The Ace is the Most Important Person in the Room

Improv is art imitating life, but it simultaneously draws attention to life’s odd corners. Consider how much of etiquette centers on acknowledging the proper amount of respect in social situations. People are quickly angered when given less respect than they think they are due. On the other hand, it is as easy to make someone uncomfortable by giving them more deference than is the norm. This balance centers around the relative status of each individual in the interaction and is something we learn to intuit through experience.

There is a format played in workshops that highlights this concept. Before the scene, the director gives a playing card to each player.  The card’s value assigns relative status, with the two being lowest and the Ace card being highest status. Unaware of their own card, but having observed everyone else’s relative status, the players get a scene suggestion and begin the scene. The challenge comes in emoting social queues to communicate relative status of others while trying to determine your own.

On stage status games trained me to recognize the queues in real life. One time at work, a few days after a screw up, I was sitting at my desk trying hard not to be noticed. My superior approached and ordered me to the back conference room so I could “explain what happened.” Key to the interaction was the location. The back conference room was a relatively power neutral area, favoring him. My center of power, and comfort, would have been my desk. By ordering me to relocate, he was removing me from that comfort. The location could have been worse, however. I judged that I wasn’t likely to be fired as he hadn’t ordered me directly to his center of power, his office. If you don’t believe me, wait for the next time your boss invites you into his or her office and asks you to close the door. Trust me, you’re not in control of that situation.

The back conference room was designed for presentations, not meetings, most of the space being dominated by a large U-shaped table. Unsure of what to do, I rolled a chair around to the inside of the U and sat at the end closest to the door. I was left to cool my heels. He was in a position to tell me where to go and when to go there, and then make me wait on his pleasure and convenience.  When he arrived, he took one look at my set up, paused and then deliberately walked to the other leg of the U before sitting down. At that point, I had to gather my things and move.  Then, the ass chewing started.

Through his set up, it was clear that he was the Ace in the room and I was the lowly two. He wasn’t intending to fire me, but could. All this communicated before the conversation even started. Thing is, I believe it was all intentional.


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