Sizing Me Up

One of the most annoying things about going somewhere and having to meet and interact with new people is the way in which we're socialized to size each other up.

You know how it is, you're chatting with someone new and you slowly realize they're trying to place you on their scale of social importance.

I got sized up yesterday and gosh, it drives me crazy! I found myself wanting to tell the most outrageous lies and make up the most random stuff just to throw off the other person's efforts to determine whether or not I'm worth respecting.

Here are some of the questions and my interpretations:

1) So what do you do? This question is used to figure out pretty much everything under the sun about a person. If I say I'm a corporate lawyer, then you know I have an advanced degree, am making beaucoup dollars and work too many hours. You're going to think I'm smart and maybe a little ruthless, but in our culture, is that necessarily a bad thing?

On the other hand, if I say I'm a "dancer" at Spearmint Rhino, well, no offense to anybody who may be employed by said strip club, but no one is gonna be thinking I'm all that smart. In fact, your eyes might suddenly gravitate to my chest to see if you can discern whether or not I've had any "enhancements" done.

2) What does your husband do? If I say my husband is a film executive you are going to think something different than if I say he's a gardener. If I answer that I'm not married then the person's going to wonder if I'm a lesbian or if I'm trying to be a character from Sex and the City.

3) Where'd you do your undergrad? This is one of the really slick ones. With this question, the interrogater is letting me know she actually went to grad school. Notice how people who only went to undergrad don't phrase things this way. They say, "Where'd you go to college?"

Sometimes the questioner will find out what she wants by saying, "Well, when I was in undergrad, I blah blah blah!"

I'm supposed to respond, "How fascinating! Where did you go to undergrad?"

That then opens the door to the other person revealing in their best, self-deprecating tone, "Oh, Harvard. What about you?"

This game is played till the location of their graduate school is revealed as well.

4) "It's just sooo hard to see all of the Louvre in one day, isn't it?" This is the question that is designed to figure out whether or not I've been to Europe or have any European cultural awareness. I'm supposed to answer, "Oh my God! Yes, it is! I spent a whole day and didn't even get to see Antioch's Venus de Milo!"

After that, if I'm to prove I'm "somebody" I should launch into all the details of my time gallivanting through Paris.

On the other hand, if I say, "What's the Louvre?" well, the person probably will excuse herself to go get another drink. Or if I say, "I've read that it is hard to see all of it but I've never been to Paris," I'll get grilled on whether I've ever been to Europe at all. When I reveal that I haven't, then that supposedly says something about me.

5) "Is that a Marc Jacobs jacket?" This one is also used to determine my status. Like, am I going to reply, "Naw, heffa, it's from Target," or will I answer, "No, this one's from Gucci but it looks like Jacobs from two seasons ago, doesn't it?"

You see what I mean about how annoying these little "let me place you socially" questions are? And we all do it. Over the years I've tried to make a conscious effort to not ask these sorts of questions but I know I still do sometimes. Granted, if the interrogator is nice and not condescending, sometimes I don't mind answering.

I just know I will be happier in the world if we all figure out how to talk about real things with the people we meet instead of engaging in this mindless Q & A that's all designed to figure out how well you think you have to treat someone.

And for the record, in case you are speculating, I do not work as a corporate lawyer.

(I'm not a stripper either.)


Anonymous said…
I've had all that up to my eyeballs, Liz. When I lived in London, God was everyone status-conscious (one reason why I left). If someone decided you were lower status than them, they'd just cut you dead and treat you like the greengrocer. The questions there were So what do you do, Where do you live (trendy Islington or crummy Kilburn), What car do you drive and Do you have children? The rest could be deduced from your clothes, your accent and your social adroitness. A nasty, demoralising ritual.

But people in Northern Ireland aren't so status-conscious, they tend to just accept you for what you are, whether you're a plumber or teacher or business owner. All they really want from you is some good craic, some booze and some plain-speaking. Very refreshing.
Hello! This was the thing that drove me NUTS about L.A. You can tell by the tone that this person is not trying to see if you have something in common and make conversation.

