crash course in the high-end life
September 1, 2010 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm crazy over my new girlfriend. However, I recently discovered that she's from a very wealthy family. And, I grew up very, very poor. What should I know?

Maybe I'm over thinking this, but I'm a little bit intimidated by this discovery. I'm generally a very confident person, but this has me slightly uneasy. I just like this woman so much, and I don't want to turn her (or her family) off to me.

While, I don't think they're of the wealth level to have their own private jet, they do have multiple multi-million dollar estates and properties. Her father came from a upper-class family but made most of his wealth himself. My girlfriend is sweet, smart, intelligent and ambitious, but has lived a life of comfort, free from want. I, on the other hand, came from dirt-poor upbringing, my family life is a scattering mess of chaos, ups and downs, mostly downs. I lived largely off of food stamps and soup kitchens, even homeless at certain points. But, now, I'm a self-made, respectably employed, and educated man.

What types of cultural peculiarities should I expect? What personal behaviors should I avoid? What are types of things that rich people do, that I should learn also? I'm looking for general behavioral and cultural tips. Or, things to anticipate so as to not have cultural shock.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (59 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Cultural tips are ok, but changing personal behaviours? Your girlfriend, she likes you, right? My guess is she likes you the way you are. Please don't try to change yourself unless you want to risk losing your girlfriend.
posted by yawper at 7:58 AM on September 1, 2010 [7 favorites]

You should do the same things you would do in the presence of any strangers you would encounter:

1. Be polite.
2. Ask questions as appropriate. Give answers as appropriate.
3. Be yourself.
4. Dress properly for the event. Going to a bar? Jeans and t-shirts okay. Going to a formal dinner? Dust off the suit in the closet, etc.

For introductions to the significant other's family add:

4. Be yourself (did I say this already?)
5. Know your girlfriend is crazy about you or you wouldn't have made it far enough to meet the family
6. KNOW YOUR GIRLFRIEND IS CRAZY ABOUT YOU and how you grew up isn't an issue for her.
7. Your girlfriend probably wouldn't want you to change yourself for her family. If you have a mountain man beard, you may want to neaten it up a little bit. If you have some piercings in your nose or your tongue, you may wish to consider removing them for the first few meetings. But you're not obligated to do so.

And at dinner or brunch or whatever, if you encounter several forks at the table, you start with the outside most fork and work your way in for each course.
posted by zizzle at 8:02 AM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Be yourself. If she likes you, then you meet each other in the middle when it comes to differences. That's the only way it will work.

Don't worry too much about it. You can't change yourself and even if you could, would you really want to?
posted by inturnaround at 8:03 AM on September 1, 2010

I've witnessed this situation multiple times, and the biggest problem seems to come out of your end - many people who come from backgrounds like yours harbor resentment for the well-heeled, which comes out poorly in the relationship. Lots of "well you just don't understand, you had everything!" type stuff. If that doesn't apply to you or you can get past it, I think you're over a pretty big hurdle.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:05 AM on September 1, 2010 [18 favorites]

Yeah, don't change.

The biggest thing I would look out for is your potential attitude. Either "they're better than me because they have money" or "I"m better than them because I had to work hard". Neither of those is true, and I"m sure you won't feel either way the majority of the time. However, if, for instance, she says one day that she doesn't want to do something because she doesn't want to spend the money, or doesn't have the money, it may be easy for you to roll your eyes (or roll them in your head). Same goes for comments that might get made by her parents. Realize that such comments may sound strange to you, but they aren't strange to them, and they're being made in a context you're largely unaware of. (I have this issue with friends of mine who have way more money than me but are always crying poor - I want to yell "poor!? You don't know what it's like to be poor!").

Also, I often find that when dealing with the upper class that "polite" sometimes comes across as "stand offish" or "rude". For instance, there once was an associate at our law firm who insisted on calling everyone Mr. and Ms. until they were told otherwise, and never sat down in someone's office until invited. It seemed really, really strange and made her seem stand offish. After I got to know her really well, I realized that that's just how things are done where she's from, the same way I hug people all the time. She thought that was weird.

