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When Is A Sandwich Not Just A Sandwich?

A lot of people are ragging on David Brooks today for this passage in his column about how elite culture effectively closes the door on non-elite Americans:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Ha ha! Get a load of that David Brooks! they say. But here’s how the column continues:

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

In her thorough book “The Sum of Small Things [1],” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

Brooks is right about that, and it was good of him to use that example, however trivial it might sound. The fact that so many snarky commenters don’t understand why something as small as this matters reveals their insensitivity to the phenomenon.

A few years ago, an older working-class woman had done a special favor for me, and I wanted to show her my gratitude. I took her out to a restaurant that wasn’t fancy, exactly, but it was a definite cut above Chili’s. To me, this was my way of showing her my gratitude: to take her to a place that was out of the ordinary. At the table, I was distressed to see her obviously struggling to enjoy herself. She appeared anxious and uncomfortable, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Later, her daughter told me that as grateful as her mother was for the invitation, she was a nervous wreck at the restaurant. Her mom saw unfamiliar words on the menu, and felt stupid. And she thought everybody in the restaurant was surely looking at her, and seeing that she didn’t belong.

I felt bad about this. I thought I was being generous, but in fact I had put my guest on trial — or at least that’s how she felt. I hadn’t thought about that experience in years, until I read the Brooks column. I can’t remember what, exactly, was on the menu that was so intimidating to my guest, but it never occurred to me that anything on that menu was weird. Mind you, I was raised in a working-class cultural environment, but I’ve been out of it culturally for so long that I’ve lost the ability to perceive how trivial words and things like soppressata and Pomodoro are, to some people, fingers pointing at them telling them they are lesser.

One one level, that’s stupid. What’s wrong with trying new things? Soppressata is the name of a kind of Italian salami. Pomodoro is a kind of tomato. These are not exotic things, and arguably less exotic than the comforting Mexican food Brooks and his young guest eventually had. The point is, Brooks’s young guest was freaked out by salami and tomatoes in a way she wasn’t by enchiladas and refried beans. Though the young woman might have been of Mexican background (Brooks doesn’t say), in a place like Texas, say, Mexican food is ordinary cuisine even working-class white people. When I was a small-town Southern kid in the 1970s, Mexican food was impossibly exotic. Today, a Tex-Mex restaurant is one of the most popular places to eat in that town.

I’m really sensitive to this stuff because for years I had to live with the disdain of some members of my Louisiana family for my allegedly fancypants and inauthentic tastes. It was all class anxiety on their part, but they found a way to put the knife in emotionally over these things. They were reverse snobs, and were at times really mean about it. I don’t believe that is excusable. That said, the fact that I was far more comfortable moving in cosmopolitan settings, and had more cosmopolitan tastes, meant that I had doors open for me, professionally and otherwise, that they would not have had.

Much of this is just normal sociology. Every society has its codes of behavior. A New York City lawyer who relocated to small-town south Louisiana would find himself totally at sea, culturally, until he learned the local ways. I remember once in the early 1990s returning from a trip to France and visiting my parents to tell them about it. I mentioned that when I arrived in Paris, the Dutch friends who were supposed to meet me had left a message at my hotel saying they had to cancel.

“What did you do?” said my dad, with tremendous concern.

“Checked in and spent the next few days exploring Paris on my own,” I said, as if it was no big deal. Because it wasn’t.

My father was visibly astonished.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Said he, “I would have just sat there in the hotel until it was time to go back to the airport.”

He wasn’t joking. He was serious. I admit it was gratifying to my twentysomething self to discover that there was something I could do that my omnicompetent father could not. If you dropped my dad in the middle of the swamp, he could easily find his way out, and deal handily with any obstacles (snakes, gators, etc.) that put themselves in his path. But he would have been paralyzed in Paris. You put me in that same swamp, and I would have been hard-pressed to find my way out, not only because I lacked the skills to do so, but also because I would have been just as paralyzed by fear of the unknown as my dad would have been in Paris.

What David Brooks wants us cosmopolitan types to consider is that a massive number of our fellow Americans feel the same way about the world we move in as my late father felt about the idea of making one’s way alone in Paris. And they feel the same way that we would about finding our way through the swamp back to civilization.

To be sure, some of this is on them. A few years back, Will Wilkinson wrote a good piece about country music and the psychology of culture war.  [2] He talks about social science findings that conservatives tend to be “low openness” individuals — that is, people who are much less willing to try new and unfamiliar things. As a libertarian who was at the time listening to a lot of country music, Wilkinson said this helped him understand both the psychology of country music and its appeal. Excerpt:

My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?

