Social Class, Social Etiquette and Social Anxiety


June 5, 2016 by Jean

I was surprised when several readers responded to my recent post on friendship by saying that I seem to have a knack for making friends. That’s not how I think of myself; for years, I’ve considered myself an introvert with fairly high needs for solitude and as someone who tends to be somewhat anxious and awkward in social situations. Comments suggesting otherwise made we wonder if I have changed, and particularly how my retirement and my move back to Maine may have altered my responses to social situations.

During my working years, I often struggled with the rules of upper-middle-class etiquette. I grew up in a working-class family and a working-class town, and working-class etiquette was my native social language. I first became aware of social class differences in social etiquette during graduate school, when one of my friends expressed frustration at my recurring rudeness because, when I was invited to others’ homes for a meal, I never asked “What can I bring?” I was shocked to learn that I had been guilty of bad manners; I came from a world in which, if people wanted you to bring something, they said so. For example, “We’re having everyone over to our house on Saturday; it’s going to be pot-luck, and we’re hoping you can bring one of your great apple pies.”

I remembered my friend’s etiquette lesson when, during my first month in my first academic teaching job, my department chair and his wife invited me to a Saturday evening dinner at their house. “What can I bring?” I asked. “Nothing,” my host replied, “just bring yourself!” Although they didn’t want me to contribute anything to dinner, I was very proud of myself for remembering to ask – until I arrived at their home on Saturday evening and realized that I was the only one invited who had not brought some kind of hostess gift. I felt as though I was in the middle of a game that I didn’t understand the rules of.

My struggle to understand those rules was a recurrent source of social anxiety for the next thirty years. For a while, I had a faculty friend who was the son of a prominent doctor and the grandson of a college president and whom I used as a consultant in these situations. No matter how much he coached me, however, I never developed good instincts about what to bring as a gift. Many of my colleagues would bring a bottle of wine in these situations; but I don’t drink alcohol and find it difficult to select a type of beverage I don’t drink. My choices of gifts when I relied on my own instincts usually turned out to be all wrong. I still remember the agonies of trying to choose the right gift when, during my Gettysburg years, I was invited to dinner at the home of a pair of Japanese colleagues known for their elegant dinner parties. After giving a lot of thought to the gift problem, I went to a local florist and bought several stems of a beautiful, understated iris that seemed like just the kind of flower that would fit a Japanese aesthetic. My aesthetic instincts were good, but I realized just how lame my gift was when I arrived at my colleagues’ home to find a garden full of beautiful irises and elegant arrangements of these flowers throughout the house. My little handful of florist irises looked pathetic in comparison. (I was sorely tempted to stash them in a dark corner before my hosts opened the door!) I was trying to behave properly, but I continued to have a tin ear for the nuances of upper-middle-class etiquette.

When I retired from teaching and moved back to Maine, I left most of these social anxieties behind. What changed? My social life in Gettysburg consisted almost entirely of interactions with faculty colleagues and their families; this was very much an upper-middle-class world. My social circle in Maine is much more varied. Moreover, the part of Maine I live in, a rural town on the outskirts of the old industrial heart of the state, is an area whose economy once rested primarily on hardscrabble farms and blue-collar jobs in textile mills, shoe mills, and paper mills. Working-class culture is dominant here, and the working-class etiquette I learned as a child is the local social vernacular. It’s a relief to be back where my instinctive responses to social situations are appropriate responses.

Being in a place where I don’t feel continually wrong-footed has helped me to relax and be myself. This has, in turn, made me feel less socially awkward and more open to new social situations and social relationships. If I have developed a knack for making friends, it is at least in part because I am just acting naturally without feeling the need to second-guess my responses.

13 thoughts on “Social Class, Social Etiquette and Social Anxiety

  1. bernie says:

    Wow Jean: Your post really hit home for me. I also was raised in a blue collar family where my parents didn’t make it past the 8th grade. I lived in subsidized housing and was never taught any middle class or higher etiquette. I went on to receive a PhD and taught in private schools but NEVER felt comfortable in the situations you mentioned. I was always a fish out of water in such social settings. I always feel more comfortable in places where I am surrounded by blue collar people and, although I am white, ethnically diverse people.

    I have retired the same time you retired after 40 years of teaching. At first the thought of retirement was daunting and so very frightening….what would I do? A black hole scary fear!

    Needless to say, I absolutely adore retirement. LOVE IT! This past year has been utterly enjoyable and liberating. I’ve never felt so good…and I really was happy teaching. But this year (on June 10) has beat all expectations….My days are filled with lots to do in an unorganized way. I also, like you, am making new friends. I’ve witnessed Spring for the first time ever! I just returned from a magnificent trip to several Greek Islands, including Santorini. In February I travelled to Puerto Vallarta. My garden looks fabulous and I’m walking miles.

