Theater & Rituals

Acting is not pretending. We act our age. We act like a manager – or a waiter – or a diva. We actively choose how we behave in our lives.

Social Rituals & Ceremonies

Social networks are important for us all. In order to be able to navigate through our world of associates, employers, friends, vendors and partners, we must be seen as trustworthy and predictable. For the upper classes, country clubs serve as a place to socialize, blending business and recreational contacts. People get a sense of what it would be like to work with us or even to invite us into their private circles. Although violating a protocol may not be mentioned at the time, it will be noticed and treated as an indication that perhaps the fit isn’t there. When it comes to social “graces,” it is preferable to err on the side of formality.

PAYING ATTENTION – Being face to face with someone is the ultimate proving ground – the way to build trust. And this routine can be rehearsed and learned. Good eye contact and listening can show confidence and grounding. Looking away, or down, can indicate discomfort or even deception. For people socializing with a class above their own, this can be intimidating. There is much that is unfamiliar.

TENDING OTHERS – Making others feel at ease is the essence of etiquette. So much of our social dialogue evolves around caring for others. “How are you? How is your mom? I noticed this about you. What are your plans? Did you enjoy ….?” This all takes practice, especially if we are in a setting that is foreign to us and we feel intimidated and vulnerable. Part of succeeding is ACTING the role.

INTRODUCTIONS – Being able to handle introductions, a subset of tending others, is another learned script and choreography. Upper class people, who are very practiced in the protocol of social settings, learn early and use the process often. “Let me introduce ….” And it begins. The gestures, the eye contact back and forth, the comments are short and complimentary. Facilitating the handshake and hearing from the other. The sequence. And, finally, finessing into a conversation that all can feel connected to. The introducer has served everyone well, showing confidence and grace. For those who grew up in environments where there is less formality, this process can be intimidating – and serve as an indication that someone is from another class.

FOOD & DRINK PROTOCOL – Landmines abound for the uninitiated. How to eat – in conversation? It can’t look like it is all about the food. Or that we are ravenous. Or that we think we can talk with food in our mouths. People notice each violation. An oft-heard criticism is “It’s like she was raised in a barn.” The implication is that people who have not learned the social graces (through no fault of their own) are uncivilized – and therefore to be avoided.

With each evolution of civilization human beings reach new heights. And with each evolution there are people who don’t have the privilege of participating. For example, school uniforms were instituted to reduce the impact of class/status in learning environments to avoid exclusion. Perhaps we should make sure all kids learn basic social protocols as well. Learning how to take part in our society may be as essential as learning to read.

Social Norms in Privileged Homes

If all the world’s a stage, scene I opens up onto daily routines in an upper class life. The set is big. The props are expensive. The dialogue is comfortable and familiar to members of that class. You see an army of barely noticeable support workers moving through the scenes: nannies, drivers, personal trainers, pool maintenance workers, landscapers, housekeepers, drivers and chefs.

Members of the upper class know how to respectfully engage and manage a full cadre of workers meandering through their personal lives. There’s a fine line between acknowledging someone’s presence and interrupting their work. Workers aren’t rendered invisible, but close to it, since any one of them could be physically in the space where a father and daughter are having a sensitive discussion, or where a couple is simply talking about their day. For the privilege of having all that support, high status people have had to learn how to be families – to be intimate – when there is an outsider in their midst.

If we shift the lens and instead focus on the workers in this scene, we find another set of skills. They know how to move and act so as not to interrupt or distract. Eye contact is avoided. They know their role – and place – very well.

Two very different classes sharing space and time. A transaction.

Marriage Rituals

Milestones, rituals and ceremonies usually have the same intention across classes, but each class level has its own identifiable standards.

WEDDINGS are important to all groups. They provide the groups with opportunities to flood members with reminders about what makes their group special. Walk into any marriage ceremony and you can quickly tell the status of the couple. The size of the wedding party and the guest list. The music – soloists? Wedding attire of the wedding party AND the guests. Photographic crew. How many limos? Move onto the reception and, again, the class difference is clear. Formal setting? Number of courses in a meal vs a buffet. Crystal everywhere? Music? Gifts for guests?

The PROPOSAL ring is a particularly clear indicator of status, with an implied connection between ring value and the groom’s ability to provide a good life for the bride. For the bride, it is up to her and her family to show that she is worthy – planning the whole wedding event and obsessing about every detail, most particularly relating to the wedding dress. These displays can be very expensive for a single day but are considered worth the investment because they establish the new couple as bona fide members of the class to which they want to belong.

In middle and lower classes, the pressure to buy an expensive ring is also daunting, especially if the groom-to-be is busy paying off student loans while working at an entry-level job. Failure to impress can bring ridicule. For brides-to-be, the repeated ritual of announcing the engagement – holding out their hand to maximize the view– as evidence of how loved they are – keeps the stakes high. Many people go deeply into debt for the proposal and marriage. It can be seen as evidence of love. Everyone will have an opinion about every choice.

It is a class-based display. Young couples choosing a different route will have some explaining to do.

On Stage – Fundraising Rituals

As has been historically true, people in the upper classes continue to support the arts and other not-for-profit efforts. They invest enormous amounts of time and money to support events that bring attention to worthy causes – and bring in significant donations.

Belonging to the upper echelons of society brings with it high expectations. Participating, generously, in the fund-raising efforts of your peers is required. And failure to take a lead on some causes can bring criticism. Mailboxes are filled with requests.

Institutions such as hospitals, libraries, schools, churches, arts institutions, medical research and political parties all rely in great part on donations from the upper classes. These contributions range from huge capital campaign contributions (ie. new building wings bearing a patron’s name) to annual fundraising campaigns, membership programs, sponsorships, board membership – and more. High status reputations are put on the line when they make big commitments. They have to lean on their friends – as their friends lean on them. This interdependence strengthens a group’s bond.

Busy social calendars are filled with events that people from lower classes might interpret as luxury – champagne, high fashion, reporters, photographers, etc. And, although the high-price elements are all there, the truth is that attendees are “on.” From the planning to the invitation lists to the events, they work to maintain their status within the group.

Middle and lower class fundraising often requires a more hands-on approach to support bake sales and car washes. Families join together to make specific improvements in their communities, such as sending kids on a road trip, buying new band instruments or uniforms. Participation (membership) tends to migrate as their kids grow up so these groups rarely develop a tight connection.

Coming of Age Rituals

The importance of milestones as kids grow up is the same across classes. The difference is how expensive the events are. Attending classmates’ parties is a critical part of the school community and it is often a student’s first introduction to parties on a scale that are different from what they are used to. These events can range from a gathering of eight friends at a roller skating rink to a private concert at a huge venue.

For lower or working class parents, these milestones can be filled with pressure. They know how important it is for their child’s social standing, so they frequently spend more than they know they should to ensure their child can fit in. Of course, the class difference is all too obvious anyway.