At this point, other than that, really, come on. People are people.

(If it gets more serious, well, there are about a dozen threads on here at least that start with "my girlfriend has more money than me" with lots of good advice.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:07 AM on September 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

She wasn't able to choose her family any more than you were able to choose yours. Relax, be yourself and don't let the money intimidate you.
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:07 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hey, what Soma said is a more succinct way of saying what I was trying to say up there.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:07 AM on September 1, 2010

A good friend of mine comes from a very wealthy family. She is related on her mother's side to some people in Hollywood and on her father's side to a family that founded an old white shoe law firm.

She is engaged to a guy who comes from more of a working class background.

They make their relationship work by being honest with one another, communicating about cultural and familial expectations, etc.

The key is honest communications, for both parties.
posted by dfriedman at 8:08 AM on September 1, 2010

Don't change. But just like any new situation, don't hesitate to ask questions about what's expected of you--and don't feel shy or awkward about doing so.

My childhood and my husband's were pretty different, economically speaking. My inlaws used to express a bit of pity for my upbringing, but I nipped that in the bud early on. They may continue to believe that my childhood was some kind of Little Match Girl situation full of government cheese and trailer siding and a lack of tennis, but I don't feel like I need to have them apologize to me for it, and I myself am neither sorry nor ashamed about it. Nor should you be, if and when the subject arises.
posted by padraigin at 8:13 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

What soma said. The biggest flag I see here is that you regard rich families as somehow more like each other in some way that you cannot fathom.

You should be polite, respectful and alert to strange family dynamics. Not because they're rich but because all families are strange to outsiders.
posted by vacapinta at 8:14 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of people who are born moneyed never talk about money. Having it, not having it, things costing a lot, things costing a little; all of this just goes unremarked on. It is like they live in a world where money doesn't exist, because they have never had to think about it. When people do talk about money around them it is usually to remark on how they are unusual because they have so much of it, and they become adverse to having it discussed in their presence. Normal people don't tend to talk about money overly much, but being around people from differing income brackets can sometimes lead a person to talk or think about money more than they usually would. I think your biggest trouble will be if you let it mess with your head that your girlfriend comes from money. Just forget it and treat her like a normal human being and you should be fine.
posted by ND¢ at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

First off, know that your girlfriend is probably as weirded out about the money as you are; family money is sorta cursed that way. Old money tends to be pretty nonchalant about their fortune, and are well aware that they got lucky, so it won't be a topic that comes up in conversation or anything. Be polite, but do let them get to know the real you; that's who your girlfriend likes, after all. Fancy dinners might come up. Trust me: they don't care if you're using the right fork. In fact, they may even use the wrong one themselves just out of spite. Presents may get bought for you, or big tabs may get picked up. Just say thanks, and consider yourself lucky.
posted by Gilbert at 8:19 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having been on both sides of this equation, I can tell you not to worry about it and be yourself. If this progresses to marriage, be prepared for her parents to try to control things with their money like with your future kids, etc. Also think now whether you are willing to sign a prenuptial agreement.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:29 AM on September 1, 2010

I went to a private school growing up, on scholarship, where many of the students came from money. Most of my friends, therefore, had way more money than we did. It never seemed to be an issue because I was too young, I guess, to know it could be. I was myself around my friends, and I was polite and well-mannered when I spent time with their parents. My friends could have cared less about the socio-economic difference. And this seems to be the case with you - your gf doesn't care, you do. I absolutely agree with soma's post that, if anything, your apprehension might end up being the biggest issue if left unchecked. We cna't speak for her family because they might be Snooty McSnootersons, but it' quite possible that they aren't, and all you need to do is be the person your gf is attracted to. And it's possible that if you try to conform into a particular vision of how rich people behave, they will spot it immediately (well, pretty much anyone will spot it immediately, not just them) and it will be way more awkward and weird.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 8:35 AM on September 1, 2010

