When people weaponize cultural inside information

Is there anyone more cruel than an 8th-grade girl who wants to put another girl in her place?

They are cute shoes, even if they were used as a class signifier.

Beth, a lovely, kind woman I know, went to school with rich kids, but was herself from a more modest background.

She still remembers – decades later – the time a classmate laughed at her for not knowing what a Lacoste shirt was.

And she remembers the girl in college who smirked when Beth said something about potpourri.

“It’s ‘po purr REE,” the other girl said, “not ‘POT pour ee.”

Beth’s response was to make sure she was never again in a situation where someone tried to make her feel less than for not knowing the group rules. She vowed to learn the unwritten norms.

And she has – to the extent that it’s even part of her job now to teach salespeople proper table manners and other social graces.

You know who mispronounces words?

People who read.

In an English class in college, my professor kept talking about “Gertah.”

I couldn’t figure out where he was in the textbook – I could find nothing that looked like “Gertah.”

I did see “Goethe,” though, whom I had heard of before. I thought his name was pronounced “Go-EE-thee.”

Kindergarten through 12th grade, growing up on or near air force bases, I went to school with kids from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

I didn’t meet any rich kids until I was in college, where I was astonished to find people whose parents had bought them cars and who were not only paying their tuition and but also sending them spending money.

That’s not to say that the kids I went to K12 with didn’t find ways to create in groups and out groups, but these groups were not based on larger social distinctions into which one is simply born, like wealth.

It felt like we were all kind of the same. And living on base, we were all the same. We all had the same kind of house, with size allocated by need and location by rank. We all went to the same movie theater and the same pool and shopped at the same store.

Even the general’s daughter, who was a class ahead of me, was really nice. She did not act like the person whose father could ruin the careers of any of our dads.

I had a guide to preppy dressing. My best friend in high school raved about Lacoste and Pappagallo and add a bead necklaces and Bermuda bags. But nobody else at school knew about these things and we were living outside of the US, where such items were not easily available, so I knew about preppiness in the way in the same way I knew about astronauts landing on the moon: it was something that existed in the world but didn’t really affect my everyday life.

Mr T’s father was an English professor. He valued “proper” speaking, to the point that he was continually correcting his grandchildren, bemoaning that their mother, his daughter in law, spoke with a South Philly accent, something he thought was wrong and indicated that she was a bad person.

I kid!

Well, not really.

He did hate my SIL’s accent and deep down, probably thought she was bad because of it, although if I had challenged him, he would have denied such thinking.


When Mr T was a little boy, the family lived in a mill town.

Mr T’s parents did not want him playing with the other children in the neighborhood because the children’s parents – who worked at the mills – had not gone to college and the children did not speak standard English. They finally moved to a bigger city so Mr T could go to school with more appropriate children.

My father was the first one in his family to go to college. None of my grandparents went past 8th grade and my dad’s brothers and a few of my mom’s siblings finished only high school.

My dad majored in Russian history and then continued to take classes – in geology, in oceanography, in computer programming – just because he loved learning. He traveled all over the world. He knew things.

I never once ever saw or heard him correct other family members, even when they said “ain’t” or used other non-standard English.

Mr T used to be very critical of people who do not speak standard English.

I have finally convinced him that the rules are subjective and not grounded in any external morality and that we should consider them to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

I should admit it took me a while to get to that point.

Mr T teasing me for using “boughten,” which I discovered upon reading How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland is a legitimate regionalism, and my love for my grandparents, who said “ain’t” and “ainso” started me on the path from prescriptive to descriptive.

Mr T’s father’s snobbery tipped me over the edge and made me realize how wrong I had been. FIL’s constant criticism of my sister in law, whom I adore and who has always been the most gracious and welcoming in-law I have, made me realize how mean it is to judge someone based on language.

So thank you FIL I guess?

Beth’s reaction to someone treating her badly was to learn the rules.

My reaction to such a thing is to blow everything up and to say the rules are stupid.

The rules are stupid and those two girls who corrected Beth were horrible people.

Don’t be a horrible person. That is all.


3 thoughts on “When people weaponize cultural inside information

  1. When I was a middle-class mid-teenager, I had a friend I knew who wanted to and was aiming to class jump (out of working-class), so I very very awkwardly told her that “needs vacuumed” and similar constructions would sound more standard/middle-class with the “to be” in the middle, which she took very graciously.

    Four years later, I met an *upper* middle-class college student who used “needs vacuumed” constructions regularly and I kicked myself for giving my friend unnecessary advice. I felt badly about it for *years* – but I also knew she wanted to not be held back by working-class English, and that was my best guess. Anyway. After years of guilt, I was finally even more awkward and brought it up and apologized, and she told me it had been useful, like I meant it to be, and not hurtful (which is good, because I definitely *did not* mean it to be hurtful but that sort of thing often is hurtful even when well-intentioned?). Anyway. It’s weird, these things like clothes and language and gender markers that people *shouldn’t* judge rigidly but that people commonly *do* – and the push/pull between making a better world (by demonstrating that someone can be fully English-equipped *and* use “ain’t”; or feminine and still competent) vs. having a less barrier-strewn path, yourself.

    As a reader who has had many, many gaffes when using only-read vocabulary, I do wish that someone would come out with an audiobook dictionary: not the words like “cat” but all the middling words and middling proper names, spelled and then pronounced (or – for the case of things like “Augustine” -.pronounced the assorted ways that people do pronounce them). It’d be great to go to sleep by, too…


    1. It’s totally different when it comes from a place of kindness!

      But I still regret trying to get a woman at my old job – she has a PhD from GA Tech in Industrial Engineering and was THE MOST QUALIFIED PERSON IN THE COMPANY IN HER FIELD – to stop with the upspeak. Upspeak? Is sometimes how experts sound?

      Also. Are you from Pittsburgh? 🙂


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