This makes a lot of sense to me, because I share it to a great extent. I guess I’m one of those odd-duck conservatives who is open to a relatively wide range of experience, even as I manage to fold exotic experiences into a conservative outlook. Hey, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian for reasons that are deeply conservative, and my folks never gave me anything but respect and support in that. But Orthodoxy is extremely weird by their standards, and if they hadn’t gotten used to their son being a weirdo already about religion, it would have been profoundly unsettling to them. When I converted to Catholicism in 1993, my dad was shocked by it. Catholicism isn’t that exotic to south Louisiana Methodists, and he wasn’t much of a churchgoer anyway, but it unsettled him for the reasons Will Wilkinson evinces above.

The point is this: in our time and place — in liquid modernity [3] — a man who can make and accommodate those kinds of radical shifts in perspective is a man who is enormously advantaged professionally over a man who cannot. More prosaically, a man who can walk into a gourmet sandwich shop and roll with it is enormously advantaged over the man who cannot. This is the real meaning of the David Brooks anecdote. Don’t laugh at it.

What can be done about it? For starters, the people identified by Chris Arnade as the “front-row kids” [4] — people like me, and most likely people like you —  need to become a lot more aware of the privileges that our cultural formation grants us. This, from Brooks, is very true:

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.

The lesson is not to resolve to by Lady Bountiful and to take working-class person shopping at Whole Foods. It’s rather to begin by realizing not only how our front-row culture excludes the back-row folks (of all colors!), but also how our own lack of awareness of that fact, and our own self-congratulatory morality (we are so much better than the Deplorables™), only makes the problems worse.

This, by the way, is why I have a very short fuse for front-row pretenses to “diversity,” which are usually only skin deep. The white man who only has a high school education, and who lives in a trailer park on the outskirts of Bunkie, La., will never enjoy the privilege of, say, Jerelyn Luther, the black Yale student whose name lives in deserved infamy as Shrieking Girl.  [5] The refusal of the front-row Establishment to recognize the reality of class privilege, which is in large part cultural privilege, is a major barrier to meaningful reform. The way front-row kids in power assuage their status anxiety is by hiring more diversity deans, which is a lot easier than confronting the complexities of class.

The soppressata sandwich is a condensed symbol — shorthand for an entire worldview. In this sense, there are soppressata sandwiches everywhere in our culture. What strikes us front-row kids as just a sandwich appears like land mines to back-row kids. Sneer at David Brooks’s little story all you want, but it’s not a laughing matter to people who experience things like that as impassable barriers.

One last thing. Brooks’s column took me back to the autumn of 1988. I was 21 years old, and just arrived in Washington, DC, to do a one-semester internship with a political consultancy. I was thrilled, but also scared. This was Washington! It’s one thing to be a tourist, but me, I was going to be working there, within the system. On one of my first days in the city, I saw a flyer in my Capitol Hill neighborhood advertising an after-work get together at Eastern Market for young people working on the Hill. I was desperate to make friends, so on the day of the party, I walked over.

As I neared the entrance to the market hall, my legs suddenly felt very heavy. I could not bring myself to walk through the door. I was overcome by social anxiety. I thought that my clothes were all wrong, that everybody on the other side of the door had gone to or were going to fancy colleges, and that they would instantly spot me as a fraud who didn’t belong there. I paced around outside for about 20 minutes, trying to screw up the courage to walk through the door. I couldn’t do it. Finally I gave up, surrendering to my status anxiety, and walked home with my head down, hating myself for my cowardice.

Only four years later, I returned to Washington to work as a journalist. What a difference four years had made in maturation and social confidence. I once again lived on Capitol Hill, and when I walked by Eastern Market, I remembered it as the scene of my humiliation. I had to laugh at how groundless my fears had been. Of course my clothes that day had been perfectly fine. I looked like everybody else, and most people inside that market hall had been pretty much like me. But I did not see that until years later. The manacles binding my legs that day had been forged in my own mind. But I experienced them as real, and the sense of rejection and humiliation I carried with me on the long walk back to my apartment on A Street, NE, carrying a burden of self-doubt and self-loathing, hurt like hell.

Yes, it was self-imposed, not yoked to me by others. But it was quite real at the time. Had I known someone going to that party, and had they taken me by the hand, so to speak, and led me into it, my experience that lonely fall in Washington might have been much different. Certainly I would have been forever grateful. It’s something to think about as we ask ourselves what we can do to break down those barriers. If we ask ourselves, that is.

