Tuesday, April 15, 2008

STATUS ANXIETY WEEK: Outsized social ambitions?


THIS excerpt from the National Post so perfectly paints a picture of "outsized social ambition." What a phrase, huh?

"The problem is that Toronto lies at a uniquely awkward halfway stage between bumpkin and sophisticate, between arrived and arriviste, between coach and first class. In poorer parts of Canada, an article like this would never appear, because people don't have the money or outsized social ambitions that fuel the underlying dinner-party culture. But nor would it appear in truly world-class cities either -- places where the money is old, and people know their way around a fish fork. Like the guy who intentionally double-parks his custom Porsche in front of the tennis club, or the stock-broker's wife who flashes her four-carat rock to the bridge group, Toronto has the money but not the class."

A reader sent this to me, and it was perfect timing because I have been trying to think of how to ask this question, which I think is basically:

Do you have tales of friends or neighbors with outsized social ambitions? For example, I was given a house tour a while back during which the owner apologized for the baby grand piano in the living room, as if to say, "I know that's a sure sign of fanciness. I hope our fanciness doesn't put you ill at ease. (For the record, it does not.)

And then there are people who call their babysitters "nannies" (I've covered this topic before). It's like having a detached garage and calling your place and "estate."

So - let's hear it:

Do you have an excellent tale of friend, neighbors or acquantainces with "outsized social ambitions"?

We want details.

60 comments:

Sucker For Marketing said...

I only have one thing to say...Alex and Simon VanKempen of RHNY (OK, that was 6 words.

Jackie Von Tobel said...

All you have to do to see the textbook example is to watch Real Housewives of NYC. Alex lives in Brooklyn (which I don't have to tell you is not Manhattan) in a run down shambles of a house with no flooring and even less furnishings and yet she is wearing designer couture gowns and attending the opening of the Met while trying to force her children to speak French when ordering their Limonade. The drapes don't match the carpet my friend.

Anonymous said...

I knew this chick who had a house in a suburb here called Rockville (solidly middle class connotations), but she would tell people she lived in "North Potomac" ("Potomac" having fancy implications). Well, a friend and I got sick and tired of it, so we sent the chick a fake letter from the Post Office, saying: "We are holding mail intended for your address because [check one]"--and then we scrawled in: " 'North Potomac' not a recognized township."

She never used "North Potomac" again.

Anonymous said...

I'm an interior designer in Seattle, and run into this ALL THE TIME with clients. Here's a good example of one recent client:

She lived in a huge house that was basically empty, and called me to see if I could help her furnish on a budget. Of course I can! So, I go to the initial meeting and she has piles of catalogs from Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, etc...and wants me to help her catalog shop for furniture that "looks expensive" because no one will know the difference anyway, right? What??

Same client told me that before buying this house, she drove around the neighborhood with the addresses of her 6 year old daughters friends, to make sure that her house was on par with the ohter little kids her daughter would be playing with in 1st grade! Talk about setting yourself and your poor daughter up for Outsized Social Ambitions! ugh.

morrismore said...

So many, so many--which one to list? Dinner on the porch of a ranch house in Menlo Park (a San Francisco suburb near Stanford)for eighteen guests. Our hostess, for some odd reason, served only white wine. However, there were four wine glasses--white, champagne,cordial and red--at each place setting...

Anonymous said...

This nanny thing must really bug you. Many 'childcare providers' refer to themselves as nannies, maybe people are using a common title rather than trying to elevate themselves.

Anonymous said...

Growing up, I atended a private school in toronto. And yes, I love my hometown but the city is all those things the quoted article says it is.

It was full of girls whose parents came from nothing and, instead of being humble and grateful for the wealth they had achieved, they filled their daughters' heads with dreams of marrying rich and climbing the social ladder.

One friend's mother asked her daughter what cars "the cool girls'" mothers drove. My friend responded BMW and Mercedes, so her mom bought one of each, just to ensure she had the bases covered. Hi Klassy, non?

Anonymous said...

I have no stories, but the classic tale in this vein is that of the nouveau riche would-be socialite who was taking Elsie de Wolfe on the grand tour of her brand-new townhouse.

And ...This she announced as she opened a big door "...is my Louis XV ballroom."

To which Elsie replied "What makes you think so?"

Decorno said...

