Dear Carolyn: I grew up poor but worked my way through college and was able to get into a very prestigious law school, so naturally I am used to being around people who come from a very different background than I do. Recently I started working with a man, "Jack," who went to that same law school. We hit it off immediately and started dating.
Things have been absolutely wonderful — until I met his extended family at a wedding, that is. His family is old-money rich. His mother has always been nice to me — his father is dead — but his aunts, uncles and cousins made it obvious they did not approve of me and made many sly digs about me and my background.
I knew the best way to get through it was to ignore the insults and appear unruffled, but I am not interested in being around them again. I didn't think this would be a problem since Jack sees them at most once a year, but now his mom has invited me to an event that means being around those snobs for an entire long weekend. I'd rather stay home, but Jack is asking me to give his family another chance and pointing out that we will be staying with his mom, who is really looking forward to it. My job is super-stressful, and I could really use that time off to relax.
What should I do? I need to give an answer soon, and I'm really torn.
— Back Into the Lion's Den?
Back Into the Lion’s Den?: If anyone has standing to disapprove, it’s the person who rose up from nothing on her own merits over people whose biggest whoop-de-do accomplishment was being born.
I don’t encourage going into any situation with this attitude; it’s just a different form of snobbery. However, there are benefits to indulging it on a one-time basis. For one, it can help you see “lion’s den” is wildly inaccurate; it’s more like a toddler’s playpen. Mature, thoughtful, decent adults recognize the intellectual underpinnings of snobbery don’t withstand even the shallowest scrutiny.
And, it can help because the solution isn’t to “appear unruffled,” it’s to be unruffled — and the shortest distance to that state of mind is to understand that people who have to put you down for any reason, but particularly based on your origins — i.e., something over which you had zero control — are people who feel insecure enough to need the extra height from stepping on someone’s back. It speaks to their character, not yours.
So maybe none of this changes the fact that you regard these people as unpleasant company, but I do think it can help to frame them as unpleasant company more to be pitied than feared.
I also think it’s really important to discard this disapproving attitude as soon as it serves its reframing purpose, because if you indulge the thought of them all as a bunch of overprivileged placeholders, then you risk stereotyping them exactly as you feel stereotyped.
And I think going with Jack even though you’d rather stay home and wax your scalp would be a useful step toward seeing whether “absolutely wonderful” really does apply to him.
Besides, the mom is the thing — if she’s cool, then you can do this.