And maybe happier?

Yes, another branch of the "blunt-but-happy" thing. But most of us, I think, are really quite sensitive and have a hard time being confident without signs of approval. Most people feel bad about spending time alone and grow increasingly paranoid and depressed the longer they have to be by themselves. That's because we seek outside stimulation and reminders of our self-worth.

The Industrial Revolution and the middle class it spawned are identified in the book as two main accelerators of status anxiety. In hindsight, could we have avoided the onset of this problem and still progressed as a society, economically and technologically?

Probably not. When you think of a productive economy you're thinking of an anxious economy. You're looking at many, many people who are afraid about hanging on to their places. You can either lead a simple life—the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent farmer with his simple log cabin. Or you can lead a city life. It's your choice. I guess a Marxist would say that in the ideal future we would have a noble feudal community and high technology at the same time. But on the whole I think it's perceived as a choice. Productivity and GNP are linked to the anxieties of many, many individual workers. An economy like that of France—a so-called "unproductive economy"—is in a way a more relaxed economy. Any given country will be successful at some things and unsuccessful at others. France may be somewhat unsuccessful economically, but it's successful in its long lunch break. There's that choice.

Why have modern populations proved to be so incapable of feeling content with what they have and how they're viewed by so-called "reference groups," the communities that they feel close to?

I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of what's normal—of what is an acceptable standard of everyday living. And of course the bar keeps being raised ever higher in modern society. Look at advertising: its sole function is to make us feel that certain things are missing from our lives. So today it's possible for someone to feel poor if they don't have air-conditioning or a flat-screen TV in a way that they wouldn't have fifty or even ten years ago. Our sense of what it is to be reasonably well-off keeps changing, keeps rising—even though all of us are much better off than people were hundreds of years ago. But no one compares themselves to someone who lived three-hundred years ago or to someone in sub-Saharan Africa. We take our points of reference from those around us: our friends, our family. These are the people who determine our feelings of success. Which is why Rousseau wrote that the best way to become rich is not by trying to make more money, but by separating yourself from anyone around you who has had the bad taste to become more successful than you. It's a facetious point, but it's also a serious one. Feelings of wealth are relative.

Look at the self-help section of American bookshops, where my books are occasionally found. There are basically two kinds of books on those shelves: the first kind are the ones that say, "You can make it, you can be anything you like, you can be a billionaire by Friday." Then there's the other kind that tells you how to cope with feelings of low self-esteem—how to be a friend to yourself. This is the modern United States: a society that tells everyone they can be extraordinary. That creates feelings of shame among those who don't feel extraordinary. I think it's interesting that in England three-hundred years ago, people at the bottom of society were called "unfortunates." Interesting word, "unfortunates." Nowadays they're called "losers." That tells us a lot about how things have changed.

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Adam Baer is a writer in New York. He has covered books for The New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, and, among other publications. His most recent interview was with David Bezmozgis.

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