Thoughtful Thursday: Equal

March 22, 2012

Thoughtful ThursdayAnother Mel-inspired Thoughtful Thursday, two in a row!

In the context of a trip back to the White House, Mel wrote about the contradiction between her Quaker leanings and being star-struck.

“I don’t believe in elevating people in importance any more than I believe in demeaning people (aren’t they just two sides of the same coin). Though sometimes I forget that and get all ga-ga, like… you know… being around people in the White House.”

DH is the biggest equal-treatment person I know. Once he was sitting in the waiting room of a company that was the partner of a company he was doing business with. A man walked up and started talking to him about a common interest. DH talked to him, the same way he’d talk to anyone. After a few minutes, they finished their conversation and the man walked away. Then the person DH had been dealing with at the company walked up. “Oh, you’ve met our CEO!” DH had no idea, but even if he had, he wouldn’t have acted any differently. If the janitor had approached DH and started a conversation instead of the CEO, DH would have responded exactly the same. Everyone is equal.

The flip side is that he does not have the deference to authority that most people have. This was particularly a problem when he was a kid… something about being kicked out of class for saying, “Who are you to tell me what to think? You’re not smarter than me.” Everyone is equal.

I, on the other hand, am acutely aware of status differences in my mind even though I try to treat everyone with respect in practice. I was raised by an Old World, Old Money mother who paid a lot of attention to class, status, background, etc. She was very nice to The Help, but she never forgot that they were The Help. She was tremendously gracious, though, to people with power — actually, a combination of gracious and deferent. Her whole demeanor changed.

I’d like to think I come across pretty similarly to everyone regardless of status or class or money, but I do treat people differently based on knowledge. Someone in my field gets a very different “What do you do?” explanation than someone outside my field. I respect the doctor’s advice more than the medical assistant’s. I offer more input about caring for Burrito and Tamale to college-student babysitters than I do to their teachers. I’m still nice to the people with less knowledge, but I am respectful of erudition and experience. I’m a knowledge snob; I readily admit it.

Burrito and Tamale are approaching the age where we have started giving them messages about how to treat people (so far, mostly along the lines of “be gentle”). To date, we have not delivered any messages about treating people differently based on status. It’s tough, though, because I do want them to heed their teachers’ instructions more than their peers’, because the teachers are probably right and because listening to toddlers’ (or kids’, or teens’) instructions will invariably get you in trouble. DH would never want them to call anyone Sir; I’d love to have people remark about them, “What a polite child!” DH and I agree, though, that regardless of how they act, we want them to feel comfortable around everyone. To feel equal. Never to feel like they’re below anyone, nor that they’re above anyone.

To what extent do you perceive status differences? To what extent do you act differently according to status?

16 Responses to “Thoughtful Thursday: Equal”

  1. Shelby Says:

    I’ll admit it. I’m a complete kiss-ass when it comes to interacting with those I perceive as having ‘higher status’ than me, whether that be on the job, socially or economically. And quite frankly, my dear, I hate it. I hate that I am so cognizant of status and when I have tried to remedy it, I just come off as even less authentic.

    However, on the other hand, I was raised in a working class family where neither of my parents graduated from high school (but were very bright people). I even have a trailer park space listed as my address on my birth certificate and have always worked directly with lower income families, so I don’t feel as if I’ve treated anyone who might have ‘less than’ me any differently, but I don’t know. This makes me think because I really do feel that if I am so cognizant of the other side of the coin (those ‘above’ me), am I fooling myself into thinking I am not as aware of those whose statuses are perceived as below mine? It seems unlikely that these two would not exist simultaneously.

  2. Elana Kahn Says:

    I try not to treat people differently, but if I know I’m talking to a president or CEO of something then I’ll probably treat them with reverence and awe. But honestly I don’t like “ordering” people around even when I’m paying them to work for me (ie babysitter or housekeeper). So I treat everyone with a baseline of respect and then if someone is very powerful I will be in awe. 🙂

  3. jjiraffe Says:

    Excellent question!!! I have tended towards hero worship, based on the actions of people I think are amazing. I tend to put them on a pedestal, and hold them to really, really high standards, I have been thinking about this a lot, in light of Jason Russell.

    People are human, in the end, right? No one is perfect and even those who seem better than others (Obama, in my mind) can’t avoid making some mistakes here and there. I guess?

