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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Masks and mannerisms: Exploring the pitfalls of social mobility

Recently, I have found myself becoming overly-invested in the satirical nature of Gwyneth Paltrow’s court hearing. Some of the many highlights include Paltrow pouting on the stand about how she lost half a day of skiing or how the opposition — an orthopedic surgeon — who cannot attend his wine tastings anymore. The media is, rather accurately, representing this unfolding charade as humorous because of how out-of-touch these people and their problems seem. This unfolding class dynamic reminds me of a personal reckoning that I recently encountered.

I was eating dinner with a Middlebury friend and two other friends at a restaurant where the menu was classified by appetizers, entrées, desserts and a bottle of wine to accompany the experience. When we had finished our appetizers and were waiting for the waiter to bring out the second course, my instincts kicked in the midst of our idle conversation. I began stacking our empty plates in preparation for the waiter to take them away, an action which rendered my dinner company aghast. Unbeknownst to me, I had committed a social faux-pas. They informed me that you don’t stack plates in such restaurants because it’s “the waiter's job.”

As someone who grew up lower-class and is a first-generation college student, this was a glimpse into a way of life I had never encountered until I arrived here at Middlebury; a way of life dictated by an unspoken agreement of etiquette and manners. To me, a napkin represents utility. In my friends’ world, a napkin is a signifier of respect, something that belongs on their laps throughout the duration of a meal. In this world, it is customary to make reservations for a meal, no matter how casual. Their rules dictate that you order a bottle of wine for the table at the start of the meal; that the wait staff make a grand gesture of decanting it in front of you; that your utensils stay in your hands until you are finished and a criss-cross knife and fork placement angling 90 degrees on a plate tells the waiter “I’m done… you can take this away from me now.” These customs and mannerisms delineate the haves and have-nots; collectively they solidify the in-group mentality of the elite and, more importantly, identifies and excludes outsiders.

I have always valued authenticity as a personal attribute both within myself and the people that I surround myself with, but I have learned that such an attribute isn’t necessarily sustainable if I want to “make it” in such a society. To climb the ladder we all need to make sacrifices, and I am in the process of making mine. 

In classes, I have noticed how some of my classmates' demeanors change in different environments and contexts. One moment they will be speaking with their friends and as soon as the class starts, they are completely different people. It is as if they have put on a mask, altering everything from their persona to their mannerisms to how they carry themselves. At one point, I looked at their shape-shifting as an uncanny ability, filling me with awe and bewilderment. Now, I see myself mirroring this behavior. 

I am a junior, so I am more than halfway through my journey at Middlebury, but this incident at the restaurant made me contemplate my time here. Coming to Middlebury, I expected to sit in lectures and write essays about the ideas of Hume and Locke while replicating their esoteric jargon. However, I did not expect to become one of them — the elite. For the longest time I yearned to be where I am now. For the opportunity to exchange ideas with incredibly ambitious, intelligent, and curious people on a daily basis. To become fully integrated with the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world. For them to accept me. Recently, however, my unease with this lifestyle has left me with a peculiarly queasy feeling, something that feels a lot like guilt.

Maybe this transition between my past and present has been too seamless. I feel as if I have lost, or am in the process of losing some of my core attributes, qualities that made me who I am and allowed me to pave the path that led me to Midd. I am grasping at the little things that remind me of my lower-class upbringing. Clinging to the things that tie me to my roots, that remind me of how I was raised and who I grew up around. So, no, I will continue to stack the plates at restaurants, even if it is “the waiter's job;” I won’t feel obliged to put the napkin on my lap; and I certainly will not be caught seasoning a glass of wine, a spectacle that entails lightly swirling it four times counterclockwise prior to drinking it. 

Beyond that, I want to acknowledge how appreciative I am for all of the opportunities that Middlebury presents for people like me. Middlebury has helped me in my attempts to integrate into a seemingly exclusive society. To me, this place is the epitome of American meritocracy. It is probably true that I can learn about the various metaphysical theories of consciousness from a philosophy textbook written in the 17th century. I don’t think that there are many other places where I’d get to mingle with those who embody the mannerisms of high society. I appreciate the knowledge that this way of life exists, but living life constrained by these rituals and mannerisms is suffocating, which is why I would prefer to keep these cultural spheres separate.