I would not worry about this as relates to your girlfriend. As noted above, presumably she like you for you. However, she's going to be an excellent resource for you before family meetings. She can advise you about dress code, gift giving protocol, which grandmother to kiss first, and any other little family traditions or quirks. Keep in mind, this applies to anyone in any new relationship, not just the ones that have a money disparity.
I would talk to her about your concerns about impressing her relatives, and ask her to help you out as much as possible.
One cautionary note:
if, for instance, she says one day that she doesn't want to do something because she doesn't want to spend the money, or doesn't have the money, it may be easy for you to roll your eyes (or roll them in your head).
Some people make the assumption that people who have more money are more free with their money, and value it less. You might assume you will get a very expensive gift, or that you automatically have a good source for a loan someday. This can be an area of tension and resentment, if you are not careful.
posted by purpletangerine at 8:35 AM on September 1, 2010

Be poilite and don't burp or fart in front of her family.

If it progresses to this, discuss your expectations for child-rearing. She may be thinking Montessori and you may be thinking public schools. Figure it out ahead of time and compromise wherever you can.

She likes you for you. You don't have to do anything different around her. If you're going to go to something fancy together - into what you think of as her world, maybe - ask her what you should know ahead of time. But that's all.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:37 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Really, just be polite and do what everyone else does. When you sit down to dinner, look at how the others eat, and eat likewise. If you don't know how to golf, sail, etc., just say so like you would to anyone else, they've met people before who don't know how to golf, sail, etc. Assuming you're in America: a lot of rich people in America see themselves as just ordinary folk, i.e. they don't necessarily identify consciously with their class. They wear shorts and barbecue just like everyone else and they're not overly formal. Be confident in yourself, observe how others are acting, and ask questions, and you'll be fine.
posted by creasy boy at 8:41 AM on September 1, 2010

Mozart is pronounced moat-sart.

My dad grew up with nothing. He would go to the public library to listen to the music they had when he wanted something to do. He didn't have anyone to tell him it's moat-sart, so proceeded to call him "Mozzart" until sometime in college when he met my mom. He still to this day can't shake the mozzart thing, though, and sometimes I even catch myself pronouncing it wrong.
posted by phunniemee at 8:43 AM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Her family will probably love the fact that you've ascended out of poverty and that you've done it on your own. And your gf probably finds your life history one of the most honourable, attractive things about you.

I am in a similar boat- I was one of seven kids, raised poor (dad was an assembler at a car factory and was ALWAYS laid off when I was a kid), got out, only one of my sibs to go to college (and to go on to get a PhD, etc etc); my partner is from one of the wealthiest families in his country (in the West Indies) and while there was plenty of "you don't understand what it's like to be..." from both our life histories, we've come to respect one another because we have both had things to overcome.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:46 AM on September 1, 2010

I am in a very similar relationship, except that I am the one with money and my partner isn't. He comes from a hard working family, he put himself through school, now makes almost six figures at his job. I make exponentially more than he does and through no real fault of my own. My father was a very successful businessman and he died when I was 22. I had to take a pretty tough crash course in management and take over his role with absolutely no notice. I wasn't even out of college yet and an English major besides.

I'm young. I have money. I grew up with money. I now make money. I am a perfectly normal individual, you would not be able to tell by how I behave, speak, interact with others, or, most importantly, love my friends, my family and my partner.

I have always been pretty terrified of being judged for what I have and whether I had "earned" any of it. It was not my choice to be born in my family. It was my responsibility to work with what I had. My mother was a wonderful woman, the best in the whole wide world, and she grew up dirt poor. No food to eat, no shoes to wear, working in a silk factory at age 13 kind of poor. My father was privileged from the get go, good schools, good food, good job in his father's hospital. My father died one year shy of their 50th anniversary.