    The one thing my working class parent taught me was only to purchase what one can afford and no credit! Because of their lessons on the importance of saving…I can live most comfortably in retirement.

    It’s a pleasure Jean…BTW I’m on the opposite side of the country from you…Seattle!

    Thank you for your wonderful blogs!


    • Jean says:

      Bernie, Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your thoughts. It’s a relief to know that my social class analysis of my own experiences resonates with others.
      I was also taught that frugal/saving approach to life. (I’m guessing that your parents, like mine, were children of the depression.) The life I’m able to live now is thanks to those financial lessons from my parents (don’t buy something until after you’ve saved up for it) and the generous retirement benefits provided by my employer.

  2. Jean R. says:

    My parents were blue collar people, too. Neither one made it to high school. But growing up, my best friend’s mother was a teacher and she stuffed all the etiquette she could down the girls in my neighborhood with tea parties and decorum lessons. My best friend and her sister put it to good use in the Washington D.C. social circles, one of them was married to an ambassador for decades. The other sister (my friend) does so much entertaining she has five complete sets of dishes and has dined at the White House a few times. One time the subject of hostess gifts came up and my friend was surprised that, like her, I didn’t have a drawer of gifts I can grab when going some place. It’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong when going to parties. Some people don’t like you to bring things that might not fit with their planned menu and others want you to help defray the costs of entertaining by bringing a dish, though they won’t say that out loud. Anyway, I’m glad I’m not the only senior citizen who still doesn’t always get it right.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, It’s interesting that your friend’s mother tried to help all of the neighborhood girls to learn middle-class etiquette. I have friends who grew up in the middle class and whose mothers sent them to “charm school” to learn these things. I honestly don’t think I had any friends whose parents had been to college or had middle-class jobs until I got to college and grad school. The idea of having a drawer of hostess gifts would never have occurred to me (which is probably just as well because they most likely would all have been disastrously wrong! 😉

  3. Carole says:

    Fascinating post. I still find some social situations awkward. I’m a fairly intuitive person and this has served me well for the most part. But I still struggle at times with the social niceties of engaging in conversation with people I do not know, or do not know well. I have learned to ask a lot of questions, thereby taking the focus off me. If I discover a thread of mutual interest, so much the better. I envy those who find the flow of conversation to be easy. That only happens with me when I am with people I know well. Or when I post on my own blog or comment on others’ blogs!

    • Jean says:

      Carole, I should learn that trick of asking lots of questions about the other person. I tend to tell personal anecdotes to break the ice, but that can quickly become a bore for the other person. My father was an extrovert with the gift of asking questions. When he met someone new, he would quickly and deftly extract their life history and could almost always come up with someone he and his new acquaintance both knew!

  4. Diana Studer says:

    that transition from formal ‘business’ colleagues to

    people we meet at the garden club etc, does make it easier to make new friends.
    Easier, but still not easy!

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I hadn’t thought about the formal/informal distinction as part of what is going on here. In my experience, working class people almost never have formal social occasions, so working class etiquette is etiquette for informal social interactions. You are right that the situations that gave me so much trouble during my working years were more formal. Thank you for that insight!

      • Diana Studer says:

        You remind me of the first time we met a couple in Porterville. Invited to lunch, myhostess gift was a large bunch of roses from the garden (then I could pick a LARGE bunch). We had lunch on the patio in the sun. When it got too hot, the people withdrew inside into the shade. My roses were left to the sun – sob. I’ve learnt that lesson – she doesn’t care about fresh flowers or garden plants (but he does!)

        That first invitation to someone’s home is always a minefield of tricky questions!!

  5. Diana Studer says:

    PS Is Blogger being difficult about WP comments again?
    I see you used a Blogger profile to comment – which sadly has no link to your blog.

    • Jean says:

      Sometimes Blogger and WordPress have trouble communicating with one another and Blogger can’t “verify my credentials” with WordPress. If that happens, I retry. If it rejects me twice, I go with my Google login profile.

  6. Nync says:

    Jean, your piece on social etiquette certainly resonated, but I couldn’t help wondering how or whether the study of sociology casts any light on this situation. (And I realize I probably just asked for a whole chapter in a book!)

    By the way, I’ve been following your blog for quite some time, and it’s been a tremendous help & inspiration to me as I’ve been planning my own retirement, so thank you!

    • Jean says:

      Nync, It’s great to hear from you. My analysis in this post relies on two basic premises from sociology: (1) Our interactions with others are shaped by shared expectations about how people should (and shouldn’t) behave. (2) Our life experiences are strongly shaped by our social location, particularly our placement in systems of social inequality (like social class, gender, and race/ethnicity). Here I used both insights to consider how unwritten rules about how people should behave in certain types of social situations are inflected by social class.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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