Observed Social Hierarchies

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During a recent afternoon in downtown Boston, I spent several hours observing the behavior of the people around me. Specifically, I was at a Starbucks coffee shop in the middle of a busy downtown shopping and business district. There was a break that day in the unusually cold and inclement weather of the previous couple of weeks, and as a result, there was a lot of activity as people bustled about, trying to get errands done that they had been unable to do during the recent snowstorms. The day was sunny and relatively warm, so I got a grande latte and settled down at an outside table to people-watch, take notes, and observe behaviors.

Social hierarchies are observable in everyone’s behavior. Sometimes the signs of hierarchies are explicit; sometimes they are implicit rather than overt. Often, the hierarchical relationships are only implied, by things such as posture, motions, and manner of speaking. Chiao et al. (2009) noted that the democratic drive for egalitarianism and social equity is often contravened by our natural tendencies to order ourselves into social hierarchies, programming that is hard-wired (175). The authors further noted that “Our findings provide novel evidence that preference for social dominance hierarchy is associated with neural functioning within brain regions that are associated with the ability to share and feel concern for the pain of others; this suggests a neurobiological basis for social and political attitudes” (174). So if the buying-into of social hierarchies is indeed hard-wired into our brains (and obeyed, as the authors note, to a greater or lesser degree for a given individual), it ought to be possible to observe the specific behavioral traits that are artifacts of perceived social standing. The busy street and coffee shop provided many excellent opportunities to observe these behaviors.

The first thing observed was the relative behavior of the coffee shop employees (“baristas”), the manager on duty, and the customers. The baristas looked harried as the flow of customers was basically nonstop. The manager was clearly, by his posture, actions, and the tone and manner of his voice as he spoke to the employees, higher up on the ladder. He was short and dismissive to the employees to the point of being rude. Yet, the employees took it with seeming good grace. The baristas were also deferential to the customers, to the point of being obsequious. This was evident even when the customer was being rude, obnoxious, or demanding. Most of the customers were clearly impatient as the lines were constantly long and they had to wait for a longer time for their beverages than many of them clearly thought they should. They barked their orders at the baristas and waited for them with ill grace and a barely-concealed impatience. This clearly showed that the served thought that they outranked the servers, a concept that the servers obviously bought into with their constant smiles, nods, and deferential body posture, as opposed to the perhaps natural reaction of telling the rude customer to take a hike or worse, serve him his coffee by throwing it at him. Interestingly, while the manager showed the same obsequiousness to the customers when called for, his posture, unlike that of the baristas, did not reflect that attitude; it was clear that he still considered himself the boss.

It was also interesting to observe the behaviors of the people passing by on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. While there is a certain egalitarianism in that everyone was on their way (it seemed) to some urgent errand and fighting their way through the same slush puddles, yet, there was a certain difference in the way people interacted with each other. The businessman in a no-nonsense raincoat and hat, clutching his briefcase, didn’t get out of anyone’s way and clearly expected everyone to get out of his. The younger pedestrians, whether walking singly or in groups, tended to defer to the older ones. One uniformed policeman was given a very wide berth by everyone. Men, for the most part, walked on the outside of women, this custom being a chivalric move to be the one to get splashed if a passing vehicle flung a plume of water at the sidewalk. As a very general observation, thinking of Chiao et al.’s concept that the recognition of social hierarchies and knowledge of social stratification varies from individual to individual, it seemed that the older pedestrians were more inclined to alter their behaviors based on the nature of their fellow pedestrians than the younger ones were. This could be because of a more firmly embedded belief in the importance of social hierarchies on the part of older, more “traditional” folks.

The most frequent observation to be made was the way drivers behaved toward one another. The street was by no means cleared of snow, and huge puddles remained in the middle. As a result, traffic was slow going, and one could hear the blasts of many horns. In general, no one deferred to anyone; everyone was competing for the same left turn space, the time between the light turning green and the horns honking was measured in microseconds, etc. The only vehicles whose drivers were shown any real courtesy or deference were the occasional official, well-marked vehicles. Otherwise, the traffic resembled a rugby scrum. It is interesting to reflect on why there were no real visible hierarchical reactions among the drivers in traffic, especially compared to those between sidewalk pedestrians.

The reason why there was no visible hierarchy among the drivers was probably that behind the wheel, everyone was of the same status; they were all drivers trying to get someplace, and it not being very easy to see the driver of another vehicle under any circumstances, the normal markers of status (age, clothing, profession, etc.) didn’t come into play. In traffic, everyone is just the anonymous driver of another vehicle, without special status.

Work Cited

Chiao, Joan Y., et al. "Neural basis of preference for human social hierarchy versus egalitarianism." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1167.1 (2009): 174-181.