Anon 3:18 - Yep. It does bug me. But only when the parents use it in cases where they haven't bothered to professionalize the job by paying a true salary. Paying your sitter $8/hour and sending her home at the end of the day means she's a sitter. If the childcare provider wants to call herself a nanny, that is totally great. But if the parents want to pretend they are living the kind of life that includes a "nanny" they are obligated to pay the childcare provider like one - which means a real salary, pay taxes on it, and offer benefits.

Elevating yourself through the false title just seems cheap, no?

Anonymous said...

I prefer the term "child sherpa."

Anonymous said...

i have a friend that has owed me 4000.00 for almost two years now. recently i asked for the money. i received half. she always refers to her sometime babysitter as her nanny. how fancy of her!

Anonymous said...

Nothing makes my day more than when this happens:

I'll wake up (with the devil on my shoulder) knowing I'll be running with (by default) those with outsized ambitions, I'll throw an TOTALLY el'cheapo accessory or prop in the mix of dressing, KNOWING that everyone will be looking........

Never fails to get loads of compliments - and I NEVER tell, just snicker under my breath because these particular complimenters/gushers would crawl under a rock if they knew they were admiring something that wasn't really anything at all......

I know, I know, a dirty trick , but I gotta entertain myself around these people.....

If it's any consolation, I ALWAYS fess up to the
people I like.....!!!

Anonymous said...

Great topic decorno!
Is it just me or has there been an escalation of this type of attitude over the last few years??

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who refuses to use the words "patio" or "coffee table," preferring instead to say "terrace" and "cocktail table" ... that being said, nothing gets my dander up more than people saying "couch" when they really mean "sofa" and "drapes" when they mean "curtains" ... all this and more is covered in Nancy Mitford's "Noblesse Oblige," the immortal guide to U and Non-U speak ... read it and learn what too-fancy words brand one an arriviste ...

An Aesthete's Lament said...

admission of guilt ... I used to tell my out-of-state mother than I lived on the Extreme Upper East Side ... she would have had a heart attack if I'd been honest and said I lived in Spanish Harlem ...

Anonymous said...

I wish the Elsie de Wolfe story had been funnier. I wish she'd said something witty, or venomous, or if she couldn't manage that, at least she could have sworn, or called the pretentious lady a "piss drinker" or something.

Decorno said...

Aesthete - you crack me up!

Jules said...

I have a friend who lives in a "flat" and goes on "holiday." She was born and raised in California. Her parents are Mexican. Sigh.

Anon--OK, at the risk of sounding like the dumbest person here: what is the difference b/w sofa and couch? Am I ignorant of some design language technicality? My entire life I've called it a couch until recently I've heard people say "sofa," so now I'm wondering if I've made some huge semantical error my entire life. Maybe it's an east coast/ west coast thing? Like soda and pop?

Same thing with drapery and curtains. Drapery I consider to be more formal, custom made, and somewhat structured. Curtains are just something more casual you buy or make yourself...no? Wrong?

Seriously--don't make fun of me too bad, and I don't mean to get your dander up...but since you mentioned it you might as well explain it to the less infomred, like myself. ;)

Anonymous said...

couch? sofa? I prefer divan!

Reggie said...

OK, here we go with the requested distinctions: Sofa = preferred term to describe the multi-seated upholstered seating piece typically found in most people's living rooms. Couch = technical description of "grecian" style seating piece, usually with one arm (think recamier) only; considered to be a "common" term and not to be used when referring to a sofa by finnicky sticklers for verbal accuracy. Curtains = preferred term for all hanging fabric window treatments regardless of fanciness or cost. Drapes = considered hopelessly guache and common and not to be used under any circumstances. Drapery = technical term to use only when discussing clothing, never curtains. Here's another one: when is a vase a vahz? Never! Here's one that bugs me: people who refer to their cleaning lady as their "housekeeper" when she isn't daily. So much easier to refer to such as "the girl" (or "gell" if pronounced with an ironic English accent as I'be been known to do)...

decorno said...

Reggie - where have you been all this time???

I have a new teacher's pet. Decorno hearts Reggie.

Reggie said...

Decorno you make me blush! Consider the compliment returned with dividends...

Jules said...

Thanks, Reggie.

See, Decorno? You'll class me up, yet. ;)

simply seleta said...

Decorno, you are totally CORRECT on the nanny terminology.

