Two Dogs Sniffing and Status Anxiety

Communication Respect


Key Point: We limit others and ourselves when we attach too much to title and status. In organizations people are sometimes driven to titles because we hope or believe something magical happens to who we are when we achieve it. Of course, more money and responsibility is usually related and that is important. But status anxiety is something different and somewhat destructive. Alain de Botton, author, and contemporary philosopher, has written about the related shortcomings of status anxiety: “The first thing we ask someone is ‘what do you do [for a living]?’ It’s like that sniffing ritual when two dogs meet: ‘Sniff. Sniff. Aha. Gotcha.’”

A Big Think article on the topic and referencing de Botton, goes on to say:

“Typically, depending on the response to the job question, our interest in the other person rises or drops sharply off.

This, he points out, is terribly sad, misleading, and productive of all kinds of harmful social division and personal suffering. Why should we be tribalized or ostracized on the basis of one (admittedly time-consuming) aspect of our lives? Our deeper (and, de Botton argues, more important) human traits invisible until/unless we’ve passed the sniff test? 

De Botton says that status anxiety is more destructive than most of us can imagine. It convinces vulnerable people (without fascinating job titles) that their best personal qualities are worthless. It causes people to strive and struggle to meet goals that do little to further their inner well-being, on the (often unconscious) assumption that if their status improves, their worries will vanish. 

Once you’ve recognized the symptoms of status anxiety and snobbery in yourself, says de Botton, the remedy is to get out of the status game altogether, surrounding yourself with friends who are willing to take the time to get to know a person, regardless of the first impression. it is easier to realize your human potential when you feel free to experiment, to make mistakes, to take your time becoming somebody without feeling like a complete nobody in the meantime.”

Ask someone whose job is looking after a home or family how they feel when someone asks what “they do” at a social event. Often, the person asking the question is running to the closest appetizer tray before the “homemaker” finishes their response. Ok… I happen to have a great title (Chief People Officer) and I like what it stands for. I freely admit that I enjoy telling people what my title is. However, the article reminds me that I have a responsibility to honor and respect the title rather than expect or receive anything because of it. Maybe we should all have the CPO title? And of course “what I do” is a large percentage of me, but not my only trait. More importantly, of course, is who I am, what I authentically stand for, and the genuine value I bring to others. Leadership and contribution is earned through confident humility, compelling vision and virtuous values that become our real personal brand. The title itself has no sustainable value to anyone. 

Character Moves: 

  1. Do you have any status snobbery in you? Respect means to “look again.“ Titles inside or outside of organizations are short form banners that are convenient but essentially meaningless. What’s most important is what we know and understand about the whole person. 
  2. Status snobbery is destructive and taking the time to find out who someone is versus his or her title takes us to a more fulfilling relationship development path. Remember that people will always remember how we make them feel. When people care to learn about who we really are, it usually feels pretty darn good. 

Stop sniffing in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: Asking what someone “does” is likely not going anywhere, and it never will. I believe we should “ask,” but the message is not to “assume” a thing. There are a million reasons to inquire, ranging from networking possibilities to discovering common interests. Sometimes everyday “titles” can be the most interesting… I bet a plumber’s “worst day at work” story would hilariously trump any CEO’s. Just think about how many crazy stories a late night 7-11 clerk has… Ideally, no one is insecure about his or her job title. If they are, that’s on them, because every job can have interesting aspects… It’s about the storyteller… It’s on us to learn to be intrigued; it’s their responsibility to tell us the positives/communicate who they really are.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis