Social Signaling

A couple of days ago, I was going to write a post about social status.. but it didn’t go well, felt forced, and then I left it hanging…

… good thing too, because shortly thereafter, I came across a column about diamonds on Andrew Sullivan’s blog that mentioned the phenomenon of social signaling and it struck a very deep chord in me.. and a sharp chord at that…

It was specifically this sentence that got me thinking:

Diamond engagement rings are best understood not as a signal from one partner to the other, but from both partners to society at large.

Now.. I could go off on how I think diamond engagement rings are stupid in that they don’t serve any practical purpose, but that isn’t quite correct upon further reflection.  That would be a reaction that comes from a particular bias that originating in or at least related to my personality.. Specifically, I think it comes from the fact that I, as an INTJ, tend not to place value in the standard set of forms used by the majority of society to engage in social signaling.  Many, although not all, of these forms are kinds of “conspicuous consumption” in our current luxury society, and such things have always tended to leave me rather cold–or even to piss me off–because they seemed more like a form of waste than anything else.. (and this may derive from my INTJ-ness or from my deeply-seated German and Swiss-ness… )

So.. that aspect of social signaling is one reason that I’ve always found it silly.  However, perhaps an even more fundamental reason–and one directly related to my personality type–has been the fact that I’ve never taken such social signaling forms as a given.  To me, everything has always been open for analysis, and when you poke such forms and do a bit of research–it is not hard to see that most of the standard elements of social signaling really are just constructs.  Diamonds–in particular–are a perfect example of just how artificial and constructed a well-known social signal is… Diamonds don’t actually have nearly the value that we place into them based on any functional standard or even any economic standard.  They are not actually rare, they have cruddy resale value, and they don’t make your life easier as say a car or a bike or even a hammer can.

For these reasons–and I’m sure more if I thought about it–I often disdained the phenomenon of social signaling in my past.  I found it trite and stupid, and would often take the attitude that people who did buy into it were obviously stupid and trite as well.

This disdain, however, was an immensely immature attitude to take. It was immature because it was often based–whether strongly or just partially–on a defensive reaction towards such an activity and the people who engaged in it.  More importantly, it was immature because it made the assumption that everyone else in the world would be better off if they just perceived things as I did.  If people were just as smart as me, they would recognize how stupid this all is…

That, my friends, is never a mature and reflective attitude to take.  It is especially not a smart attitude to take when the majority of the people around you hold what you disdain to be particularly valuable and that by learning that you hold such attitudes, they could make your life difficult.

So.. what should one do–well, a couple of thoughts came to mind upon reflection:

1. Realization that social signaling is done by everyone. Even INTJ’s/geeks/whatever.  The difference is the not just that INTJ’s or other groups use an entirely different set of cultural elements to do their signaling with (If I say “My spoon is too big,” I’m engaging in social signaling about how clever and knowledgeable I am about certain non-standard cultural elements), but also that the prioritizing of social signaling, in comparison to other kinds of communication forms, is very different.

It is this latter element, methinks, that often leads to the mistaken and immature attitude that I’ve talked about above.  Because many intuitive introverts tend to place lower priority on social signaling as a means of communication–or rather that they tend to reserve it more for a more limited range of social interactions–they often get overwhelmed when they come across people for whom social signaling is not only the main and most important form of communication, but for whom it appears as if it is the only form of interaction.

2. This does not mean, however,  that I think all kinds of social signaling are equally awesome. Although I’ve recognized that my utter lack of appreciation for diamonds and such kinds of engagement thingers makes me far different than the norm and could cause problems for me in various circumstances, this doesn’t mean that I have decided that the normalized standard set of social signals is somehow beyond criticism or even good.

I still think diamonds are ridiculous.  However, one must not let oneself therefore think that because other people don’t hold this belief in the absurdity of diamonds, that they are therefore stupid.  Instead, it is an opportunity to explore how other people think, how they set up their own little world and to gain a better understanding of how the external cultural/natural environment that we all inhabit functions.

Noticing these differences is an opportunity for growth rather than being an opportunity for separation or disdain..

3.  In particular, these opportunities for growth become more and more obvious when you start realizing that by coming to understand–even if you don’t subscribe to–the normal system of social signaling, you can be a far more effective individual in this world.  On the one hand, you can employ the default signals at will and “make people jump through hoops” in certain kinds of ways.  A concrete example of this is how I now use the word “wife” with certain people.  Although we were together for over 9 years before we got married, whenever I talked about my best half and used the term “partner” or “life partner” or “signficant other,” it was clear that you didn’t get the full measure of respect from most people.  In fact, you could watch people who had known each other 6 months, but gotten married (and who would eventually get divorced), get respect and therefore gain access to resources just because they talked about their “husband” or “wife.”

This, obviously, isn’t necessarily logical on a functional level if you base your understanding of respect on the likelihood that a relationship is based on good communication, trust, and persistence.  But that’s not necessarily the understanding that everyone holds, or rather, while they may hold that understanding, by getting married, you are given magic phrases–such as the words “husband” and “wife” that convey the meaning of “we have a deep, meaningful, and solid relationship that demands your respect” even if that is meaning is not backed up by other kinds of historical evidence.

This is our reality.  We can try to deny this reality and try to feel superior in our denial, but that is dumb.  Instead, it is better to recognize this reality and make it your bitch.

Thus, it is clear to me now that in certain situation, I will say “wife” to create a certain set of reactions and responses in people, and for many people, I will get the reaction and response I am seeking with like 95%+ certainty.

In other words, I’ve just discovered a huge bunch of buttons that I can press on people when I need to.  More importantly, because I can recognize the buttons, but, shall we say, am not of the buttons, the same kinds of responses do not work in reverse upon me.  Telling me that “your wife” did this or that does not really mean that much to me if I also know that your relationship with your wife is a house of cards waiting to collapse.

In any case.. that was my thought on social signaling.  Importantly, this whole idea of social signaling underlies/undergirds/serves as the primary foundation for the systems and hierarchies of “social status” that I tend to find so arbitrary and artificial.  In fact, my view is that any representation of “status” is merely a sort of signifier that the person is perceived as having “the right” to send out certain social signals that others are assumed to respect.

Such systems, to me, are obviously important in that people believe them to be important, but they are not secure, nor are they particularly robust, because they are so easy to infiltrate and disrupt.  Subverting such paradigms is a favorite past time of mine, a fetish one might say, and is the other main benefit that one gets from viewing this phenomenon as an opportunity for growth.


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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