Since I've been in Rome I've met people who do a variety of things, including a prince who was actually very down-to-earth. So far no one has stepped to me with that attitude here. They are too busy asking me why the heck I moved in the first place and what I think about Bush and the upcoming election.

Isn't Europe supposed to be more of a class based society than the U.S.? Why do folks asks these kinds of questions?
1969 said…
I love "Naw Heffa it's from Target". LMAO!!!!!
thailandchani said…
I agree with Nick. Probably because I'm by nature rather rebellious, those questions don't get a straight answer. I'm likely to say something like "I do lots of things. How about you" or if the person is particularly obnoxious, I might say "why do you need to know how much money I make? You selling something?"

As far as I'm concerned, the questions are rude and deserve rude or/and snarky answers.
Anonymous said…
Chani, great answers. I must remember those!
Great post; definitely describes why I'm so much happier in Italy where you may not know what someone does for a living (or if/where they went to college, etc.) until after you've talked with them MANY times or ask a mutual friend. Love that.
Anonymous said…
This is so annoying. I think it's all a part of consumerism. We purchase friends like we purchase experiences. (Anyone who is trying to get through the Louvre in one day is purchasing experiences and in my mind, missing life. Anyway....)

People are so competitive. I don't know if it's more so now or I'm just noticing it but DAMN I hate it! This is the competition that Tip O'Neil described at the middle class turning on itself.

The thing I hate the MOST about this is that it makes a nosey person like myself have to work harder. If I ask "where did you go to undergrad?" I want to know! or "what does your husband do?" same thing. Put people think I'm competing or doing stupid stuff that I don't care about at all. Grrrr says the super nosey girl.

For the record, I don't think there's any excuse for being rude. I hold myself to my own standards even if other people behave badly.
Ian Lidster said…
I think being a corporate lawyer 'and' a stripper would truly confuse the questioner. I'd be tempted in light of that sort of prying rudeness. That was a brilliant piece, dear Liz.
velvet said…
"Naw, heffa, it's from Target" HA!!!

Those kinds of questions are the worst! I just don't feel like dealing with those kinds of people's social insecurties. Sorry that you had to deal with such a boor.

I've come to view these situations as opportunities to amuse myself. I've always found that being as vague as possible and consistently giving a no-answer reply work pretty well (e.g. "Is that a Marc Jacobs jacket?" "Nope."). That and very obviously not taking the bait, all done with a big smile on my face. It seems to annoy them and makes me laugh a little inside.
Nerd Girl said…
Believe it or not, Mississippi is the most status-conscious place I've ever lived (okay, so I've only lived in 3 states). Here it is all about "what schools(s), what subdivision, what church, what group?" What church? Come on people. Works my last nerve!

LOL @ The Spearmint Rhino! Nothing says "welcome home" to me like seeing one of their billboards on the way to my parents from LAX!
Jen said…
I hate, absolutely loathe, despise and hate (did I mention I hate it?) that talk.

It's why I fell in love with being in other cultures/locales.

The only other place I ran into that level of classicism, oddly enough, was when I lived in the Soviet Union. Ironic, huh?
Jameil said…
Spearmint Rhino?? i just don't like that name. on the one hand i understand where you're coming from and i know some people do it snottily, and i'm sure l.a. has more than its fair share of those, but how else do you get to know someone but on the surface first? i love when people ask me those questions... sometimes. it annoys me at homecoming when i can tell they're trying to rank me. i sound bored when i say 'i'm a producer.' i mean it sounds good to those types but whatever. what good is any job if you don't love it? i only sound excited when i know i'm talking to someone who isn't ranking me. see how you like that little game foolish ones! ok i see where you're coming from. (you like my thinking on your blog? lol)
Anonymous said…
nyc/caribbean, I remember reading somwhere that social mobility is actually lower in the US than in Europe, mainly because good education is so expensive.