UPDATE: Dancer Girl (who, if you care, is an African-American lawyer) comments:

Thank you so much for writing this. I am furious with my fellow liberals who are dragging Brooks through the mud and pretending that he doesn’t have a point. I have been blessed – a word I use advisedly – with access to the elite culture he describes, so I know that the Italian names for those gourmet sandwiches are meaningless signifiers of place and price, so when I’m in those places, I know that it’s all ridiculous posturing, I pull out my wallet, pay, and I don’t think twice. But I don’t come from that world. My branch of the family is college-educated and middle class, but our tree, by and large, is high-school educated and working class. If I took one of my cousins into one of those shops, some would be discomfited by the “fancy” names and high prices, while others would mercilessly slay me for my pretension in choosing the place. That does not mean they are less intelligent; many are smarter than I am, with my multiple degrees. It simply means I have an ability to walk into that culture which they do not possess, and Brooks’ sandwich shop was a metaphor for that experience.

Honestly, the virtue signaling of his critics has been extraordinarily disappointing today. I think the substance of his column is off – cultural barriers are not more important than structural ones when evaluating inequality. But that particular example resonated for me because I knew it to be true. And many of the people mocking him probably have few to no intimate relationships with anyone whose class status might reveal the validity of his point.

UPDATE.2: Reader Annie:

Years ago I was employed in domestic service by a wealthy, prominent lawyer and poet in a cosmopolitan area. One morning her car wouldn’t start and so AAA sent a mechanic.

He was Nepalese, which sent my employer into rapture. While he looked at her car she cooed to him about how amazing and inspiring she found his culture. He was pretty focused on his work. Eventually she asked him some questions about his life as an immigrant and if he was still in touch with his roots. He finally responded to her with a bit of enthusiasm, saying Oh yes, the Church was still dear to him and his family and their life revolved around it.

When she realized he was Christian her face dropped in ruined hopes and she walked away bored. His value as an exotic artifact to stimulate her enjoyment of her love of diversity was shattered.

It is astounding and amusing how the cosmopolitan class has bound itself to codewords and gate-keeping rituals while claiming to decry those very things.

230 Comments (Open | Close)

230 Comments To "When Is A Sandwich Not Just A Sandwich?"

#1 Comment By Forester On July 12, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

This may be off topic but does anyone else find McDonald’s and Burger King menus impossible to read? I recently ate in both and stood for long minutes trying to find a fish sandwich or a sundae in a welter of busy blinking photos that kept moving around.

#2 Comment By Oakinhou On July 12, 2017 @ 6:42 pm

“If the main point of the article is that there are certain markers of certain subsets of society and blocks put in place to guard the gate to the Country Club, so what? It has always been thus. If people can’t hack these sorts of situations or don’t feel like adapting and changing their behavior to move up and it keeps them “down”, ”

Actually, this is important and overlooked.

Cultural codes and signifiers are everywhere, and have been since before the Chosen People started nipping their thing. What is new is that most people nowadays, no matter their economic background, are expected to run into unknown cultural markers almost on a daily basis (as has been pointed out plenty of working class people from the NE know what soppresata is, but have no clue what a carnitas tamale might be)

As a society, the solution is not, as it seems Brooks is suggesting, to do away with those cultural markers (search/replace “soppresata” with “weird pepperoni type A” in all Italian deli stores) for the benefit of those that hadn’t encountered them before. What we need to do is teach our children how to respond to unknown cultural markers (relax, ask, explore)

#3 Comment By Larry On July 12, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

What happened to conservatives emphasis on personal responsibility? To use your example, “The white man who only has a high school education, and who lives in a trailer park on the outskirts of Bunkie” – why does he have only a high school education? Did he choose not to go to college? In America, a white guy always has the chance to go to college or learn a trade, or move away from Bunkie. If he chose not to do that, isn’t his inevitable lack of opportunities on him?

I grew up in a working class neighborhood. The people I still know from that world that didn’t go to college, didn’t go because they didn’t want to. Many of them felt that college was for other people, or they weren’t interested in education, or it would make them liberals, or they didn’t want to hear about evolution or something. If you choose to opt out of mainstream modern life, don’t complain about not being able to enjoy the fruits of modern life. Your complaints don’t ring true.

There’s plenty of people born into low income, or poverty stricken families who work hard and strive to get out, and do. It’s still possible in America. You just have to have the desire to do so.

#4 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 12, 2017 @ 8:17 pm

Cultural codes and signifiers are everywhere, and have been since before the Chosen People started nipping their thing. What is new is that most people nowadays, no matter their economic background, are expected to run into unknown cultural markers almost on a daily basis (as has been pointed out plenty of working class people from the NE know what soppresata is, but have no clue what a carnitas tamale might be)

Actually, I’d never heard of soppresata before this column, but carnitas tamales I’m quite familiar with. I chalk that up to cultural geography–not many Italian (or specifically Italian delis) in Orygun, but plenty of Mexicans and Mexican eateries.

