Holiday Excess: Down, Girl

This morning I am avoiding work by cruising the internet for mocktail recipes. I thought I might take over some fixings for virgin mojitos to the Aunties’ for Christmas Eve. And as is the way with these things, I got sucked into the foodie/entertaining/fuck-stupid-Pinterest-spams-everything vortex.[1] Somehow, I ended up watching a “how to make a charcuterie platter” video and fantasizing about rolling genoa salami into fancy looking flower things.

Among its many unforeseen effects, the internet has spawned a never-ending carnival of home décor, home entertaining, home DIY and home renovation. I’m always ambivalent about this stuff. It seems to provide many people with creative outlets that they genuinely enjoy. For me it’s cooking. Not much makes me happier than a day in the kitchen because I find it grounds me. And when I have the time, trying something new and making it look beautiful is a real pleasure.

Martha Stewart. Helping all to feel just a little more inadequate. Bitch.
Martha Stewart. Helping all to feel just a little more inadequate. Bitch.

I also love sharing food with family and friends. So, all the home entertaining fodder online gets me super ambivalent. This is because it is so difficult to parse our motivations when these home events cross over the line from that genuine enjoyment of sharing with others, and a less generous desire to display status and show others how awesome we are.

For better or for worse, as a species we are driven to seek out and display our social status. This observation is consistent across different cultures and different historical periods. It’s an observation that is arrived upon consistently from different academic disciplinary perspectives: social psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, archeology, social biology. You name it.  Cheng and Tracy (2014) describe two basic ways that this stuff has been thought about historically.[2]

One is the “dominance theory,” that says, in really simple terms, that we defer to dominant others because it is natural to do so, and because from a herd perspective, it is in our best interests to do so. There is lots of evidence to support this theory, but it is a dangerous one because it can be used very easily to defend social inequality. So, if you throw a better dinner party than your neighbour or live in a better house it may be accompanied by an unstated and broad acceptance that this is because you deserve to.[3] We accept this, as a society, as reasonably fair arrangement.

The other approach described by Cheng and Tracy is the “prestige theory.” This explanation for the pursuit of social status is that we seek it because we have lots of complicated reasons to find it satisfying to be seen well in the eyes of others. So, from this perspective, if you throw a better dinner party than your neighbour you might have put a ton of work into it because you care about what your neighbour thinks. You want to make a good impression.

The reason I find this second idea more interesting and compelling is because it helps me to understand that ambivalence I just described about entertaining excesses – holiday and otherwise. It helps to explain how we could simultaneously take sincere pleasure in putting our best foot (feet?) forward in how we arrange and open our homes to others we care about, while at the same time pursuing a largely unconscious agenda to be well regarded in the eyes of strangers that we actually don’t have any reason to give a shit about. Or to engage in subtle forms of social competition just out of habit.

Mass Media and Social Status Competition. Ugh.

The interesting thing about the internet and reality TV is that these media provide tempting opportunities for us to indulge what I’d argue are our lesser angels with regard to this “prestige” thesis of social status.

About five years ago, there was a (mercifully) short-lived show on Canadian reality TV called Dinner Party Wars. I had a friend who liked it, and I watched a few episodes, but quickly became squeamish. Because the deal was that strangers – three couples – would host dinner parties for each other, and be judged for their efforts by a panel. They would also be judged, secretly and usually uncharitably, by their guests in whispered asides from the bathroom, dutifully filmed for the show.

You couldn’t sink much lower. The very premise of the show was status competition for all the wrong reasons: the opening of one’s home and display of effort and creativity not to share the pleasure of company and good food, but to one-up strangers and display entertaining prowess for a wider audience.

If I have a point, I suppose it is that even if we accept that there are some compelling and powerful reasons for us to pursue status, we’ve still got a lot of choices about how we go about that, and to what ends. I try to be conscious of my motivations. A lot of times it helps me to make better decisions: to keep things more simple than I might have otherwise, and to focus my limited energy more on the people coming over than the stuff in my home surrounding the event. It might mean a less fancy dinner table, or fewer, less elaborate dishes, but it also means more time visiting instead of cooking, and less stress for everyone.

In fact, as I get older I more and more like the idea of keeping my home and entertaining efforts modest. It’s not always easy, because it’s not like I’m immune to status-seeking. I don’t think any of us are. But bringing some awareness to the ways in which we are seduced to seek and display “more” is also something of which we are all capable. And I think it offers us all the opportunity to slow down the damn consumption treadmill we are so caught up in.

The crap thing about social status is that it ties us together in that pernicious, endless pursuit of more. But the cool thing is that the very same forces that compel us to seek agreement and status among our social “others” can also be used to help us collectively to do better. It just requires turning the energy in the right direction. Mass social media gives us Pinterest and Dinner Party Wars, but is also gives us blog networks and virtual communities supporting the pursuit of less and better. It’s really all in our hands isn’t it?

[1] I *really* hate Pinterest.

[2] Cheng, J. & Tracy, J. (2014). Theoretical perspectives: The nature of social status and hierarchy. In The psychology of social status, Cheng, J., Tracy, J. & Anderson, C. (Eds.), pp. 3-27. New York: Springer.

[3] It’s really important here to realize that you may not being thinking this *specifically* about your neighbour, who you may quite like and respect. But if you take it out of the context of your personal relationships and think about your natural tendencies in interpreting the larger world – for example imagining the reasons why some people live in big houses and others in crappy apartments – you are likely to realize that you are unconsciously making judgements of merit. Those who have more must, we believe, have qualities that make them “good people:” hard working, intelligent, otherwise talented, self-disciplined, etc.


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