We're about to start house-hunting in Stockholm and one of the things I think about is "what will other people say if I tell them I live in X area". My husband, who is from the US, thinks that even the so-called bad areas here look just fine.

Reading this piece I realize that I have played this quite recently, with a dad at the toddler group. I should be above it, really.
Anonymous said…
When people do that "so, what do yuo do" crap, I usually look thatm in the eye and tell them that I am a killer for the U.S. government. That usually gets a nervous chuckle... and then I say, completely deadpan "No... really. Thats what I do"
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh yes, that question of where do you live and the accents. Aagh! I don't think I'd do so well in London then. The thing is that the U.S. tries to pass itself as being a place that's less class conscious than somewhere like London where we assume everybody's going to be focused on status.

I thought Europe was supposed to be more class based too. Maybe it's propaganda we're fed so we feel better about the choices we have in our American "meritocracy". It would be pretty impossible to meet a down-to-earth prince here in LA. I mean, it's pretty impossible to meet a down-to-earth clerk at the MAC store, let alone a prince!

"Heffa" is one of my all time favorite words. I should've said it! I really should have!

Good answers! Maybe I just get irritated when I sense that people aren't generally interested in me but are just trying to "place" me. I know that in certain cultures it's not rude to ask how much something cost or how much you make so I've learned to be more flexible with being asked about those sorts of things.

Has anyone told you today that you're awesome? :)

Bleeding Espresso,
So interesting that in Italy you might not find that sort of stuff out till after several conversations but here they're the sort of things that people expect to know after five minutes. It would be a nice change to experience that after living here in LA.

That is such a great point. It's a total reflection of the materialistic. consumerist lens through which we view ourselves and the world. It's hard for me because I'm super nosy too and just genuinely like to know about people, who they are and what they're about.

Ha! It sounds like a bad Law & Order character -- lawyering by day and then taking it all off at night. No one knows till the dead body is found in the gutter by two random strangers.

Vagueness does work wonders in those situations but then people don't know what to do with it because you're not abiding by what they see as the social "rules". Then those same people turn around and gossip about you, saying that you're anti-social and "hard to read". Oh well!

Nerd Girl,
Mississippi? LOL, but I can sort of see it. I've gotten the "what church thing" in Chicago before. Never been asked that out here though. And Spearmint Rhino, I remember seeing the billboards on my first visit to LA. The name of that place is sooo weird! I always wonder how the owners came up with it.

No kidding, the Soviets? The kings of a classless, stateless society? That's so weird. Who'd have thought?

Yes, honey. Spearmint Rhino! I don't know what the name is about but isn't it a weird one? I always wonder, do the strippers chew spearmint gum or something? At places like homecoming it's always somebody who couldn't stand you asking those sort of snide questions. It gets old real quick.
And of course, you are welcome to come over here and think on my blog anytime! :)

I can believe that social mobility could be lower here in the US. Generational poverty is so hard to overcome here and college does seem so out of reach for many people, not just the very poor.

You make me remember how when I first moved to LA and drove to my school in Compton, I thought the neighborhood didn't look so bad. Just a bunch of cute, single family homes. A "bad" neighborhood just looked so different to me. I was expecting high-rise tenement projects instead of homes.

I think I play this when I sense someone is trying to put me in my place and I know I trump them on most of the questions they want answered. It's pure evil and I shouldn't do it.
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh my goodness, you have me dying over here. I can totally see how in your case honestly answering the question would shut up the interrogation with a quickness.
Lydia said…
Hey Liz,

Great Post!