#5 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 12, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

When I’m out and want coffee, I go to a gas station and pour it myself, because I can’t figure out how to order a cup of coffee at a Starbucks.

Go in and ask the barista for a “cup of coffee”. They have drip coffee, just like any truck stop or greasy spoon, and will happily pour you a cup. Cream and sugar are readily available on the counter.

Trust me. It works.

#6 Comment By Jobee On July 12, 2017 @ 8:26 pm

WOW!

With this and other articles on David Brooks’ important message, I am blown away (positively) by the attention being paid to the underlying hidden issue and the lack of awareness most people have, about their fellow travelers’societal sensitivities.

I only hope that as much attention and more, will be forthcoming to address the problem at its core of inequality of opportunity where it exists, and that such attention starts at the very beginning of our children’s education journey.

#7 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 12, 2017 @ 8:35 pm

I think Grande (“Big” in many Latin derived languages) is actually the small size, which makes no sense. And Venti is “wind” in Italian, do how does it imply a size?

Your Starbucks decoder ring:

Short (generally not listed on the menu, but available) is smaller than Tall, which is smaller than Grande, which is smaller than Venti.

A short (for a latte or other hot mixed espresso drink) is generally 8oz; a Tall is 12, a Grande is 16, and a Venti (which means 20 in Italian, not wind–that’s vento) is, unsurprisingly, the 20 oz drink. (Though an iced venti is 24, not 20).

#8 Comment By Jimmy Delgato On July 12, 2017 @ 8:49 pm

Take a lawyer from Manhatten to a local 1/4 race track some day or to a camp ground with a trailer.
He/she won’t know the lingo or the process and be a fish out of water. This concept is not limited to the “non elite” trying to do “elite” things. It is people doing something that is well established but new to them.

#9 Comment By garymar61 On July 12, 2017 @ 9:41 pm

I read the Brooks article. Absolute bilge.

As CMPT and JonF said in previous comments, structural barriers are vastly more important. They’re part of the structure, for God’s sake! It’s right there in the phrase itself.

I’m so glad I’m old! I read stuff like this and remember it’s the same thing I noticed when middle-aged, and before that, how I first ran into it when I was young. My previous experiences enable me to dismiss the prattlings of a neoliberal lickspittle like Brooks without fuss.

And snobbery? “Secret Passwords?” Please. In 1959 Vance Packard published The Status Seekers. He described how working-class Italians and Poles were working their up the class system, eventually entertaining and impressing their WASP superiors with their unique ethnic cuisines.

Then there was Paul Fussell, he wrote Class: A Guide Through the American Status System in 1983. Same subject, different class markers. Also, innumerable articles in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

In college in the mid-70s, I realized that some of the staff of Newsweek had recently noticed how the women of their social set were starting to work out and tone their bodies a la Jane Fonda. Bam! A Newsweek cover story was born! “The New Beauty”. It was very satisfying to realize that when I was reading tripe, I knew I was reading tripe.

“Secret signifiers” indeed. Tripe from Newsweek, bilge from Brooks. Plus ca change, and all that.

#10 Comment By Scott R On July 12, 2017 @ 10:38 pm

Isn’t it better to tell your Blue collar friend, “O owe you a solid. Let’s go out to dinner. You pick, and I’ll pay…; anything you want!” Thaqt’s what I do in those situations. Gratitude is not about me, it’s about them, and their comfort and joy. if they pick a seafood Restaurant, fine, I’ll just fillup on rolls and salad and smile and listen to their stories. (I don’t like sea food for instance).

#11 Comment By Susan On July 12, 2017 @ 10:48 pm

I find it interesting that the example of elitism or class privledge that was used was Italian deli meats. If you come from a working class Italian background you are going to know what those meats are because they are part of your culture. You are not likely to know what a lengua taco is or if you want it Mexican style or not. So, unless you are going to Taco Bell even a Mexican restaurant can make some people intimidated. By the way, it is a tongue taco and Mexican style is with cilantro and onions. While I agree with parts of what was written the idea that the upper middle class never feel uncomfortable or as if they don’t belong is just not accurate. We are just better at faking it.

#12 Comment By education realist On July 13, 2017 @ 1:13 am

“I think Brooks’s anecdote is close to meaningless unless we know the race and age (and probably a few other variables as well) of his lunch companion.”

Yes, exactly. Ironically, most people assume she’s white, when she almost certainly is Hispanic, as Rod observes.

Can you imagine if she was Chinese? What, you don’t like deli food? OK, let’s do Mexican!

