Archive for the Culture Category

Cultural Differences or How to Win Friends and Influence People

Posted in Autobiographical, Culture on August 27, 2009 by smpiv

I have started this post several times and it hasn’t gone well.  It’s a relatively simple premise, but I keep taking the long way around to get there.   For example the following–

s763248152_1104462_5419This story starts like a bad joke–two guys walk into a bar.  Those two guys are brothers, named Mike and Scott.  One has brown hair, the other blond.  One has brown eyes, the other blue eyes.  One thinks the Porsche Targa is an abomination, the other thinks it’s a beautiful thing.  You get the idea, they’re brothers.

They had arrived at different times so by the time the dark one arrived the light one had been in the back bar, hanging by the tree for an hour or so.  These two did not share taste in women either, and when Mike arrived (OK I’m the dark one) in the back bar making his way for his place under the tree, his brother quickly introduced him to a girl he had been talking to.  Then he was gone.

The problem here is that these are differences between two brothers–not that we aren’t cultured, but it’s not what I’m getting at and, as you will see, has little to do with the premise.

Example two is as follows–

I’ve never had a firm grasp on the notion of fortune.  I grew up comfortably, never really wanting for anything.  Our family swirling in the midst of the great middle class–probably bumping into the upper end more than once.  Hard to say.  As a child I was never privy to the state of the families’ finances and talking about money was impolite–it still makes me uncomfortable.

This is getting closer to the mark, but again not exactly it.

So, I begin again and this time I will go right at it.

Margaret_Mead_NYWTSWhen Margaret Mead wrote her seminal tome “Coming of Age in Samoa” in 1928 (ain’t Wikipedia great!) she had lived with Samoans for a time and gone beyond the obvious physical differences, that culturally mark a society, to note a bigger cultural difference that could not be had by simple observation, but through living amongst the natives.  In this case it was the Samoan cultures journey from adolescence to adulthood.

I don’t purport to be making any seminal judgments or study here.  My observation would hardly hold up to any scientific scrutiny, in fact, I was part of the incident in question, so I have already broken the first rule of clinical observation by interjecting myself into the study.  So let’s get in the way back machine and make our way to the early nineties when life was simpler and see what was observed one evening in Cooperstown, New York.

I arrived in Cooperstown for the third or fourth time.  I had been to the Baseball Hall of Fame and been to all of the shops on Main Street.  I had become a “regular” at a local bar where I honed my skill at pool by using the mantra, “Be the ball.  Be the ball.”  I was moving among the natives comfortably and was a favorite at the local bar because I was such an easy mark at pool.  I was gaining their trust.

deborah harryIt helped that my girlfriend at the time was one of the natives and I shamelessly used her as a guide.  I was introduced to friends,  friends of friends, to people who had worked at Deborah Harry’s mom’s gift shop and told endlessly that the Hall of Fame was a blight on the landscape.  I was noting all of this with my own personal backdrop that loved the Hall of Fame and wanted to wander in the woods pretending to be Natty Bumppo.  But I kept that under wraps so as not to tarnish the trust I had garnered.

The introductions continued and my guide would usually preface an introduction with that person’s lineage, where their money came from and how far removed they were from their fortune.  It quickly become apparent that I was in a satellite of Florida–God’s ultimate waiting room, and that these otherwise pleasant people had their finger on the pulse.  Grandma’s pulse, Mom’s pulse, step daddies pulse, all sorts of pulses.  Very wealthy pulses.

The difference here was that this was seriously old money.  I was told how these people came by their fortunes, what their names were, what their grandparents names were, and I was drawing blanks.  The only name I knew was the daughter of a Hollywood director, otherwise these trust fund babies were a mystery to me.

As this began to unfold before me I began to pay closer attention and the dusty veneer began to fall away.  This was money that didn’t need a Potomac, Maryland or Beverly Hills to display itself.  This was money that flowed away from corporations through channels only known to the most wizened old accountant.  This was money that began to accrue on the Mayflower.  The hand me downs these “children” were living with could take up an entire season of Antiques Roadshow–the British version.

In fact, there was a royal family desperation to some of these stories as some of these “children” meandered into middle age in search of their slice of the family fortune and a throne that seemed ever further away.