I think I would HAVE to say,
"Girrrl, when my significant other and I were at Kumasi completing a fellowship on the impact of Western Hegemony on the Ashanti people, we were fortunate enough to travel to Bonwire to learn the art of weaving Kente, which you see so beautifully on this highly coveted, one of a kind jacket not available at any store.
Anonymous said…
My experiences in London were somewhat infuriating but for political reasons. It was 2003 and the Iraq mess had just started. I had to tell people I was Canadian and sewed a maple leaf patch on my backpack due to the major hateration I was getting from Brits who were in opposition to the US and UK government. My being Black did not shield me either even though I agreed! The poor people were not quite as 'poor' as in the US, dairy was fresher and less expensive, American candy bars had a higher cocoa content and tasted way better and I discovered haloumi cheese so I like to think of my time there as productive. I did feel a distinct class deference but in the UK it's legal, though some very wealthy [old money] people were very gracious.
Anonymous said…
Heartsandflowers - You're right, the old money and aristocrats are so well-established they don't give a toss what your personal background is. They're usually very easy to get on with. It's the insecure, jockeying-for-position middle classes who're often the biggest pains in the butt.

Liz - Awesome? You're pretty awesome too. Especially that hot pic from a few days back!!
Anonymous said…
This has nothing to do with this post but I was just catching up on your blog and saw your picture with the record. Just wanted to tell you your hair looks great!!!!
Lisa Johnson said…
I always find it interesting when people make that first decision about whether I am deemed worthy or not. I'm also guilty as charged about some of the things you mentioned too. I do say "undergrad." Oh and in law school there actually was someone who I'm pretty sure had been some sort of model/exotic dancer and she's an attorney now, so your example wasn't too far fetched.

And the whole sizing people up and judging really shocked me when I was moving from my last apartment to this one. The mover saw my degrees and so the lawyer thing came up. Then he proceeded to tell me that I should have a better car! In those words! He actually suggested a BMW or Mercedes!! First off he wrongly assumed I could afford them and then what was it to him what kind of car I drive?? Okay, I'll stop ranting now. Sorry! Oh my blood is boiling!!!
Liz Dwyer said…
Hah! That's a great response and pretty much impossible to one-up on the part of the listener! :)

Wow, having to sew the maple leaf on your stuff? Goodness, I guess folks were riled up over there before most Americans did. I would definitely suck it up to have chocolate bars with a higher cocoa content. And as for the uber wealthy, there's probably no need to flash their status or fish for yours because instead of keeping up with the Joneses, they are the Joneses! (But in the meantime, brother, can you spare a dime?)

LOL, that picture... only hot because of the record I'm posing with. I suppose some of the Depeche Mode magic rubbed off on me that day.

Hmm... it was a rather good hair day that day that day. Today, on the other hand, not so much. The back is looking like a bird should land in it and start a nest or something. Can't believe I came out in public looking like this.
Liz Dwyer said…
I find myself saying "undergrad" too. I am guilty as charged, but the minute it's out of my mouth, I sometimes want to stuff it back in, unless I'm in a conversation with one of those, "I got my JD/MBA from Stanford," types. They make me sick. Or rather, the ones I've met made me sick with their puffed up self-importance.

And crazy that the mover thought you need a nicer car? I always say back, "I'll just put your name down as the person to send the car note to every month!" Oh, and I get asked, "So you've been in LA for almost 10 years, why don't you have a house there?" And I always ask if the person is going to give me the $$ for a down payment and for the mortgage. But only people who don't live out here and know nothing about SoCal ask that. Anyone else knows that you have to make at least $150K to afford a house in my neighborhood. Sigh. Now I'm depressed. :(
Anonymous said…
Rents high in LA? I was in town a few weeks ago, went for a nice long run, and did my turn-around to head back at, I think it's Grape Ave., a few blocks north of 103rd, ya know, 'round the corner from that little shopping center between Compton and Wilmington, down from the nice Tom Watkins park (think that's it's name). Well, anyway, I came back the next day and checked up on some rent in the area; it wasn't far off from average.
West said…
I've nothing to add except that that's a particular pet peeve of mine, as well.
Liz Dwyer said…
I used to spend a lot of time in that area and it is not someplace I'd want to raise my own kids. But, if you look on Zillow and check out house values in that area, they're in the half million dollar range, but then you see the property live and in person and there is such a total disconnect. It's weird.

What's up, brother? Glad to see you weighing in on this. :)
B said…
This post really made my day. Thank you! I am still laughing.

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