Squirrels and Status

My office window looks out onto the front porch roof, and I toss bird seed out there for the birds and squirrels.

Sauirrels In Winter

One of the fascinating things to observe among both the birds and the squirrels is the role of status, or pecking order. It is something that is common to all advanced animals, and helps them avoid fighting. When the higher status animal does its status display, the lower status animal almost always backs off.

We humans also display status. The problem is we may not be aware that we are doing so,  whether we know it or not we are constantly communicating not only our status, but our perception of the status of those with whom we are speaking, and our unpercieved status signals may hinder effective communication. For example a teacher who projects high status and appears to assign low status to a parent, may gender resentment. A salesperson may wonder why some clients are not responsive to his pitch or a supervisor may wonder why some team members feel she is aloof.

Here are two exercises we use at Laugh2Learn that help our clients become aware of and understand status:


Ask your team to stand in a circle. Designate one person to begin and ask that person to turn to the person on her right and, with a word, phrase or gesture, lower his status. That person then lowers the status of the person on his right, and so on around the circle until everyone has lowered the status of a neighbor. Then repeat the exercise raising the status of the neighbor. When you have finished discuss what it takes to raise or lower the status of someone with whom you are interacting.

After discussing how we communicate our perception of others’ status, proceed to the


Copy and distribute the following, or something like it to each member of the team. Ask them to choose a partner and designate which partner will be A and which will be B.  Then ask them to read the script with A being high status and B being low status. Then repeat with A being low status and B being high status. Discuss how the conversation was different, and discuss what each person did to communicate status.

Status Script      

A: Hi there.

B: Hi

A: Where have you been?

B: Oh, around.

A: Well, that’s not very informative.

B: Sorry, I’ve been visiting my brother.

A: I see. Well we’ve missed you around here.

B: Well, I’m back now.

A: Good. Well, see you around.

B: Yeah, See you.

Among “lower” animals, status and status awareness is a way to keep the peace. Among humans it can be very disfunctional. Learn to be aware of how you are projecting status, and you may become a better communicator.



First, thanks to all of you who viewed my last post. I have been remiss in posting for a while, and I can see that people just don’t look for something they know won’t be there. I’m back on track now and, although the new year is still a ways away, I’m resolving to post more often now.

When I was a boy, I was an avid reader of Sunday School papers. They were age appropriate, and always had a story in them. The stories were pretty formulaic with a plot line like this:

  • Young person is faced with a choice (help little sister, or go to football practice).
  • There is a danger of a negative consequence for making the right choice (help little sister, don’t get to play in the game).
  • Young person makes right choice, and by some miraculous circumstance avoids the negative consequence (gets to play in game anyway).

That plot line is just plain wrong. We always bear the consequences of our choices, even when the choice is “right.” Put simply, if I drive my car into a ditch, the car will be damaged whether I was swerving to miss a pedestrian, or simply being inattentive.

I was reminded of this truth recently when a student who had done poorly in class reminded me the reason for her poor performance was she had been taking time to support her family during a crisis, and wasn’t that the right choice to make. Yes, I said it was the right choice to make, but you still have to bear the consequences. To a very large extent, virtue is its own reward, and may be all the reward you get.

I recently told my Master of Public Health students that you will not know if you are truly virtuous, until you suffer negative consequences from making the right choice. So long as you are rewarded for your right choices, you won’t know if you are being “good” just because it pays off.

I wish I hadn’t been so influenced by those Sunday School papers. It wouldn’t have been so painful to discover that good choices aren’t always painless. They aren’t, but they are still worth it.

Not much humor in today’s lesson, but stay tuned!



Today is my birthday. It is also two days after Thanksgiving, and fifteen years and eleven days since I suffered a heart attack. If all that doesn’t call for a moment of reflection, I don’t know what will.

So, I’m thankful to be alive! Trite, huh? But I want you to think beyond triteness. Think about really being alive. For me I began this refelction eleven days ago; November 15th, the 15th anniversary of the heart attack. I began thinking of all the things I would have missed had I not survived. I would never have known my three lovely granddaughters. I would never have started the Senior Class Improv Company. I would never have worked at the University of Kansas Public Management Center or the University of Kansas Medical Center, and never have met all the wonderful students I had there.

 Of course not all of the memories are happy. There have been illnesses, and heartbreak, and loss  too. But, even the pain is evidence of life — of self awareness, and it is a precious gift.

I met my Masters of Public Health Class at the University of Kansas Medical Center on November 15th and took a moment to share my thoughts about the value of life with them. The next day I received this email from a student:  “I wanted to thank you for bringing a personal touch to the last class session by sharing your wisdom regarding the value of life after experiencing a near fatal heart attack.  To me, that information is more valuable than the didactic class content.” Wow! Affirming huh?

All this started me thinking about Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Upon returning from the dead to experience just on more day Emily says: “I can’t! I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” Later she asks” “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?” Upon returning to the dead Emily says: “That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.”

So here is my birthday wish for everyone who runs across this blog: Slow down. Look at people. Try your best to realize life while you live it — every every minute.

Group Spontaneity

Observation: Procrastination can become a habit. I haven’t posted for over a month, and while there are some excuses (busy, travel, knee surgery, etc.) the simple fact is once you don’t do something, it is easier to keep not doing it. Even though the first week may have been legitimate, after that it was simply habit.

I’m not sure what it takes to get out of the habit, but for me it was a visit with my friend Andrea Engstrom. She always inspires me, and I came away from our meeting with several blog post ideas, one of which is to comment on how procrastination becomes a habit. I’ve done that now, so let’s move on to Group Spontaneity.

We visited Playa Del Carmen, Mexico for the Dia de los muertos celebration. Our visit included a trip the Xcaret, the cultural theme park near Playa Del Carmen. This being a Mexican holiday, the park was pretty crowded, andthe crowd was very diverse. We heard Spanish, Russian, German, as well as English and some languages we couldn’t identify.

One of the features of the park is a cultural exhibition in a large arena something like a football stadium. I imagine it seats at least 50,000 people. Since it is open seating, people began to arrive long before show time, and the venue was full at least a half hour before the show began. The crowd was a bit restive, and some tried, unsuccessfully to begin a rhythmic clap. Others tried to get a “wave” started, again without great success, but as time went on and a few hearty souls persisted, before long the entire house was participating in the wave. In a way it was almost as exciting as the show that followed. To see that many people from that many cultures spontaneously participating in unplanned group activity was just plain fun!