In January of 1979, Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., perhaps the original and definitely one of the more articulate writers to discuss the culture of Old Money, penned a piece for The Atlantic Monthly. It was entitled, “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”
The article covers clothing, attitudes, and education, among other topics. I found the section on ‘charm’ to be of particular interest, especially as it related to discretion and modesty.
Preppies are not the only class of people in society to acknowledge the value of charm, but they’re the only ones to cultivate it. Preppies work on their charm the way City Kids work on their wits, and the way Archies work on their golf game.
Preppies tend to think of their charms as virtues. Perhaps they are some of them. It is virtuous, for example, to put people at their ease, which is what many of the Preppie charms aim to do. Still, Preppies think of their charms as “working” or “not working,” and this is not the way people ordinarily think of virtues such as goodness or courage. The Preppie charms, then, include discretion, modesty, self-restraint, deference, gratitude and grace. All grow out of the principal characteristics of prep-school life, its harshness, competitiveness, and unending publicity, its hierarchies of winners and losers, and its quality of constant performance.
Discretion. In social situations, Preppies seem to be guided less by their intelligence than City Kids are, and less by convention than Archies. They move instinctively, and the instinct most alive in them is discretion.
Discretion is alertness. The Preppie is exquisitely alert to the most delicate reverberations of his own impact on a social situation, and of everyone else’s. Discretion is a sense of occasion. Preppies mete out their feelings and thoughts and gestures in discreet performances, chosen and shaped for their appropriateness like a daub on a pointillist’s brush.
Modesty. The essence of Preppie charm, to those who aren’t wholly contemptuous of it, is that it is disarming. It’s meant to be. Preppies know that they are seen as privileged and on that account are envied. Much Preppie charm, especially modesty, is calculated to disarm envy.
Modesty is the economy of egotism. Its first rule is to honor the claims of others to a share of the audience’s time, if only so that they may make fools of themselves. Its second rule is to be aware that in the perspective of history (with which the Preppie fancies himself on special terms), all feats are soon undone, surpassed, or shown to have had evil consequences. Thus Preppie modesty downplays all accomplishments, not just one’s own.
Deference. Deference is the ghost of chivalry that hides in every Preppie’s closet. It is learned at boarding school through the experience of unremitting subordination — to the headmaster, to the faculty, and to boys and girls older and better than you.
Deference, moreover, is not only an expression of eager subordination; it also expresses a faith that society may really and truly be composed of hierarchies of excellence, that America is a landscape of natural pyramids. Thus, a son who shows deference to his father, or a student to his teachers, or an associate to his senior partners, or an adviser to the President of the United States, is not only granting to paternity, knowledge, seniority, or high office the authority that in the Preppie view they deserve; he is also reinforcing his belief that paternity, knowledge, seniority, and high office still continue as the chief organizing principles of society. Therefore, deference is a Preppie charm in the quite literal sense that it makes the world seem a place in which Preppies get what they deserve, and where those who get more than others do deserve deference as well.
Gratitude. The wealth of the Preppie is measured in “contacts,” not in bank accounts. Some of them come to believe that contacts count for everything in the world, in which case gratitude is the essential element in their Preppie modesty. None of them ever believes, or is ever allowed to believe, that “he made it on his own.” Archies and City Kids can be self-made men; Preppies can only be grateful.