Nina Smith

Social Currency: Leveraging Status

Filed By Nina Smith | March 15, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: money, social currency, social status

Since watching Randy Pausch's Last Lecture, I bought the audiobook version at iTunes and listened to it on my iPod. In one chapter, he recites a story about the time his wife hit one car while it was sitting in the driveway with their other car. She spent the better part of the day anxiously waiting to tell him about it when he arrived home that evening. Much to her surprise, he wasn't upset and said that the dents would be okay. His parents had taught him that automobiles are there to get you from point A to point B:

They are utilitarian devices and not expressions of social status. We didn't need to do cosmetic repairs.... We could drive around in dented cars. You don't repair things if they still do what they're supposed to do.

If your trash can or wheelbarrow has a dent in it; you don't buy a new one. Maybe that's because we don't use trash cans or wheelbarrows to communicate our social status or identity to others. Our dented cars became a statement in our marriage. Not everything needs to be fixed!

This got me considering what else besides cars are used as social currency: muscles or a hot body, a prestigious address, the right credit card (or any credit card!), designer labels, or maybe it's just being able to get in at the new "it" restaurant.

When I interviewed Barbara Raab, a newswriter and editor at NBC Nightly News for the Ten Money Questions series at Queercents, I asked if her law degree was worth the time and money and she replied:

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, but perhaps not for the right reasons. I had a professor in college who used to warn us all the time, "Don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer." I don't think I actually wanted to be a lawyer; I think I wanted what I perceived to be the "social currency" of an advanced degree, and I was so unsure of anything in my life at that time, including my sexuality and what was going to happen with that, that law school seemed like a good idea, but only because I didn't have a better one.

What "social currency" are you spending and is it "money" well spent? Or do you have things; like Randy Pausch's dented cars that really don't need to be fixed? I'd love your thoughts below.

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When Nina is not spending her social currency (the little that she has!); she can be found blogging about money over at Queercents.


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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 16, 2009 6:20 AM

Well let's see. I have not bought clothing in the last two years. Finally bought a car, but bought it used for less than I have paid for a car since 1987. I would repair the dents in a car because it is generally cheap to do and protects against rust damage to vital components like tail lights to show you are braking, and headlights.

I know what you are talking about as I have an advanced degree, founded my own business when 26, and retired at age 49. I sold designer goods, but never bought in to their necessity beyond a commodity for the stores to profit through. The willingness of Americans to spend for brand, but no additional quality, employs a lot of people.
I will say that I never cared for the "it" restaurant.

I never wear designer clothing as I feel putting anyone else's name on my body to be a statement of insecurity. Back when I wore glasses I was upset when it was impossible to find an attractive glass frame without a designer's name on it.

The social currency I have spent was and is geared toward social good. Whether that was gang and drug abatement in Chicago, or Special Olympics, "Gifts for Life" Aids fund raising, sponsoring Little League teams in Chicago or (as in Thailand) serving my neighbors on the condominium committee. The important social currency in life is finding ways to be of service to others that meet their immediate needs.

The only status that can be leveraged is depth of accomplishment and reputation. There are no short cuts worth taking that give you advantage. If you have heard of commitment that is a "mile wide and an inch deep" An advanced degree does give automatic social security because it is a demonstration that you can think and reason. It is the only real advantage that cannot be removed from you.

I understand the address one. St. Ouen is just as nice as the parts of Paris it's next to, is on the same metro and bus system as Paris, and is a whole lot cheaper than Paris. And yet, there are lots of people who just have to live over the peripherie and in Paris. Crazy!

Robert: Interesting point about the eye glasses... I purchased a new pair last year for the first time in several and made the same observation. More domestic eye stores should adopt this business model rather than just pushing a boutique service with only designer frames.

Alex: From my perspective, to be Paris-adjacent sounds pretty good!

What a thought-provoking post, Nina. Thanks! I shared your thoughts with a fellow activist who commented that we use our positions in organizations that way too - and, for some of us - we use who and what we are and they way we live our lives in much the same way - as badges.

As soon as the word "badges" was used, I flashed on my son's journey through the Boy Scouts and his ultimate "badge" of Eagle Scout. Each badge told everyone inside the "club" what he had accomplished. The number of badges on his uniform told people in the general world something about him - that he had lots of accomplishments. And, finally, the prized Eagle badge, that told everyone something that made him special. (note - this was before all of the issues around the Boy Scouts became public).

We are a population, certainly here in the US, that judges. We make instant assumptions about people based on what we see when we meet them or what they say when we're reading their posts or emails.

I wonder, as we become even more internet-based in our relationships to each other, what the new badges will be? If we're bloggers, does that gives us some status? If we have our very own blog, is that even more special?

How will we judge in the future?

Ricci: The Boy Scouts and merit badge system is a really great example. By the way, I thought the Pinewood Derby just determined whose Dad was the best at working with wood and had nothing to do with the kids!