A lot of your comment actually sounds pretty familiar to me.
The main suggestion I have based on what you wrote is to pick a small number of specific things you’d like to do differently, then gradually practice those in some conversations, treating it explicitly as practice that you will need to do for a while, not as a magic fix that you’d be able to implement perfectly if only you were a good enough person.
To unpack that:
Specific things to do differently: from your comment, it already sounds like you’ve already identified some things you do that make you “bigger” than you want to be—interrupting people and speaking in a loud voice. Take those, as a starter.
Practice in some conversations: explicitly pick some interactions where it feels OK to experiment with this—maybe it’s first conversations with people you’re not likely to meet again, or maybe it’s group conversations with 4+ people where it’s fine if you don’t say much, or maybe it’s some other type of context. However you choose, start trying to keep an eye out for “practice conversations”.
Treating it as practice: in most conversations, you probably have multiple goals you’re pursuing at once—maybe to learn something, maybe to tell someone else something, maybe to get them to like you, etc. The idea of explicitly picking some subset of conversations to be practice conversations is that in those ones, you bump up practicing your selected skills to be above your other goals.
Practice you’ll need to do for a while: At first, your main goal is just to notice chances to practice the things you’ve picked. The first few times you try it, you might not notice until it’s too late—maybe you’ll notice once you’re a sentence and a half into interrupting someone, or you’ll talk quietly the first time you speak, but not the second. That’s totally OK! See AgentyDuck on why noticing is so important (and hard). If you notice at all, that counts as you getting practice, and therefore as a win. If you stick with it, you’ll gradually get better at noticing, and the better you are at noticing, the more chances you have to practice doing the thing.
This is basically what I did many years ago when training myself out of some pretty similar habits. Maybe the most similar was that when I felt insecure in a conversation, I would (subconsciously) default to trying to speak as much as possible—I think motivated by trying to show people I was smart? But this just resulted in (a) people being annoyed that they couldn’t get a word in, and (b) my average contribution being not that interesting, because I was saying so many things. One thing I practiced very explicitly was noticing when I was feeling this kind of insecurity, and raising my bar for how interesting/funny/etc I expected my contribution to be. I knew theoretically that it’s much more likeable to say a few things people enjoy than lots of things they don’t, but it still took a lot of attentive practice to change my in-the-moment habits.
I’ll note that trying to express “HI, I’M A LOUD IDIOT, PLEASE TELL ME WHEN YOU WANT ME TO SHUT UP.” sounds to me like basically the epitome of low-big as described in the post—and I therefore wouldn’t recommend it. I can understand it seems appealing since you’re perceived as being much bigger than you want to be, and you’re trying to compensate for that, but this is such a “big” way to try to compensate that I think it’s bound to backfire. Instead, I think it’s totally feasible to learn to work with features of yourself that you seem to be treating as fixed (voice volume, interrupting-ness, body language), to actually directly affect how “big” people perceive you to be, rather than asking them to forgive you for it.
Oh huh, that’s interesting. I was expecting people to resonate less with the horse examples than I do, but it sounds like you don’t find them helpful whatsoever, which I find kind of surprising.
In the specific case of horses, I think my intuition that they can provide helpful info about humans would probably be hard to explain from scratch—it’s based on a lot of small examples of me comparing and testing things in my own experience.
More generally though, I’m curious if you find people talking about our “reptile brain” or “monkey brain” to be similarly useless? I agree with you that chimps are a better approximation of humans than either horses or crocodiles, but “social mammal brain” seems to me to fit naturally between “reptile” and “monkey” in the space of evolutionarily-valid-seeming claims-of-analogy. It’s absolutely true that these analogies are a long way from perfect—a prefrontal cortex changes a huge amount of how we respond to reptilian urges, and language changes a huge amount of how we engage in monkey status games—but that doesn’t seem to me to undercut their usefulness as analogies/inspirations.
(I’ll also note that my previous comment was about a human’s attitude/intention towards a horse, which seems like it *is* relevant to the question in your previous comment about reasons for high/small, but that’s a separate and less fundamental question.)
Yes, agree. Said, if you didn’t read it before, you may also want to read the long quote I posted from the book where I got this concept—in the quote, Harry’s trying to convey to the filly (completely truthfully) that she is not in danger and he is not going to hurt her.
