Power, Precedence and Respect
The pseudo-feudal system of the Known Worlds has a clear hierarchy of formal deference, but - especially in these troubled times after the Emperor Wars, with so many nobles holding fiefs far smaller or far larger than their title - the position one occupies in the formal order of precedence does not match the position one might be accorded if the ranking was instead organized by political power and influence.
The formal order of precedence is quite clear. The lowest of the low are slaves and then serfs, followed by free peasants that do not own property nor are accepted practitioners of a trade. After them rank the novitiates of the Church, and then the canons and deacons of the Church and free yeomen who own property or are accepted members of a trade, in order of their rank and tenure with the Church, the size of their property or their rank within their Guild. After the freemen rank ordained priests and armigerous gentry such as the Hazat's Estancia or the Academians of Rampart. Then come the nobility, in order of rank from knight up until the Emperor himself. The princes of the Church - bishop and archbishop, metropolitan and Patriarch - rank bishop with earl, archbishop with Duke, metropolitan just beneath Prince and the Patriarch greater than Regent but a hair beneath the Emperor - though that last has never been put officially to the test.
The order of precedence is of course more complicated than that, as special orders and distinctions conveyed upon individuals can change where they rank quite dramatically. Ambassadors and other emissaries, for instance, often stand stand quite higher in the order of precedence than their personal title might suggest. Still, it provides a reasonably clear understanding of who bows to who and who stands when who enters the room.
It also often bears no real resemblance to the actual hierarchy of power that may exist. It is technically the case that an Engineer Consul is outranked by a Hawkwood knight; however, the consul possesses vastly more influence than the knight does, and though the Engineer may make his reverence to the knight, and treat him with the courtesy due a nobleman, there is never any question that the respect due the Engineer by the knight is greater than the respect the Knight is due the Engineer.
Now, what does this mean? Practically, it means that both parties are very polite to each other. Though the Engineer commands more influence than the knight can dream of, the Engineer would treat the knight respectfully, at least pretending to listen to what the nobleman has to say and providing at least the appearance of deference. The knight, in turn - despite having a technical broad authority over the Engineer - would treat the Engineer with the respect he is accustomed to, and would not make demands of him merely because at dinner, he is seated first.
This is not a system that is intended to break down. Typically, knights do not make demands of Engineer consuls, and Engineer consuls do not overtly insult knights. When it does break down, however, typically the aggrieved party responds based upon the higher of the offender's position in the formal order of precedence or informal hierarchy of power.
If the offender stands beneath the offended in both categories, than the aggrieved person can feel free to respond to the extents of their powers - whipping the offensive freeman, exiling the rude noble from court or whatever seems appropriate. If, however, the offender is equal or greater than the offended in one of the categories, than typically more diplomatic means are used to resolve the conflict: the offended party lodges a complaint with whatever group (guild, sect, or noble house) that the offender is affiliated with, and expects that group to deal with its own. Finally, if the offending person stands higher in both order of precedence and hierarchy of power than the offended, the offended individual has little recourse at all - that is, as they say, the breaks, and if they want revenge they had best either plot it subtly or acquire power or title or both before they enact it.
Practically, this informal system results in guilders who are offended by nobles doing nothing if the noble is more powerful than they are, and lodging quiet complaint with the noble's kin if they are equal to or lesser in influence. Nobles who are offended by guilders, on the other hand, whip those who are beneath them in power and speak quietly to the guild when a guilder of equal or greater power is offensive - and the same sort of logic applies in other cases where there is a difference between status and influence, be it between priests, nobility, or between the two.