Of course, since she’s Hispanic, the entire point of Brooks’ story is not what he intends. We have programs designed to give blacks and Hispanics additional access. The upscale elites (mostly whites) are shutting out all races, including whites. They’re importing more Hispanics and more Asians, giving special consideration to Hispanics. Discriminating against Asians, but that’s a whole nother story, and there’s some logic there.

I agree with those who point out that lots of working class folks are adventurous. I’m the first college graduate of my immediate family, but my working class parents didn’t hesitate to raise four kids way the hell overseas. We relished the food. My dad could teach himself the basics of an African dialect, find us a local who’d take us all throughout Kenya in his little car. He’d take the neighborhood kids out crabbing late at night. He can fix both airplanes and cars. Some people, regardless of class, are less open to new experiences.

But in any event, the funny part is how many people on Twitter who think working class whites are intolerant yet can’t ever think beyond white.

#13 Comment By jobee On July 13, 2017 @ 5:08 am

Why was my previous comment removed?

[NFR: It wasn’t. My software shows that it’s there. — RD]

#14 Comment By C L Smith On July 13, 2017 @ 7:33 am

Seems to me the right thing to do, in the case of the sandwich place, was to make a suggestion as to what his companion might like of those items they encountered. There is nothing wrong with getting an education into an area where one is unfamiliar. Sixty years ago when we moved to Arizona, we were unfamiliar with Mexican food, having moved from New Jersey. The only sit down restaurant in town was a Mexican food restaurant. We ordered the combination plate and quickly learned which item was which and that it was all delicious. We’ve been eating Mexican food ever since. But you could always spot the “gringos” getting the treatment. Their friends would bring them to the restaurant and, when the food was served, you heard the recitation: “This is a taco; this in an enchilada; this is a tamale,” etc. Now of course Mexican food is everywhere and people are very familiar with “the usual” items.

#15 Comment By Mimi On July 13, 2017 @ 8:08 am

At first I was confused by the Brooks piece; mostly because I grew up in a working class Italian-American family and neighborhood so the sandwich shop example was lost on me because Mexican food is more exotic. The mockery by my liberal acquaintances on social media that exploded was even more confusing. Even though Brooks came across as smug, I understand the point he is making. My personal pangs of social anxiety can still be felt when I recall attending a fancy yacht club party on an early date with my now husband.

[NFR: Why does Brooks come across as “smug”? He conceded in the column that he had behaved “insensitively” towards the guest (I don’t think he did, but he says he did). What’s “smug” about that? He was just doing something that was normal to him by taking her there, and he didn’t think it would be a big deal to her. He brought it up to talk about how he thought he was doing a good deed for her, but had been blinded by his own culture to how it would be taken. This is an ordinary, human thing to do. — RD]

#16 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On July 13, 2017 @ 10:48 am

To distill my point further, what I’m saying is-who cares? If the main point of the article is that there are certain markers of certain subsets of society and blocks put in place to guard the gate to the Country Club, so what? It has always been thus. If people can’t hack these sorts of situations or don’t feel like adapting and changing their behavior to move up and it keeps them “down”, well, we need Proles too.

This is an excellent example of why a lot of people, including myself, don’t take the moral philosophy of, well, your particular school of conservatism seriously. (N.B. that I didn’t say ‘conservatism’: there are a lot of different types of conservatism out there, and I have quite a bit of respect for Rod, for example). It’s also a good example of why you’re unconvincing when you try to convince people of the beauties of ‘traditional’ sexual ethics: when your moral judgment is so mistaken on a much more seriously, why would they give you credence on the sex stuff?

It’s quite true that we will always need ‘proles’: we don’t, however, need country clubs, coteries of journalists hanging out at the capicola shop, and other institutions that reproduce unearned privilege, and could get on perfectly fine without them. The kind of world I’d like to see is one that reduces everyone to being a ‘prole’, of sorts, not the kind that leaves class intact and just improves technical ‘mobility’ a bit.

There’s no good reason why the fact that someone has less education, less ‘openness’ in the psychometric sense, or works with their hands instead of in the professions, should entitle someone to any less access to the good things of life. That’s simply intuitive to a lot of people and is the rock upon which your defence of country clubs founders.

I’m sure that plenty of metro types use trivial cultural markers in the endless game of social one-upmanship, but I’ve been more impressed or depressed by how intolerant many salt-of-the-earth types are to the preferences of others as if it’s some sort of moral failing to like an unfamiliar kind of lettuce or type of mustard.