    I have always thought FDR was the greatest president of the 20th Cenntury, yet the Holocaust and countless deaths during WW II happened during his terms.

    This might be an impossible question to answer. I will say that I have never ever elevated anyone in my life based on status or money (because my parents were not into that) but I’m obsessed with people with high ideals and those who work hard.

  4. Sara Says:


    Just the other day while walking home, I was talking to Gwen (she’s 4 months, so it was a one-side conversation…) about how she’ll make friends when she’s older. I was home-schooled, and as a child I never quite felt like I fit in with the kids in my neighborhood, who all went to the same public school and thus all knew each other than they knew me, and so I’ve always felt a little socially awkward around people my age. I told Gwen that I hoped that that wouldn’t happen to her, that she’d have lots of friends her age that she could interact with without problem. On the flip side, due to a number of different factors, I developed the skills of interacting with adults as if they were my peers when I was in middle school/high school, so I’ve always been comfortable interacting with people who are “above” me in some sense. This has served me well in that in academia, one important aspect is socializing at conferences during the coffee breaks, and if I waited for someone of “higher status” to approach me first, I might be end up drinking tea and eating cookies and not talking to anyone. I figure if I have something interesting to say, or if I thought they said something interesting and I have a question about it, then their level of prestige shouldn’t keep me from talking to them.

    But other than that, I’m not sure that this is something I’ve thought about all that much.

  5. Sam Says:

    I was brought up to be respectful of my elders so I always defer to people who are older than me – call them Mr X or Mrs Y etc even if they’ve told me to call them by their first names.

    But when it comes to work etc I treat all people the same – CEO’s and tea lady’s get the same respect from me. Unless they do something to not have my respect – then I take it away from them.

    I think it’s more about knowing how to treat people as people rather than treating them for their titles – KWIM?


  6. clumsykisses Says:

    I perceive them, and feel inferior (bootstrapping my whole life), but try to treat everyone the same.

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    This is such an interesting question! And one I’ve thought about a lot, because cultural norms about status and class vary so much. Most Americans seem really uncomfortable talking about or even recognizing class differences, so this is a fascinating comment thread too, even to see it acknowledged. There is such a strong cultural value placed on treating everyone the same, but at the same time you hear such derogatory comments as “white trash” and scorn placed on low-income people. But then there are all these other dimensions of status – age, for example (and everybody will achieve higher rank there eventually, God and the Fates permitting). I grew up in Peru where status and rank are much more overt – sort of the “Old World” approach you allude to -but my parents deliberately moved down the social ladder by living and working among the most humble people in rural Quechua villages (although at the same time in doing so we became the highest-status people in the village). This is becoming a lengthy ramble… I guess in summary, I do perceive these differences, and I’m sure they affect how I relate to people although I may not be completely aware of exactly how.

  8. St. Elsewhere Says:

    I was raised to be polite (not that I always am) to everyone and be respectful of my elders (not that I always am).

    I do become status-aware when I am interacting with someone but that won’t turn up or turn down my tone/pitch with them. If my tone changes, it would be for reasons other than status mostly.

    I have been awestruck, especially around royalty, but have gracefully managed to pick my lower jaw off the ground, and not show it much.

  9. Mel Says:

    I have found that the coolest things I’ve gotten to do in my life have all been directly because of a connection to another person. Sometimes that person clearly has a high status position. And sometimes that person was someone I randomly started speaking to at a bus stop. You never know who is going to have the connection.

    I still haven’t had my coffee because I’m going running in a minute, so I did this doubletake when I saw my name at the top of the post. Like how you’d feel if the people on the television show all stopped acting and turned to face the front of the screen and said your name… I chalk this up to lack of coffee.

  10. Tara (TIMO) Says:

    Because Nav is in the military, there is an accepted order that he and thus, I, and eventually, the boys, have to respect. So yes his “big” boss, a four star general, gets more respect then his direct boss, a Lt Col.

    He gets promoted to Lt Col next Friday and all of his “peers” will shift. His direct boss will be more in line with him, even though he has 3-years more service. It’s complicated and confusing.

    I try to treat everyone respectfully. It’s easier that way for all.