They were just two people in love, like my partner and I are two people in love. Money, whether in excess or in deficit, is only as much of a problem for a couple's personal relationship as they want it to be.

Treat her like you would anybody else. Do not begrudge her her family's wealth, what she considers worth wile to spend money on, or to not spend money on, do not judge her attitude towards money, do not feel superior or inferior to her because of what you've been through. We are all dealt a different hand of cards, it's what you make of your hand that's important. If you're crazy about her, she's clearly amazing to you. Cherish that. Don't put her on a pedestal, don't assume she's naive about financial hardships, don't presume to think she in any way judges you for your wealth, back ground, or family. If she's crazy about you, you're clearly amazing to her. That's all there is to it.
posted by lydhre at 8:47 AM on September 1, 2010 [10 favorites]

If things get more serious and gifts are given to you, or opportunities, or family trips or anything like that, always send a thank you note immediately.
posted by litnerd at 8:47 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Going off of what ND¢ said here--they will assume you feel the same way. It doesn't matter who pays for dinner, right? So you might get stuck with the bill. It doesn't matter how much vacations cost, so you may be expected to buy tickets, pay for a hotel room, and otherwise pay your share of family outings, even if the outing is way out of your budget. Going to an expensive private college, I saw a lot of this sort of thing. There wasn't much concern over who bought the beer or paid for the hotel room on a road trip, because, hey, we all have plenty, right?
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:48 AM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Read lots and lots of Miss Manners (actually, everyone should do this). Remember that every one is only as good as the integrity they bring to the table, and every human being is created in the image of God, or whatever works for you along those lines. Understand that money differences, like cultural differences, aren't always obvious but between two loving partners, they can be a source of (non-material) richness.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:50 AM on September 1, 2010

My boyfriend grew up like you, and I had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. I'm nthing the idea that attitude is most important here. One of the best things you personally can do is avoid the "you just don't understand, you had everything!" attitude that Soma mentioned. This applies to conversations that aren't even directly about money. For example, my boyfriend and I have both had some traumatic family experiences, but he tends to minimize any pain or suffering of mine because I didn't have to suffer through it while also being poor. Don't do this. Don't invalidate her feelings because she's always had money.

As far as her family goes, well, family is tricky. My family disagrees so strongly with my dating someone who makes less money than I do that they barely acknowledge our relationship. Unfortunately, they don't care that he's accomplished a lot despite his disadvantages because he hasn't accomplished as much as his peers who have had more opportunities. But I feel the important thing here is that your girlfriend is confident enough to have your back even if her family disapproves of your background. It doesn't matter what rich people do; it matters how the two of you treat each other.
posted by spinto at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2010

As others have said, insecurity or resentment on your part is more likely to cause problems than anything else. If you're polite, able to read basic social cues, and not made overly defensive by being exposed to things you aren't accustomed to, you should be fine.

One specific thing to keep in mind, though: Most wealthy people like to think of themselves as normal, prefer to believe that their financial success is a result of their hard work instead of luck, and an unfortunate tendency to assume that those who're less fortunate than themselves simply didn't try hard enough. Which means they'll LOVE you, a self-made man who came from a rough upbringing, but they may unwittingly say some pretty condescending stuff that implies that EVERYONE from a background like yours should be able to do the same thing, and are simply lazy if they don't. The realities of poverty (or honestly, the working class) are sometimes lost on that crowd. :|
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:55 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

If her dad's largely self-made, don't get all prep and lock-jawed on him. He's probably proud of his achievements. As you should be of yours. Please don't drag out the "I crawled to school on my hands and knees because I didn't have shoes" trope.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:03 AM on September 1, 2010

Be yourself, dude.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:11 AM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Coming from a background similar to your girlfriend's, I say the only way you could turn her or her family off to you is to make a big deal out of your differences as it relates to money. Yes, its presence or lack thereof can make life easier or more challenging, but that's it. They are no different than you in every way that matters. Character, confidence, dignity, courage, humanity - all of these are free and matter much more than currency.

