Q: I am afflicted with a peculiar social stigma, due to attending a well-respected university. I may as well confess that the university is Harvard (if you will not hold it against me).
First, I should make clear that I do not parade my Harvard affiliation. I do not wear Harvard shirts or make Yale jokes, and I am truthful in answering the question, "Where do you go to school?" only after at least one evasive reply (for example, "Back East").
When my Harvard affiliation has been revealed, however, I have received one of three reactions: 1) "You must be rich." 2) "You must be a brain." 3)"Wow, should I get on my knees and worship you?"
I have typically responded to the first two comments by protesting, truthfully, that I am neither rich nor especially brainy. Silence would be worse, since it would look as if I were agreeing. Twice I have tried a lighthearted response, such as, "My financial-aid officer/professors would disagree with you."
My only reaction to the third response has been "No, please, really."
In desperation, I have considered rude responses, such as, "Yes, I own your senator" or "No, they won't let me rule the world until after I've graduated." Another possibility might be diversionary tactics, such as spilling (accidentally, of course) a drink on the offender, or yelling, "Everybody tango!"
The awkwardness does not stop there. For the next half-hour I bend over backward to prove I'm a "regular" guy: I use only monosyllabic words, avoid drinking wine -- anything to avoid the stereotype of a Harvard man as an ultraliterate elitist.
This problem has never been mentioned in any of Harvard's brochures or catalogues. What is the proper way to respond?
A: The reason help is not supplied by the administration is that Harvard students know instinctively how to respond, as you have demonstrated. One answers the first question geographically ("Back East," as you said, or "In Boston"; "In Cambridge" is too provocative) and only mentions Harvard when asked for the name.
From then on, one proceeds as you did before you fantasized about spilling drinks. There is no need to pretend to be less "ultraliterate." Harvard requires its students to take remedial writing for a reason.
You asked Miss Manners for other ways of handling this situation. One is to reply that you attend "Harvard-Radcliffe." For some reason, this throws people. The second method is to ignore the follow-up questions and merely repeat to your interlocutor his own questions and remarks: "Where do you go? Oh, you must be rich, etc."
This tactic is, at first, taken as an insult. Having assumed that you think your school the best -- as, indeed, all loyal students think their own colleges are -- he will then assume that you are making fun of his school.
But all colleges train people to think. Therefore any educated student will realize, sooner or later, that if you use the same words he does, you cannot be insulting him any more or less than he is insulting you.