I have to say, I have never seen this personally. (And I speak as someone from a very upper middle class background, who grew up with money and foreign travel, who has a degree from an Ivy League and from a high ranked state university in my field, who works as an academic, who’s been fortunate enough to travel to places like Australia, England and Africa for work, and who gravitates to the boutique lettuce section and the German mustard whenever I’m in Schnucks.) I’ve also known more than a few salt-of-the-earth types; I was at a Fourth of July thing the other weekend at the home of an evangelical, Trump-voting, non-college-educated small business family that I know, and I’m casually dating a working class individual right now. I have never seen any of this kind of ‘intolerance’ towards either me personally or towards my tastes for unusual vegetables (in fact I brought some roasted fennel bulbs to the evangelical Trump family’s party and it was a big hit). I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t seen it personally.

That being said, never been in Missisissipi or the South so I have no personal experience there (although you couldn’t pay me enough to live in California either).

#17 Comment By Leslie On July 13, 2017 @ 12:00 pm

Inasmuch as “understanding” in this context is inherently flimsy, and fleeting, and to my emotional mind, necessarily fraught, might the best approach be, instead: do not presume; ask. Try to make every encounter a two-way street. You might get to the Mexican restaurant a lot quicker that way. That said, I often find Brooks extremely annoying, but I found this particular column to be insightful.

#18 Comment By mrscracker On July 13, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

“He brought it up to talk about how he thought he was doing a good deed for her, but had been blinded by his own culture to how it would be taken. This is an ordinary, human thing to do. — RD]
**************
I’m still missing something here & it’s probably my fault, but when I take a friend out to eat I don’t think of it as doing a good deed. I think of it as a part of our friendship & enjoying a meal together. But maybe by “good deed” you just mean being hospitable?
Sorry, comment boxes can make everything said confusing. At least to me.

[NFR: “Hey, let’s go to lunch. How does the Lucky Deli sound?”

“Fine.”

“Great, see you there at noon.”

They both get to the Lucky Deli, and the guest feels uncomfortable, so they leave.

Or, “You wanna go to lunch tomorrow?”

“Sure!”

“Great. See you at the Lucky Deli at noon.”

I never would have thought that a place as simple as a deli would cause anxiety in someone. When I was a film critic in NYC in the late 1990s, some movie publicists took me and two colleagues out to Nobu, which was at that time the best sushi restaurant in New York. But I was freaked out by sushi then, and couldn’t eat a thing. I think my hosts were embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t eat, and as a good Southerner, I was certainly mortified that I was making them uncomfortable. But the fact is, I could not choke sushi down, and there was nothing but sushi and sashimi on the menu. I didn’t blame the publicists for their mistake. It was perfectly reasonable to assume that New York newspaper people all ate sushi. I eventually came to LOVE sushi. Not eating on a movie studio’s dime at Nobu is one of the great foodie regrets of my life. — RD]

#19 Comment By Andrew Reed On July 13, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

Perhaps I’m an outlier, but …
I grew up in the South (NC) in the 1950s and ’60s. My dad was a tenant farmer’s son from Georgia, my mom an intellectual from Ohio with Russian emigre parents. One of the first lessons I was taught was not to look down on anyone, and not feel I had to look up at anyone, either, because I was equal to everyone.
A second lesson was that it’s never inappropriate to ask questions if you feel ignorant, whether about food (what is it, what’s this fork for?) or culture or history. To say “I’ve never heard of that; please tell me about it” is not a mark of stupidity but of intellectual curiosity.
A third lesson was to ask others what they like. And in that vein, Mr. Brooks, hoping to “treat” his friend, should have, at the outset, asked her what would be her choice for a lunch place. “Do you have a favorite restaurant?” “What’s your preference for lunch?” “Where would you like to go?”
Instead, he — typically for his superficial self-important smug self — chose for her and then was shocked, shocked! when it wasn’t her choice, too.
Yes, his mea culpa is refreshing (and rare), but it doesn’t excuse his original arrogance.

As I said, maybe I’m an outlier; I used to have lunch with country aunts and uncles reared with my dad on Georgia farmland, and dinner (with wine) with my Russian grandparents, and attended parties with the Vanderbilt descendants (who happened to live here) and camp and hike with rural neighbors whose parents were hairdressers and railroad linemen.

Unlike Mr. Brooks, who sees it as an earned privilege inextricably linked to money and higher education, I see sophistication as something outside the realm of socioeconomic “class”; it is knowledge of the world, high and low and in-between, and grows with every discovery of yet another something you don’t know and have to ask about.

#20 Comment By dominic1955 On July 13, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

Hector,

” It’s also a good example of why you’re unconvincing when you try to convince people of the beauties of ‘traditional’ sexual ethics: when your moral judgment is so mistaken on a much more seriously, why would they give you credence on the sex stuff?”

