The Status Syndrome
- why people abuse service workers
and don't want a boring basic income

by C.A. L'Hirondelle, May 21, 2012

This is dedicated to all the frontline people who provide low-status low-pay service to others and to those who endure daily insults and joy-killing indignities as part of their job. And it is written to encourage more people to read and examine the ideas of the book Somebodies and Nobodies by Robert W. Fuller.  

"The other day I had just closed my teller wicket and put up a closed sign when this lady walks up without being called. She is talking on her cell phone and doesn't even make eye contact or notice that I just closed my section and proceeds to put her card in and pull out her wallet. I finally get her attention by saying 'sorry to interrupt your phone call but I've just closed this computer down'.
In an effort to be nice, I offered to help her down at the next computer even though I was on my break. She then rolls her eyes at me and let's out a big annoyed 'sigh' - as if showing what an inconvenience I am causing her and continues to talk on her cell phone.
Once we're at the next computer she puts her card in and continues to be oblivious to the fact that I'm waiting for her to get off her phone and tell me what she needs — despite that we are clearly very busy and there is a large line up of people waiting behind her. I say 'excuse me miss' in a very polite way and she responds with 'what!!?' I explain that I don't know what she needs and she finally says 'ya, give me $20 and pay this bill' sounding very annoyed that I asked what she needed —as if I should have known, or how dare I interrupt her conversation— and goes back to talking on the phone. I finish the transaction and give her the cash and she then walks away without a good-bye or thank you or at the very least, eye contact.
I felt like I was being treated like a lesser human being and for the rest of the day I fantasized about smacking that cell phone off her face." — anonymous bank teller in a large Canadian city, 2009.


It is no secret there is growing income inequality in the world. And part of the propaganda perpetuating income inequality is the idea that income is determined by people's individual qualities, and not the social advantage they happened to be born into, or they luck they've had buying or selling land (or some other commodity) at the right moment. People are encouraged to believe they are 'Somebodies'* because they are more intelligent, harder working, better with money, or morally superior to others.

"Our current standing is measured by the rungs below and above us." - Robert W. Fuller, *Somebodies and Nobodies, 2004


The Status Syndrome makes people addicted to their social status — they become dependent on external validation for their imagined or actual status, and if they lose status (real or imagined) they become angry and resentful. "I'm a Somebody", "I used to be a Somebody" or "I should be a Somebody" is the lament.

This is where we get the terrible phenomenon of people abusing service workers: retail clerks, bank tellers, café, bar, and restaurant workers. The Status Syndrome leads people to seek affirmation that they have a higher status than others and service workers make easy targets.

The dynamic of masters and serfs, of nobles and servants, still thrives in the frontline retail service sector.


The abuse can be subtle —treating the service workers like non-people— to overtly insulting, demanding or abusive behavior. The bad behavior flourishes as businesses fear losing customers and workers fear losing their jobs (or getting bad references).

Often there is also an unacknowledged age war. Unwise older people who cling to expectations from former glory days of being a 'A Somebody', and because they have regrets, pain and sadness at being at the end of their lives, may resent the youth —especially the cheery youth— of those serving them. I have twice witnessed the discomfort some people feel if they happen upon low status workers having fun on the job - they lash out with a kill-joy comment to remind the lower-downs of their inferior place in the world.

And if you feel some such tendency to engage in such petty behavior, stuff it back up where it came from, take a deep breath, and reflect on why you are being triggered.  

So the service industry becomes a battle zone, the site of many tiny skirmishes. Often this can take the form of petty complaints: Too hot, too cold, too sweet, too bitter, too stale, too slow, too unfriendly, too this, too that, ad infinitum... a medieval reenactment of nobles and serfs.


Unlike family members, service workers cannot talk back or walk away from someone treating them rudely; they are slaves to economics of the times. High unemployment creates conditions for all these petty tryannies. Many people desperately chasing fewer jobs creates ripe conditions for compliance and exploitation. If service workers weren't afraid of losing their jobs, abusive customers (and bosses) would be enticed to modify their behaviour.

To further complicate matters, there are also large powerful corporations who abuse both employees and customers. Some employees become melded to the status of their corporation, become loyal corporate dupes, abuse customers on their employers behalf, and then find out too late that their beloved corporation will not hesitate to spit them out when they have no further use for them.


The Status Syndrome is also a psychological reason why some people don't support a guaranteed income. People would rather live under the false hope of being 'A Somebody' (and ignore the harm they would cause) than have the opportunity to live a happy Nobody life.

"When we accept the nobody within us, we lose the impulse to nobody others. When we identify the somebody inside, we tap into our capacity to make a public contribution." —Somebodies and Nobodies  

There are even some who get their identity and status from being a 'radical' political activist or union member and they oppose the boring adoption of a boring guaranteed income because they are addicted to having an underdog or worker-hero status (or of being a savior to 'the poor').

On the flip side are people who berate themselves for being 'losers', even though they are caught in a system that requires high unemployment to function.


It is cause for optimism that there are many people who have avoided the Status Syndrome. Their sense of well-being is not status dependent. If they are externally successful, they have a sense of luck and gratefulness. Many people (both with and without status) are driven by a bigger purpose. Often this involves creating some form of art, inventing things to help others, providing unpaid care, or working to create positive social change...   regardless of whether they get any appreciation or financial reward. They get value from doing, not from 'having'. (See Eric Fromm's To Have or To Be.)

But those in the 'passionate but poor' category have to put up with being put down by those who only view success through a lense of status. The intrinsically motivated will share something about their passion and will be met with the question: "But did you make any money from that?" There is sometimes a high price to pay for being internally motivated: social stigma, isolation and poverty. Naturally getting some kind of acceptance for one's art is preferable to being poor and ostracized.

The Status Syndrome is entrenched but it has no future —it doesn't make anyone happy except sadists. It also creates a pressure cooker situation with unpredictable outcomes.

"The past is filled with examples of revolts and revolutions through which nobodies have managed to curtail the prerogatives of the somebodies." —Somebodies and Nobodies

Further reading:

Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank
The Status Seekers
The Theory of the Leisure Class
Somebodies and Nobodies
To Have or To Be
"So, what do you do?" A millennial's perspective

This is a series of articles on guaranteed income, redefining work and productivity. See also:

Objections to guaranteed income

A Tale of Two Memes
The Manly Mythology of Work
Guaranteed Income and Population
Housework under Capitalism
Crapitalism - definition and solution
Dependence is not a dirty word
Defining Money and Productive.