As a mother of four, I've got this one down. First of all, we have a babysitter help us a little each week, so I'm not claiming to have a nanny. I prefer to be a hands-on mom. Although we were fortunate to have a nanny for 6 months when I was still nursing my fourth baby for his first year. She was incredible. It helped me juggle all of the duties with motherhood and get quality time in with each of the children.

Here's the scoop...

Nanny: a professional who is payed a salary and given a contract by the family. She generally helps with household management as well as child related duties. She can make anywhere from $30-$60K a year, plus benefits, depending upon experience and time with children. Works at least 40 hours a week. More on www.nannyassociation.com

Governess: a professional who resides with the family and cares for the children and home. These salaries can be a little higher and the position tends to be a bit more formal. This is a position often seen with a family such as a senator or governor since the parents travel and must have high levels of security for the children.

Babysitter: a caregiver who helps a family and is paid by the hour. No contract, no benefits, and is typically part time.

perchance said...

I have a friend who lets people in on the "secret" that she and her husband bought their house from Larry Bird when he retired from coaching the Pacers (yeah, she does all right for herself). She acts like you're one of the select few who is in on it - funny how everyone knows the "secret."

perchance said...

Oh, and a story of reverse snobbery (kinda, I think). I once had a client who's husband was the CEO of a la-harge pharmaceutical company. They had more money than God but were very down to earth. On my first appointment, she was showing me around the house and pointed to what appeared to be a very expensive antique. She said,"Oh that's my Louis the XVII." I laughed my ass off. She smiled and said,"You're the only one who's ever gotten that joke." Good people.

Pieter said...

We refer to a couch as a couch. as far as I'm concerned that's what it's called. I've only been exposed to the word sofa through American media. We refer to a one armed sofa as a chaise longue (not "lounge"!!!! Technically it should have two arms though) I would not dream of pronouncing vase any other way than vahz. My family goes on holiday and I live in a flat. This is a hilarious post as most of the things you consider nouveau riche I consider the correct terminology. Nanny is a relatively new word for us. Up to 10 years ago, she was called the maid. You could call us colonial throwbacks...btw. i don't live in the USA...My comment kind of reads like a riddle when in fact the only riddle is my grammar.

perchance said...

New Zealand interiors terms:
"2 seater" - loveseat
"3 seater" - sofa
"curtains" - all window treatments
"cushion" - decorative pillow
"pillow" - what you sleep on
"bin" - wastepaper basket
"napery" - cloth napkins
"serviettes" - paper napkins
"robe" - armoire
"bedside" - nightstand

Off topic, I know, but fun!

Anonymous said...

This might be a bit of a tangent, but people who make huge money and give none to charity reek of outsized social ambition. I have a financial planner helping me at the moment with a few issues, and she tells me that most of her clients who have new money and earn more than $500K/year do not give a dime to charity. No sense of gratitude or societal obligation.

An Aesthete's Lament said...

Jules ... "flat" is okay to say ... my mother says it all the time, because it's the word people often use in Detroit for an apartment, a flat or French flat ... weird regionalism, I think ... though it was what was uttered in the US in the late 19th century, when apartment buildings came into vogue and were actually called "French flats" ... and I prefer "holiday" over "vacation" ... I heard it as a child from English friends and just made the substitution ... 40 years on, it's hard not to say it ...

An Aesthete's Lament said...

serviette???? oh, dear ... napkin will do ... it is the only thing that will do! and the only time drapes is acceptable is in art-historical/curatorial circles, when it is used to describe the part of a window treatment (oh I hate that term) that doesn't move or close but is fixed and purely decoration, whether at a window or on a canopy bed ... thanks, Reggie!!!

An Aesthete's Lament said...

The Elsie de Wolfe comment was actually said by Mamie Fish, a notoriously waspish New York socialite whose every utterance was a knife-stabbing, pomposity-skewering delight ... and nobody has mentioned the obvious ... the meaning of the following phrase: The carpet doesn't match the drapes!!!! :) for those who don't know, it's when the dyed hair on your head doesn't match the, um, other hair, down below ... in England, I think, the full dye job is (or was) called collar and cuffs ...

An Aesthete's Lament said...