(To preempt the obvious objection that he’s only doing that so that later he can dominate and exploit her, I say yes, good job being cynical, but I really strongly claim that that’s not how this school of horsemanship works. The best recommendation I have if you’re still skeptical is to watch the documentary “Buck”, which I linked to in the notes after the post. An 80⁄20 of that might be to watch some of the trailers on YouTube.)
Good question—not totally sure. One thought is that in the status-signaling game, making yourself small is one way of countersignaling high status? I don’t think it’s the only way, and I don’t think it’s the only effect of being small, but that’s my quick take on how the concepts interact.
See my response to PeterBorah above—the main thing that comes to mind for me is how overall comfortable you seem with the situation. Agree with Benquo’s comment as well.
Yeah, I love the concept of holding space. If I wanted to fit it into this framework, I’d say that holding space for person A is 1) making yourself small, then 2) making clear that the space you’ve left belongs to person A. Like, you’re not just withdrawing into yourself, or leaving more space for anyone in the group to talk. I think 2) is a separate skill from what’s discussed in this post, though.
So I guess tl;dr I think being small is necessary-but-not-sufficient to hold space. Thoughts?
100% agree that status and size are intertwined. Depending on how strongly you mean it, I think I disagree with “both noticing and moving in the social game are in themselves predictive of high status”? I certainly disagree that relatively lower-status people shouldn’t try noticing or moving.
For example, I think one straightforward and beneficial application of detangling these concepts is for people (of whom, like mingyuan in their other reply to you, I’ve met plenty) who spend a lot of their social lives unintentionally make themselves bigger than appropriate for their status. The beneficial outcome here isn’t “they realize they should be smaller and make themselves so, good riddance”—it’s something more like “they realize they should be smaller for now and make themselves so” → “they start working on ways to be higher status while staying relatively small for the moment” → “they gradually become higher status and can decide how much of that space to fill in any given moment”.
I personally know a really good example of this happening (though they didn’t use my terms/concepts, so it’s not evidence those are useful). When I met this person a few years ago, they were really quite low status, and they made themselves really quite big, all the time. It was really annoying, and they knew it, and they were trying to figure out how to fix it. This person is now much higher status in their circles than they were back then, and also smaller most of the time, and I think learning to be smaller is an important part of the causal chain that ended up with them being higher status. (In my telling it also involved them learning and doing a bunch of things—I don’t want to imply it was pure social conniving—but I think the smallness was a prerequisite or at least a notable booster.)
Come to think of it, though for some reason I’ve never put it in these terms before, I think this is also a good frame for a big shift I made in how I interact socially, around ages 17-20. Maybe that’s why this concept seems so important to me. Huh.
Oh yeah nice, little kid being brash is a great low/big. We haven’t met in person so I have no way of verifying your description of yourself, but it sounds reasonable to me.
Thanks, Kaj—I think this is a good thing to be cautious of in general. In this case I’m happy to send Duncan my thoughts, but am planning to do so privately, since I feel like that creates less incentive for other people to be like “ooh, do me!” in the hopes of getting public praise.
(I’m happy to try sending thoughts to anyone I know who wants them, though I think in plenty of cases it’ll just be “I don’t notice anything particularly remarkable about you on this axis”.)
Yes, I do think there are body-language indicators that are more about status than size, though I definitely agree with alkjash below that the two things are entangled. I agree that Keith Johnstone in Impro is often talking about size, though I think he’s conflating it with status, so often talks about both in one breath.
At a first pass, I think the clearest body-language-related thing that’s about status rather than size is basically just how comfortable you seem, vs. intimidated/discomfited. So I agree with your suggestions—talking too quickly and fidgeting both seem like they signal discomfort.
Some examples where I think Impro gets this right, from skimming through my copy quickly:
In contrast to one teacher who was strict and terrifying, and one teacher who was weak and ridiculed, Johnstone talks about a teacher of his who was “upright, but relaxed”—I like that as a description of high/small. (he then goes on to describe him as “a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill”, which I think should be “a size expert, making himself bigger and smaller with great skill.”)
Johnstone describes a game he plays with his students where, without telling them, he starts inserting “er” (British for “um”) at the start of all his sentences, and asks them if they notice any change. I think this is an example of something that makes you come across as less comfortable with the situation and therefore lower status. (Though there are lots of ways to say “um”, so this probably isn’t true as a blanket statement.)
Facial expression and apparent relaxed-ness are probably the most concrete I can get at a first pass. Does that help / thoughts?