THE INTELLIGENT SINGAPOREAN

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Status Anxiety

Posted by inspir3d on October 22, 2006

Too lazy to develop a blog of his own, Christopher Ng Wai Chung, 31, an IT Project manager who dabbles in personal finance and wealth management, has decided to spoil parts of his next book “Harvesting the Seeds of Prosperity” in the most intelligent Singaporean blogs in cyberspace. The book details his manifesto in reaching a state of Financial Nirvana, the ability to live within one’s investment income while still keeping day job to grow his portfolio even bigger. His own blog can be found in treeofprosperity.blogspot.com. He can be reached at waichung.ng@gmail.com.

In chapter 3 entitled “You are not your wallet”, the concept of Status Anxiety is explained with a very local spin.

Status Anxiety

John Koh, 26 loves showing his latest car to his peers. He eats at the best restaurants, lives at 6th Avenue, and his current hang out is being at Corduroy & Finch along Bukit Timah road (If only for a snack). Coming from a rich family, John does not really need to save to get his car or an apartment of his own.

His two friends, Gary Poh and Nigel Yong while not as well-endowed as John, have developed a different way of coping with the presence of someone truly rich in their company.

Gary always felt that he had to catch up with John to maintain their friendship. So he made brave attempts to emulate John’s spending habits, purchasing branded shoes while studying in JC and upgrading to a car the moment he got his first job. Gary always funded this lifestyle with debt. It seems that no price is low to keep himself ahead.

Nigel was much wiser. After all, if John were to despise him for being poor, he would not really want such a friendship anyway. Nigel was, thus, true to himself and kept his spending within his limits. Nigel knew that he brings something different to this friendship and see no need to emulate his well-endowed friend.

After years at work, the tide had turned. John kept the momentum of his wealth going but Gary had to bow out because he got into trouble with his creditors. Only Nigel, who was honest with his financial situation, could maintain the friendship with John, earning John’s respect for his down to earth nature.

Status anxiety is the first of your personal demons that you need to cope with. There is such a strong drive to keep up with the Joneses (or Johns or Tans or Lims) that we hurt ourselves in the purpose. The Chinese call this “Da2 Zhong3 Lian3 Pi2 Chong1 Pang4 Zhi3” or slapping your face swollen to imitate the appearance a prosperous (fat) man.

As mentioned in the earlier chapters meritocracies actually tacitly encourage such behavior because it makes people strive against their goals to accumulate material goods, the clearest measure of a man is money. Failures are a result of their own weaknesses and do not deserve any sympathy. The mass media exacerbates status anxiety by featuring perpetually young and beautiful people on TV prancing around in designer wear and continental cars.

Here are some ways to cope with status anxiety courtesy of the October 2005 issue of Psychology Today article by Carlin Flora:

a) Live in an area where people are nice and humble.

Very often, we surround ourselves by people who are very status conscious; it becomes a lot harder to be true to ourselves when everyone is doing the same thing. This is a problem of peer pressure.

This applies very well to young professional couples who opt to live in luxurious condominiums. If you are unable to cope with the excesses of your neighbors and find yourselves envious and keeping a lifestyle which you hate as a consequence of this, consider moving on to perhaps a HDB estate and living with people who are more likely to envy you. This has the added benefit of freeing up capital for your investments.

b) Become the king of your own hill

Happy people are those who generally excel in an area of their lives. To be happy and extract yourself out of a position of envy for your peers, it is very healthy to find a niche or a sub-culture that you absolutely excel in.

There are in fact many healthy niche groups that you can join and maybe even lead them if you are passionate about a hobby. You could join the Toastmasters public speaking movement and work in committees and help other people or you could become the best World of Warcraft player in Singapore. Joining a fringe group like the group that indulges in Anime Cosplay (no, the decent sort) or having any great hobby will get you to think about status anxiety less often.

c) Simply grow more white hair

You can simply grow older or wiser. Status anxiety or getting into pissing contests generally occur to young people who have just started work (somehow it always seems to infect young professionals fresh out of university). Starting a family and growing older will allow you to mellow down. The wisdom will create an automatic defense against the forces of envy.

d) Stop benchmarking yourself with others

In capitalist societies, everybody is comparing their situation to everybody else. Even authors want to know how their book is selling relative to other books in the market. One way is to develop a penchant for contrarianism. You have to really hate what everybody else is doing and enjoy simply being different. (Note that contrarians make a lot of money in the stock market as well because these are the kinds of folks who can buy low and sell high.)

Working in an IT company in a project management capacity exposes me to a lot of yuppie poseurs who carry the latest and greatest PDAs out in the market. To stop the habit of comparing myself with others, I bought a PDA holster, attached it to my belt and place a paper notebook and a pencil inside. I use it to track expenses and will detail this technique in a later chapter on Extreme Budgeting. It’s also an awesome way to break the ice with others who don’t expect someone from a high tech company to use a low-tech solution to manage their finances.

e) Realize that being part of high society does not equate to happiness

Happiness is being in an intimate relationship, having great friends and good health. Wealth, while important, remains a secondary concern. It takes a while to realize that and I have to grapple with this fact everyday. But always remember : After getting that Venti Rhumba Frappucino for a year in Starbucks, a 70 cent kopi-o would be refreshing to many drinkers.

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Chris Ng’s other writings can also be found on some other intelligent blogs:

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4 Responses to “Status Anxiety”

  1. wbg said

    Actually the best way to not be status conscious is to move out of Singapore into rural areas.

  2. Very well said indeed.

  3. kajagoogoo said

    His take on Status Anxiety is spot on…

    At times, I thank God that I started work in the civil service among colleagues who were very modest in lifestyle but were quietly wealthy. Their path to success was hardware and consistent savings and investment (in property) in the 80s.

    Status anxiety is very real, unless one is grounded in one’s own values and attitudes about savings and investment, it is all too easy to give in to comments like,

    “Oh! You don’t drive?”
    “Cars are very cheap now, I’m sure as a professional, you can afford one.”

    I resisted and am financially in a more sound position then if I had followed the herd and got myself into a lifestyle that I do not need (nor want).

  4. kajagoogoo said

    Oppss, typo, it should be,

    “Their path to success was hard work and consistent savings and investment (in property) in the 80s.” and not “hardware”…

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