Just how complicated and nuanced is social status? Getting into an elite nightclub

What signs and markers to elite night clubs look for in deciding whom to allow past the velvet rope?Just how complicated and nuanced is social status?

Sociologit Lauren Rivera knows what it takes to get behind the velvet rope. Rivera, a sociologist at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (and a Harvard Ph.D.), took a job as a coat-check girl at an elite nightclub in order to find out. Her answers might surprise you.

This job allowed her to cast side-ways glances at bouncers as they evaluated expectant club-goers. Once she earned the bouncers’ confidence and promised to protect their identity, she began the interviews. “Bouncers are status judges who make hundreds of status decisions every night. They do it by having hundreds of patrons line up and on the basis of very little information, they size up who will be an esteemed customer,” Rivera says.

Through conversations and observations, she found that bouncers ran through a hierarchical list of qualities to determine in seconds who would enhance the image of the club and encourage high spending. Social networks mattered more than social class, or anything else for that matter. Celebrities and other recognized elites slipped through the door. And people related to or befriended by this “in crowd” often made the cut, too. Wealth is considered to be one of the strongest indicators of status, yet bouncers frowned upon bribes even though bribes are obvious displays of money. “New Faces,” as the bouncers called unrecognized club-goers, were selected on the basis of gender, dress, race, and nationality. Sometimes the final call boiled down to details as minor as the type of watch that adorned a man’s wrist.

Bouncers weighed each cue differently. Social network mattered most, gender followed. For example, a young woman in jeans stood a higher chance of entrance than a well-dressed man. And an elegantly dressed black man stood little chance of getting in unless he knew someone special.
The fact that women ranked higher than men in the pecking order testifies to the idea that judgments of status depend on context. “In a law firm, women might be considered less competent because of societal stereotypes. In fact, social psychologists talk about how women are generally perceived to have lower status than men; however, in this context they have a higher monetary or symbolic value than men. It does show how much context matters, and how no trait is absolutely high or low status but rather hinges on the meaning people ascribe to that trait,” Rivera notes.

In short, know someone. Or know someone who knows someone. If you're a guy, bring attractive women, ideally younger women in designer clothes. Don't go with other dudes. And doormen are well versed in trendiness, so wear Coach, Prada, Gucci–but don't show up in a nice suit with DSW shoes.

Status Distinctions in Interaction: Social Selection and Exclusion at an Elite Nightclub
Rivera interview with Kellog Insight
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