ASC Ross was the English linguish who came up with acceptable words spoken by the British upper classes (U) and arriviste words (non-U) ... among them were the following ... the non-U words are in parentheses ... it's basically a celebration of 18th-century basic terminology over the fancy, mincing, faux-genteel words that cropped up in the late 19th century among the striking middle classes ... so here it goes ... bike (cycle) ... dinner jacket (dinner suit) ... knave (jack) ... vegetables (greens) ... ice (ice cream) ... scent (perfume) ... house (home) ... ill (sick) ... looking-glass (mirror) ... chimneypiece (fireplace) ... graveyard (cemetery) .. spectacles (glasses) ... die (pass on) ... false teeth (dentures) ... sofa (couch) ... lavatory or loo (toilet) ... rich (wealthy) ... lunch (dinner) ... pudding (sweet) .. drawing room (lounge) ... writing-paper (note-paper) ... schoolmaster/mistress (teacher) ...

An Aesthete's Lament said...

that's "linguist" not "linguish" ... typing way too fast ...

An Aesthete's Lament said...

"striving" middle classes, not "striking" ... jeez ...

Anonymous said...

aesthete's lament: Calm down, girlfriend!

Anonymous said...

I live in Dallas, and it was a total culture shock coming here from living in South Texas (where a bathing suit is perfectly acceptable grocery store wear).

Would driving your Bentley to the grocery store and wearing your dressage outfit in count?

Actually, that reminds me of my favorite Zappos.com shoe review for some Ariat clogs I bought (they're a real cowboy boot brand, nothing fancy).

Some woman wrote they were her favorite shoes, she could wear them between her dressage competition and the awards ceremony, when she could just kick them off and put on her good boots to collect her trophies.

Dressage is a European precision horse-riding competition. To compete seriously, most of the horses are a minimum of $100k.

Mamie Fishsticks said...

I prefer "linguish"--it's drunker-sounding.

magnaverde said...

Yes, the old sticks-&-stones-may-break-my-bones-but-names-can-never-hurt-me policy is fine, but it didn't apply to Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish. Certainly, her basilisk-eye personality is captured perfectly in that photo of her all gussied up in an 18th Century gown & powdered wig for a fancy NYC ball. All the powder in hell couldn't enliven her stony, death-like stare and seeing it, one understands the myth of Medusa a bit better.

Speaking of outsize social ambitions, though, there's a pricey and self-important condo here in Chicago called "The ParVenue."

Either somebody needs a dictionary or Mrs. Fish herself chose the name based on a glimpse of the new tenants. Either way, it's good for a laugh.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with all these anecdotes, delicious as they are, is that the unspoken theme is "Who do they think THEY are?!" It's one class smacking the clawing knuckles of the class immediately beneath them.

More status anxiety, in other words.

lk said...

I have a "library".
yeah, its a home office with lots of bookshelves (neither of us can stand to get rid of a book, and we have 12+ years of schooling between us- plus I'm a big reader)

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Mrs. Fish upgraded her name from Mrs. Poultry?

magnaverde said...

None of this is new, of course. Those with less status have always grabbed at the ankles of those with more status--even if the latter have themselves only recently acquired it--and if those latter are wont to step on the clawing fingers of the newcomers once in a while, well, it's all part of the Grand Plan.

Here's Charles Dickens bemused take on the whole process in Our Mutual Friend:
"And now, in the blooming summer days, behold Mr and Mrs Boffin established in the eminently aristocratic family mansion, and behold all manner of crawling, creeping, fluttering, and buzzing creatures, attracted by the gold dust of the Golden Dustman!

Foremost among those leaving cards at the eminently aristocratic door before it is quite painted, are the Veneerings: out of breath,
one might imagine, from the impetuosity of their rush to the eminently aristocratic steps."

That's the nice part about not having any status worth mentioning: you also have no obsequious hangers-on. And if you also have no particular interest in climbing the status ladder in the first place (and here's Andrew Marvel's "me lusteth no longer rotten boughs to climb" comes to mind) it's pretty easy to be happy with where you are in the status food chain. And to me, that's the secret of contentment: setting your standards really low.

Anonymous said...

My secret of contentment: better drugs.

Anonymous said...

Status anxiety is part of competition, and competition is an inescapable fact of life.

Whether you're competing over the number of things you know about someone named Mrs. Fish or how many Famous Writers you can quote (Dickens, Marvel, etc.), it's all competition.