And then, what every cultural observer waits for, an invitation–well, to my guide and her date, but I was in.  The Long Hut.

I don’t remember how far out our hostess was from her fortune or how long she had waited or if she needed the death of a Grandparent or one or two parents.  You can see how convoluted this can become and had I taken better (or any) notes I could better report her situation.  In any case she lived in any old farmhouse overlooking Lake Otsego with a bit of quiet desperation permeating the whole situation.

I was introduced to the hostess and given a dismissive look.  I initially thought she may have been on to me, but I later found out that my guide had brought a number of observers over the years to these gatherings.  And, I was warned, in no uncertain terms, not to lean back in the family antique that was strategically placed next to the chips and dip.  Anyone who knows my passion for chips and dip should be able to predict the outcome of this journey, but let’s take it anyway.

I left my guide to make my observations unhindered by any prefaced introductions that would otherwise taint my study.  Down some stairs, out a back door, and straight for the keg–rich or poor, the alcoholic water cooler.  And there they were.  Two dandies, still in uniform.

As I came closer I noticed their blue blazers had school crests on them and that their chinos were pressed and well worn.  Of note was the Choate or Andover give away–penny loafers, with penny, and no socks.  Wow, and in the wild.

howell1When I was a child one of my favorite TV shows was Gilligan’s Island.  One of my favorite characters was Thurston Howell III played by Jim Backus.  It had more to do with Mr. Magoo than Thurston Howell III and with the way he talked–through his teeth.  An easy thing to mimic, and in my mind a completely fictitious vocal mannerism.


As I approached the keg Thurston Howell III was talking excitedly to Thurston Howell III.  I was excited because I love to play TV games at parties–theme songs, remember that episode, whose a bigger babe, Wilma or Betty?  These guys had started without me and I came close to joining in when it dawned on me that these guys were for real–at least a real I had no concept of.  It seems Jim Backus hadn’t made up his vocal mannerism at all, there are people out there that actually talk like that.  This was news to me.

It was also eye-opening and in my head an absolute laugh riot (apologies to John Cusack).  How I managed not to laugh out loud is still a mystery.  Anyway I did a bit of space invasion to get closer to these specimens that could probably buy and sell me a million times over.  They grudgingly gave way to my mass and introduced themselves–let’s just call them Thurston Howell III, because I can’t remember their names anyway.  They were nice enough, but I could tell they were tolerating me like a distant cousin–a necessary social intrusion that  would leave soon enough.

I enjoyed my beer as I watched and listened with fascination as they looked like two animated ventriloquist’s dummies free of their masters hands.  Their mouths never moved and I lost the train of the conversation several times as I marveled at their perfectly annunciated “v”, “f”, “b”, “m” and “p”s that required no pursing of their lips.  Their sidelong glances finally said it was time to move along and I did.

I made a number of interesting observations as I moved among the party goers, but I couldn’t get the Thurstons off my mind, but I had long lost their trail as the party got bigger and bigger, so I made my way for the food.

Exhausted by my studies I went for the chips and dip.  After having eaten enough to feed a village in the sub-Sahara I sat down in the forewarned chair.  I kept myself as still as I could heeding the warning not to lean back and successfully went back to the chips and dip.  Then I forgot myself.

I leaned back, the back of my mind setting off alarms, my momentum taking no heed and the chair blew up.  Really, it blew up–pieces everywhere.  Small pieces as if responding to every pound that had ever touched down on that seat.  A nice little Windsor chair that had tragically met its fate–the Keno twins would have gasped at the loss.   

I managed to catch myself like a gymnast who sticks a landing in a squat and manages to rise without a hop.  The room was totally silent with all eyes on me, the blast zone clear of others but full of shredded wood.  A disjointed voice  rose above the utter silence.  It was one of the Thurstons who intoned, “Who brought the fat man?”, through his clenched teeth.  This was followed by a deafening roar as the entire party laughed as one.

abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait1My guide was mortified and this coupled with several other lesser faux pas ended our relationship.  My entree into this rarified, somewhat vacuous realm had come to an inglorious end.  I had only heard whispers of its existence.  And, then, had only brushed up against its ugly underbelly and as Abraham Lincoln once opined “Too many pigs.  Not enough tits.”  The fat man indeed.