Precedence: The More Things Change…

Philip_Reinagle_-_Spearing_the_Otter_-_Google_Art_ProjectBack in the 90s, I waited tables for a while. It was sometime after my undergraduate degree. The service industry gives a window into the lives of people. Waiting tables is as good as going to the zoo if we’re interested in primates.

I remember one “three top,” with three young men in a booth. They were in their late twenties, and dressed in their near-uniform business suits. There, over the remains of a meal, they discussed a business venture.

The Hunting Party

Unbidden, an image came to my mind of the same three men, but in a very different setting. In a different place, or another time, they would have been just as at home around a fire, planning a hunt. This image was a simple insight into how people, no matter the setting, haven’t changed much from their hunter-gatherer roots.

Culture shapes how we act, in the details, but doesn’t change our underlying commonality. These young men, and others like them everywhere, were indeed the hunters of Western culture, focused on bringing back meat from the hunt, or dollars from the marketplace. Their drives were likely the same: increased status, access to resources, securing a mate, and the survival of a family line.

Those were probably not, however, the thoughts on their mind. From what I could see, they seemed focused on planning a successful venture, minimizing risk, and out-performing competition. They did so over a shared meal that likely both increased their sense of togetherness and marked precedence (acknowledged social distinctions based on status) among them.

Establishing Precedence

Being a waiter, I did not have the time (or IRB approval) to sit and watch them closely. Still, having sat through countless meetings of this type myself since then, I can speculate about the general shape, if not contents, of the meeting.

On one level, it was a meeting about a specific project. But on another level, it was almost certainly rich with symbolism, implication, and uncertainly.

Aztec men sharing a meal. Florentine Codex, Late 16th century.The undercurrent of such a meeting could lead us to ask certain questions. Who is the leader? How does he relate to the other two? Is he accepted as the leader, or does he have to put off challenges from the others?

What of the other two in the meeting? Dollars to donuts says that if the leader is secure in his position, he is sitting beside one participant and across the booth from the other. Where they sit helps determine, as well as reflects, their status. Even among the “equals” at this meeting, there is still some semblance of precedence,  whether it is recognized by the participants or not.

Nearly every time people interact, there is some amount of establishing precedence. Who walks first through a door? Who is the host? Who is the oldest? The prettiest? The strongest? The tallest? The most educated? The richest? The best dressed?

In Japan, when two businessmen meet, about the first thing they do is exchange business cards. Each carefully examines the other’s card, noting company (affiliation) and title (rank). They’re not business card-obsessed. With that information, they can quickly know where they stand in regard to each other. They can quickly establish precedence.

Contesting Precedence

Yet establishing precedence is not always as simple as it sounds. There is not always only one leader, as there might be multiple paths to leadership acting in competition or conflict with each other. One person might have status because of wealth, or martial prowess, or education. Then, depending on the situation, you may have different recognized levels of social status.

Positions of leadership, while common to all cultures, reflect the values of a culture. In one culture, being a shaman might be a status position, while in another, such a person might be made to live on the edge of a village. Having $90 million in the bank means something in New York City, but probably less (or at least something different) in a remote village somewhere in a rain forest. A hundred years ago in the West, the status of a woman was almost always directly related to her primary male relationship (usually father or husband).

But it’s easy to imagine that this is much simpler than it really is. Precedence is not one thing, on a scale from high to low. It is the interaction of many factors, as interpreted through not only a specific culture, but also a specific situation. A football hero might be high status inside the high school as a whole, but within the chess club, the ability to play well will be a much stronger factor in establishing precedence.

Knowing how personal factors, such as education, wealth, and martial status, interact with social and physical territory, can illuminate some of the complexity of human interaction. More than that, being aware of these cultural patterns, we can play with them, adjust them, and even work to change them as necessary.


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