Two things, the issue at hand is more serious than sexual issues? Freely asserted, freely denied.

Secondly, you fail off the bat by assuming I’m trying to convince anyone of anything. Also, I’m not “defending” the country club so much as saying I find it silly to try to change human nature. Hierarchy and aristocracy/elites are part and parcel to human nature. We only do everyone harm trying to level things out.

#21 Comment By Charles On July 13, 2017 @ 3:44 pm

It’s a shame this article divides itself between a reasoned defense of Brooks’ anecdote and a more reflective attack on progressive diversity failings. I found the former fairly persuasive but the latter felt, while not necessarily wrong, poorly argued, as though you’re assuming all your readers are already on that page with you (which perhaps they are).

It’s particularly annoying that your second “update” is entirely devoted to mocking liberal attitudes, because it feels less like an update than an aside. I was about to link this to a facebook thread discussing the sandwich story but changed my mind with the second “update.” It just felt like an irrelevancy you tossed in as conservative red meat.

Perhaps I was simply wrong in thinking the thrust of the article was that Brooks had a point. Perhaps your actual goal was, as the second update suggests, to call out liberal hypocricy. In which case, you did better on your secondary point than your primary one.

#22 Comment By Anna B On July 13, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

From the update: “If I took one of my cousins into one of those shops, some would be discomfited by the “fancy” names and high prices, while others would mercilessly slay me for my pretension in choosing the place.”
So, being lower class is an excuse for rude behavior?
I was raised somewhere in the lower middle income bracket. You know what I’ve done when richer friends have taken me to the sandwich shop? I ask questions to learn what I’d like.
You know what I’ve done when invited to a backwoods BBQ or a rural church supper full of odd-looking salads? I ask questions to learn what I like.
Being in an unfamiliar setting is no excuse to make your hosts uncomfortable, nor is it an excuse to be closed off or hostile. It’s called manners. David Brooks has made up a straw universe of deli owners who turn into Henry Higgins at the sight of someone using the wrong fork. Most people like to help others feel comfortable and most people (hopefully) like to experience new things occasionally.

#23 Comment By stevie ferino On July 13, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

This is why I can’t date women who own horses. It’s been too long since I’ve backed a 30-foot 5th wheel trailer. I can’t properly saddle a horse. And I’d look a fool in front of my date if I tried. Even if I can order fancy sandwiches and she can’t. There are barriers everywhere for those meek enough to accept them. I’m too meek to date a horse woman. Life goes on.

#24 Comment By redfish On July 13, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

The weirdest part of this whole discussion — from David Brooks’ original column to all the responses — is the way people are painting a picture of America as having an ironclad division between a upper-middle class cosmopolitan culture and a backwoods working class culture.

As someone who grew up in the suburbs of a major city in a comfortably middle class family, it seems all sort of artificial to me. I would not identify my upbringing as either especially cosmopolitan or particularly backwoods.

My parents had college degrees — though not from prestigious colleges. They would stick to familiar foods when they went to restaurants, not because they were afraid of looking stupid, but they were afraid of paying a lot of money for something they didn’t like, when they could go to a restaurant where they knew they could pay for something they did like. Even though there are plenty of fancy restaurants around, they still wouldn’t know what ‘soppressata’ was, because they don’t seek those types of restaurants out.

Still, there would never be a problem blending in socially in a dinner with more exotic food items, because they’d just ask the server what an unfamiliar food was or choose something else that looked more familiar. It just wasn’t ideal if they were paying for the food, because, again, they didn’t want to be disappointed. Yet they’ll sometimes have to ask at Chinese restaurants they’ll regularly go to, because they’re familiar with Chinese, for example “What is Moo goo gai pan?”

On a different note, the whole virtue signaling around markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s is funny to me, because it has another, less-flattering side to it.

Big cities usually have a lot of small markets that cater to poor immigrant populations, and those markets have a large variety of interesting ethnic food items, with their produce is brought in from local farmers. If you’re interested in spreading out your taste or helping local farmers, they’re nice places to go to. Yet, the same type of customer who would be eager to go to a gourmet sandwich shop or an upscale Nepalese restaurant tends to shy away from these stores because they look dingy, have tacky advertisements, nothing is labeled ‘organic’, and, worst of all, they’d have to shop around poor immigrants they couldn’t relate to.

#25 Comment By Darth On July 13, 2017 @ 10:41 pm

RD has finally discovered what “SJW”s call “microaggressions”–small slights magnified out of all proportion. The sandwich was a gesture of microaggression. Maybe the lower class need what SJWs call “safe spaces” to protect themselves from subtle sandwich-based insults in the future.