ESPECIALLY claiming you're above it.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I am from the DC area and agree with Anonymous 2:56 sentiments on North Potomac!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:54, THATS the way to smack the clawing knuckles of classics quoting social climbers. You go, girl!! Money isn't the only thing we need to defend against intruders.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I sell architectural hardware and could tell some stories about outsized social ambition as well.

My opinion: The people that take the time to build a 13,000 sq. ft. home, but want to nickel and dime everything to death. If there are only 3 of you, why in F's sake do you need 13,000(!!!) square feet? You could have a couple of acres, build an ultra-custom 3,000 sq. ft. home with every tasty upgrade imaginable - and it would feel like 5, 000 or 6,000 square feet with the right design.

These upscale pretenders (not the band - love them) always arrive at my door last. They have their $$$$ ideas and an $ budget and internet pricing - crying about the budget and can I meet the price from the guy with a warehouse and a telephone? Here's reality: The internet guy is NOT coming to walk your job. He is also NOT going to service you after you buy. I do that because that's what I'm in business to do - make happy customers. Customers that will tell others about the wonderful experience they had dealing with my wife and me.

I had a customer actually say to me - after attempting to beat me about the head and shoulders for 3 hours on my price - that, "If we give you the job, this can be your first foray into luxury home building." Really? I grovel in the unbearable light of your generous consideration.

Hardware is one of the few things in a home that you and your guests are guaranteed to touch. It is one of the details that speaks to your individual style and helps to complete a room. It reflects on you. It also reflects on your builder, your decorator, and the hardware supplier. How many bad marks can be racked up with this poor choice?


So, pretenders...Take your $100 talk and your $0.10 walk out of my showroom. Go to your new Mc Mansion home. Pick a cheeseburger when you should choose steak. Those that know, will know...

Anonymous said...

"Ten Cent Walk" would be a great name for a band!

Anonymous said...

I didn't know 'couch' was a fancy word, I always thought it sounded creepy. I say sofa.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I just read Reggie's post (thanks, Reg) I don't say drapes or vahz, I say curtains and vase.

I also say 'Ant', no 'Ahnt'.

And I changed from saying 'garbage' to 'trash'. Garbage sounds so yucky, but dustbin is a stretch.

Overall, pronoun usage is much more revealing.

Anonymous said...

oh jeez, is there *anyone* here who doesn't get "the carpet doesn't match the drapes"?

anyway, I doubt it's a class thing at this point. More like Benny Hill-level comedy.

jakubowski said...

couch is fancy? I always thought my grandmother sounded fancy when she said "davenport"...

jakubowski said...

my old boss refered to her cleaning woman who came only twice a month as the "maid", plus thier zipcode did not match the town they claimed to live in, (the nicer one next over,) not sure how their mail ever arrived?

Anonymous said...

"Maid" seems dated to me. Like from the days of "m'lady," "m'lord," etc.

Jules said...

jakubowski--from what I understand, mail is sorted and delivered according to zip code. If there is a question on the zip, they look to the city for clarification. I guess your boss knew this, and took the opportunity to claim residence in a better city. If this is true, then that has to be the most pathetic thing I have ever heard.

Cote de Texas said...

God, I am REALLY fu*ked up. I say "draperies." Where did THAT come from? haha And the Hardware Man - omg, I can relate! People with these HUGE houses made so shoddily, really - just lots of sq. footage, but no quality inside at all that would normally be equated with a mansion or large home. And most of the house will be unfurnished. the parts that are furnished have black leather furniture - not good looking black leather furniture- but that puffy kind of leather, you know what I mean by puffy?

Anonymous said...

I nominate Hardware Man for Best Written Comment on this post.

Anonymous said...

I have always called the woman who comes to my house to clean twice a month "the maid." I've always associated "maid" with someone who lives in and picks up daily. But so long as she cleans my house to my pretty exacting standards, for what is actually a pittance, I'll call her "your majesty" if that's what she wants. And that goes triple for the sitter.

So far as I'm concerned, language is the cheapest and easiest status I can award, and I could give two liverwurst donuts whether some of you people think I'm arriviste for making her happy.

Really? You want to discuss arriviste? Because seriously, people with good manners could care less.

Decs said...

Well, it seems that you are discussing it now, so maybe you've just joined the ranked of the mannerless.

Welcome.