I did a days work in Selfridges yesterday and had a strange moment which reminded me of a book by the philosopher Alain DeBotton. 'Status Anxiety' asks the questions:
'Do you worry about how well you're doing? Are you envious of your friends' success? Are you suffering from Status Anxiety?'
My experience yesterday certainly resulted in an answer of yes to all of the above. Selfridges, along with Harrods, is a very different animal to other department stores in London. Selfridges is, pure and simply, in a different league. It is amongst the most instantly recognisable retail environments in the world and its customer base is a reflection of this status.
I was positioned in once again in the Gucci section and was enjoying the 'privilege' of selling the newest fragrance, launched on Tuesday and exclusive to two stores in London - Selfridges and Harrods.
Towards the end of the day I was approached by a glamourous couple in need of my counsel on an issue which was obviously causing a crack to appear in their relationship. She loved D&G. He was in love with the new Gucci. I fell in love with him.
I didn't understand what came over me at the time. I get it now. This guy was possibly the most beautiful creature I have ever encountered on this earth. It was not his physical prowess that captured me, although his six foot two inch frame, silky toned skin and a skin pigment that simply glowed certainly had me in awe. What struck me was this guy's confidence. He spoke with a deep authoritative voice. His fashion sense was nothing special but the particular items he wore exuded class. His teeth were like a Steinway's ivory keys. I simply melted.
At the time I put my reaction down to the fact that this guy was drop dead gorgeous and instantly attractive. I spent a blissful 10 minutes guiding the couple towards the important relationship-defining decision. In the end he gave in to his girlfriend's flirtatious sulk and went with her choice of fragrance.
Working in London you come across beautiful people on a daily basis. After years living here you become immune to it. So many visitors remark on the style, beauty and class of people they see on the streets. I had stopped noticing, that is, until yesterday.
This morning it dawned on me, so to speak. Yesterday I was struck by an deep and uneasy feeling of inferiority. As I stood at the mahogany counters in Selfridges I encountered a man who I saw as being the epitome of who and what I wanted to be. This guy had style, confidence, education, wealth, beauty and charm. He glowed.
Why did I envy this guy? Why did I feel inferior? The answer lies in the fact that I experienced a sudden bout of what DeBotton describes as 'status anxiety'. During my encounter with this Adonis I went through a range of feelings and desires. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be seen as successful. I had a fear that my life was veering towards failure.
Alain DeBotton defines status in a number of ways:
'One's position in society; the word derived from the Latin statum or standing'
'One's value or importance in the eyes of the world'
Most interestingly he notes that different societies award status to different groups eg: hunters, fighters, ancient families, priests, academics, knights, fecund women etc. Most recently status has predominantly been awarded in relation to financial achievement. 'High status', he says 'is thought by many (but freely admitted by few) to be one of the finest of earthly goods.
Working in Selfridges or any of the high street stores in London requires you to have a thick neck. Colleagues are often very tough nuts to crack. I don't really understand why but my experience yesterday gives me a hint at one of the possible answers. When you are dealing with some of the most glamourous, wealthy and influential people in London it requires an air of arrogance or self belief. It would be very easy to crumble in the face of material 'success'.
DeBotton quotes Arthur Schopenhauer:
'We will gradually become indifferent to what goes on in the minds of other people when we acquire an adequate knowledge of the superficial and futile nature of their views. of the paltriness of their sentiments, of the perversity of their opinions, and of the number of their errors...We shall then see that whoever attaches a lot of value to the opinions of others pays them too much honour'.
My experience yesterday was positive because this particular individual was polite and charming. Nothing in his interaction with me suggested anything other than respect. My sense of self worth allowed me to take negatives from the interaction. I encountered a moment of self doubt because of an arrogant need to have status. I was concerned about how I was seen in the eyes of this stranger.
Growing up in Limerick I would pass a homeless man and his dog on my daily walk home from school. He would sit outside Limerick's equivalent of Selfridges, not begging, simply being. Something about him enthralled me. He had a certain sense of peace, of dignity. Years later over dinner I brought him up in conversation. It was revealed that this man, who had died in the meantime, had once been a senior tutor at a major Irish university. Circumstances too numerous to go into went against him but, in short, this man never ceased to be an educated, dignified and interesting person. His stoicism as he sat on the streets of Limerick could probably be put down to the fact that his sense of self worth never cracked even as his life fell apart.
Status Anxiety is in us all. It is our choice if it is to be something that consumes us or simply something that opens our eyes to just how fortunate we all all. After all, the handsome man in Selfridges struggled to make a fragrance choice for fear of putting his girlfriend's nose out of joint. Is this happiness?
I will finish with DeBotton's summary of his Status Anxiety thesis:
'Status Anxiety possesses and exceptional capacity to inspire sorrow. The hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill. The most profitable way of addressing the condition may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it.'