#26 Comment By Tyro On July 14, 2017 @ 4:59 am

You almost nailed it, but you skirted over the obvious: the so-called “upper middle class” (which somehow includes writers and waitstaff in queens and Brooklyn) isn’t creating some kind of conspiracy of unspoken codes. Rather, it’s that some people are able to manage unfamiliar experiences and some people aren’t.

I am temperamentally conservative. The worst time for me is the day or two before a big trip where I think to myself, “it would be easier for me just to skip the flight and go to work on Monday than to take a vacation.” But I force myself and end up having an awesome experience.

And I don’t worry about seeming “stupid” in unfamiliar situations because, because of my academic background of studying very difficult topics I had little background in before, I am used to the feeling of being/looking stupid and figuring it out.

For all the talk of how we tell the poor to “do hard work and pull yourselves up by your bootstraps,” we are very reluctant to tell people the same thing when a town builds bike lanes, replaces a traffic light with a roundabout, or has a restaurant with “pomodoro” on the menu.

#27 Comment By Tyro On July 14, 2017 @ 5:09 am

Take a lawyer from Manhatten to a local 1/4 race track some day or to a camp ground with a trailer.
He/she won’t know the lingo or the process and be a fish out of water. This concept is not limited to the “non elite” trying to do “elite” things. It is people doing something that is well established but new to them.

The point which Rod almost gets, but not really, is that some people understand that we are all fish out of water, and figure out how to deal with it, and other people think that different environments and experiences are the sole domain of certain kinds of people, and those lines will never and should never be crossed, and that we must respect those boundaries.

What I think it comes down to is extraversion vs. introversion. The extrovert, in a familiar situation, constantly experiences positive responses to his needs and overtures via his familiarity with social codes and experiences. The introvert is the type to stand back and observe before navigating through anything. For the extravert, then, an unfamiliar situation is a deep shock where suddenly the responses they get are not what they are used to when engaging in their normal means of engagement, and such situations are regarded as a threat. Whereas for the introvert, all situations are ones where they observe and sit back and decode the situation before acting.

The problem is that America is a culture that values the extravert, and they are the ones who feel entitled to have their ways favored. And when they are not favored, they feel that it is the world who is wrong.

#28 Comment By mrscracker On July 14, 2017 @ 10:14 am

I never would have thought that a place as simple as a deli would cause anxiety in someone. When I was a film critic in NYC in the late 1990s, some movie publicists took me and two colleagues out to Nobu, which was at that time the best sushi restaurant in New York. But I was freaked out by sushi then, and couldn’t eat a thing. I think my hosts were embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t eat, and as a good Southerner, I was certainly mortified that I was making them uncomfortable. But the fact is, I could not choke sushi down, and there was nothing but sushi and sashimi on the menu. I didn’t blame the publicists for their mistake. It was perfectly reasonable to assume that New York newspaper people all ate sushi. I eventually came to LOVE sushi. Not eating on a movie studio’s dime at Nobu is one of the great foodie regrets of my life. — RD]”
**************
Thanks so much for your reply & comments.
Several years ago my former employer was kind enough to take us all out to a upscale restaurant for lunch at Christmastime. Another employee sitting next to me ordered a tunafish salad imagining-as I would-that it was tuna out of a can mixed with mayonnaise. To her horror, what she was served was a large, bloody looking, barely cooked chunk of tuna on some mixed salad greens. I would have been just as disappointed & I think like her, I would have gone home hungry.
But I’ll eat raw oysters, so I guess it’s really more about what’s familiar & what’s not.

#29 Comment By DF On July 14, 2017 @ 7:22 pm

All thanks to Rod Dreher for enabling more “titty-baby tantrumfests” (his words), this time from the working class. Honestly, when is someone going to tell these “stupid twits” (his words again) to just “grow up” (ditto) and learn to order a sandwich like an adult? Or must we continually provide these special Middle-American snowflakes with safe spaces and sorpressata-free zones just because their precious feelings are offended by fancy salami? But I guess that’s just my “unearned privilege” talking. Boo hoo hoo. Reality sucks, morons. Deal with it.

Sushi & Social Justice [6]
Oberlin Surrenders to SJW Food Fighters [7]

#30 Comment By Weldon On July 15, 2017 @ 10:10 am

Am I the only one amused by the fact that the tease picture is a muffaletta, a sandwich made of Italian cold cuts and beloved of poor white southerners?

On that, my wife (from the Bay Area) felt confused and out of place when I took her to a plate lunch restaurant in my small Mississippi hometown. What should small-town southerners do in a situation like that to check their food privilege?