It was Senior week at my small-city university when I asked a very dashing fellow classmate why he was heading to medical school in the Fall. After all, wasn’t that basically like starting school all over again?
We had just finished 4 years as undergraduates! When I pressed him to find if there were any other physicians in his family he replied no, and further fascinated, I asked why he wanted to become a doctor.
His chest puffed out, his chin tilted up, and he looked down his nose and sneered at me, “Money…”
I swallowed hard and realized there was something not quite right. Even though most of the kids on campus were from tiny farm towns and backwater cities scattered across 4 states, nearly everyone knew that a response like this was not polite. Sure, this was 1988 and quotes from the movie “Wall Street” were making their way into every pop culture conversation, but being rude to a swooning woman was still considered ill-mannered.
Walking on campus a couple days later, a small voice inside offered me some clarity: He said “money” but he actually meant ‘class’. Ah, the age-old mistake of assuming the more money, the more class one necessarily has!
As he sneered at me that night, I certainly could have squared him six ways to the sun by informing him he had no idea who he was speaking to, or technically “at” since there was no misinterpreting his self-importance.
And here began his first mistake (so I have been told) over the past 3 decades of his newly found purchasing power where he has ceaselessly racked up tacky overpriced nouns with no signs of slowing down. Class reunions: Don’t you just love the loaded chatter rife with sublime but deadly backhanded compliments? (wink, nod)
Here’s what I should have told him in May of 1988 although a few high-end car salesmen would not be happy with me, at all.
Money has nothing to do with having class. Please read that sentence again. Now, once more, read it again.
Class is all about possessing an extremely heightened awareness of what is appropriate in any given situation. [italics mine, BGT] Class is reigning in the knee-jerk reactions of your ego in social settings and immediately shifting to the other person’s state of mind, given the situation.
When someone exudes class, what a person is doing is authentically enjoying what others enjoy for the sake of their enjoyment; refined people truly love when others are happy and at peace with themselves because of an accomplishment or due to a pleasant change in their own environment.
The way in which you cultivate this heightened awareness is through flawless manners no matter what the situation. This is the ceaseless Zen practice of displaying good manners: it makes all social interactions as pleasant as possible and guarantees the person with whom you’re engaging will feel good after you leave the conversation. What could be more refined than this?
What is the lynch pin in the this awareness if manners are the method? Restraint. For the way I was raised, there was no more key concept than that of restraint and, to my way of thinking, it is the one behavioral practice which may save you from nearly every disaster you can imagine.
Don’t like the food at a large gathering where warmed up mediocre meals are brought out to tables of dozens and dozens of people? Restraint in your words and facial expressions works wonders. Instead of offering your opinion, restrain your comments to give only information that doesn’t detract from others’ experience.
When dinner companions complain the potatoes are not up to what they expect, instead add that this is the first meal you’ve had today and that with as hungry as you are, the potatoes taste fantastic (even if they taste exactly like you’d imagine a cardboard box left out in the rain).
Restraint in your eating habits, restraint in offering your opinion, restraint in talking on and on about the things you enjoy, restraint in expressing irritation with someone else’s apparent failure(s), restraint in jumping to conclusions and acting upon flimsy evidence, restraint in wearing very fashionable clothes, restraint in purchasing new items (although one certainly has the means to do so at each whim), restraint in displaying expensive new acquisitions…these are observable in people who have class.
The irony is that in restraining oneself, one appears more refined and aware of their social surroundings and can adjust to any type of interaction, which is the entire point of enjoying other people’s company.
Unwavering awareness and restraint, regardless of financial means, will always get you there when it comes to having class. Even if the Ferrari dealerships each wish this wasn’t true.
And restraint comes without regret: I don’t regret my restraint in offering to pay my crush’s undergraduate student loans, his medical school tuition and fees, or to help with his living expenses during his very lengthy physician residency program. His one comment made my quietly writing each of these rather large checks ultimately pointless.
Funny how that works, isn’t it?
- “Mary Louise Case”