  11. a Says:

    I have a slight problem with this, because it bugs the hell out of me when people of “higher rank” or whatever get all snooty with me. In fact, I almost got fired from a summer job because of that sort of thing. On the other hand, wherever I have worked, I have been well aware that it’s the support people who do the real work. If I want my paycheck to be correct, I’d better be pleasant to the office assistant who makes a third of what I make. If I wanted adequate warning from the manufacturing floor regarding what samples I would be analyzing, then I needed to form a good rapport with the guys doing the manufacturing.

    I respect people’s positions,in terms of the higher rank, to a certain extent. But, if they’re a jerk, I’m not going to show them much respect. I try to be polite, but that may be as much as you get.

    As far as intellect goes, I think most people have their thing. I am always surprised by what people know. Like my former boss – I hate his guts. He’s a complete and utter scumbag, who is completely clueless about many things. But he is excellent with photography relating to my work. So I try to reserve judgement, even when my initial impression is that someone is an idiot.

  12. strongblonde Says:

    i’ve been giving this some thought. At first, like you, i thought that i deferred to people who had higher education. After thinking it through, i evolved to thinking that i am polite to everyone (although still very shy and reserved), but reserve more respect for those who show some sort of common sense…they don’t need a degree to go with their knowledge. But this still doesn’t get at it. The example I keep coming back to in my mind is my colleague’s husband. He’s the world expert in mastodons. if they find a mastodon somewhere (anywhere) they call him. BBC is filming a reality series with him. and he’s totally cool and down to earth. i’m always a little star struck. do i have some sort of love for mastodons? no way. but i think it’s cool that he knows more than everyone else in the world about a topic. so maybe it does come back to knowledge? another example is my own healthcare. i definitely prefer to be seen by physicians. i want to be seen by someone who has more expertise than i do. it’s not that i don’t like NPs, but for my own care i’d like to see someone, to consult with someone, who has had more education and training than i have had….they’ll offer different views that i would have.

    okay. i guess that’s a long way to say that for me it’s about education.

    but again, that’s only in my head. i treat everyone the same. i get a lot of practice with this in my homeless clinic.

    wow. sorry i can’t be more articulate today. maybe i need some food?? 🙂

  13. I treat people according to my own comfort level. If you’re a stranger performing a service in my house, I’m nice-but-distant. If you’re powerful/rich and outside of my industry, I’m nice-but-distant. However, if you’re family or friends or someone I want to know or industry, I’m equally nice-nice to the powerful and the not-so-much. But in general, the better I know you, the nicer I am regardless of status.

  14. Lavender Luz Says:

    Much of my life I’ve had authority issues, namely deferring too much to those whom I felt had more status than I. (not in terms of wealth, because I never hang with rich people, or social status, ditto, but authority and power at work.

    I’m outgrowing that. Then again, working at home, alone, in one’s pajamas, is a great equalizer, hehe.

    I am prone to idolizing people whom I think are smart(er) or better writers, but that’s happening less and less, as I catch myself doing it.

    Very thought-provoking!

  15. Ana Says:

    Great topic, I had to think about this a while to figure out my answer, and it is still a bit fuzzy…I have no additional respect or awe of someone due to their “status” or wealth. It’s intelligence and accomplishment that I defer to; I will admit I subconciously factor education level onto that though it might not necessarily correlate. I notice that I give more weight to the suggestions given by the PhDs in the lab than the techs, even when the tech may have more years of experience. Hmmm. This disturbs me but its the truth.

    I also will act respectfully towards elders, because I was taught to do that as a child and see no reason to buck that convention. In general I really don’t see the benefit of NOT being polite & respectful to ANYONE regardless of how you view them, though I am so shy I rarely have much to say to anyone no matter their status in my eyes.

  16. I think I treat everyone pretty equally, but I do find it more difficult to talk to people in an important position (when I don’t know them) mainly because of what an impression (if any) I will leave on them or not wanting to make a fool out of myself.

    However, I am very allergic to people who act all important and snobby because of their position. I will avoid them like the plague.

    The French have a tendency to keep things very formal, even with people they already know pretty well. So they will keep saying “vous” and “Madame …”. I find this quite restricting and prefer to go to a “tu” and first name basis pretty quickly, but that’s the Dutch girl in me. The Germans are a bit the same. One of my husband’s projects is in Germany and ever since he started working on it six years ago, everyone in the meetings will call him “Herr S…”. He keeps saying “Herr S… was my father, my name is F…”.

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