Don't forget, the ups and downs and chaos you mentioned are not things the rich are immune to. All families have issues, some more, some less, but money doesn't determine which families get the turmoil. I've seen some pretty messed up rich families in my day.

As to cultural peculiarities, there is nothing that can't be handled with just plain good manners. If you are ever unsure of how to proceed, watch what others do then follow suit. Oh, and silverware is used from the outside in.

Best of luck to you! It sounds like you've found a good one!
posted by cecic at 9:15 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

What types of cultural peculiarities should I expect? What personal behaviors should I avoid? What are types of things that rich people do, that I should learn also? I'm looking for general behavioral and cultural tips.

Note that most of these are generalizations, they may not apply to your situation, blah blah

At a certain level of wealth, people stop talking about it. It just is.
Avoid speculating on what things cost.

Let them pick up the check. First generation money likes to do this especially. Politely protest and then let it go.

Dressing for dinner at "the club" is something I never get used to. This may be more prevalent on the East Coast or in the South.

It probably would not be a bad thing to not completely suck at golf.

Domestic help is one of those things that seems to give trouble to people who didn't grow up with it.
Do I talk to them? Thank them? Pretend they aren't there? Get them to clean my shoes?
In general, take your cue from your girlfriend, but when in doubt, imagine help as the staff of a nice hotel. Be polite, but not overtly friendly.

On a large estate, you may get a "tour of the grounds". Just go with it.

There seems to be more gender separation in activities the higher up you go on the income scale.

If you are the kind of person to be embarrassed by such things, learning how to pronounce/decipher foreign (French mostly) menus comes in handy.
posted by madajb at 9:25 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I dated a guy who's parents were pretty well off. One of the things I noticed was that they all seemed to have their pet charities. Not like charities for their pets, but the charity that they really supported. It was something they liked to talk about, and I won bonus points when I knew what they were talking about. By chance their charity was one I supported too (I supported it by dropping change in a collection box, they bought tables at black tie events) so I'd done a little research about it.

The other thing I noticed was that golf and tennis were more than recreation. A lot of handshake deals were made on the course or the court. I always thought sports were just for fun or exercise, but these people had their kids take lessons because it would help further their future careers. So just like any SO's dad you might want to find out what his sport is and read up a little.

Of course these things might have been peculiar to the family that I knew, so YMMV. Also, my friend's family was more "New Money" and cared a lot about business and social climbing.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:31 AM on September 1, 2010

Try not to make her feel bad about money; she had no more control over the circumstances of her birth than you did. And: you can easily fit in with rich people by simply never expressing surprise. For example, her parents take you to their ranch where they have been breeding unicorns. A unicorn eats a sugar cube out of your hand. Fantastic, you say placidly, unicorns. Amazing. Tell me more. Just reacting calmly to shows of wealth and the exceptional will make you seem sophisticated and put her family at ease.
posted by symbebekos at 9:33 AM on September 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm in a relationship with similar inequities in income. For me, as the poorer party, the biggest issue has been to let go of the guilt I've felt about accepting gifts and generosities. My husband has, at times, thought me crazy for how I've gotten upset--really upset!--about generous, expensive gifts his family has given me. For his mom, it's nothing to send me an eight hundred dollar purse. For me, it's a big, big deal--that's several months' student loan payments!

If you tend toward similar issues with gifts--if they're a loaded or guilt-ridden thing in your family--I'd try to be aware of this. Know that these sorts of things tend to be more emotionally loaded for people who don't come from money and do your best to be gracious and polite even if your internal response is "OHMYGODWHYARETHEYGIVINGTHISSTUFFTOME??!!"
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:41 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

You'll need to either figure out some ground rules or get in the habit of discussing certain financial situations with her. If she or her family offers to pick up an expense be gracious and write a thank you afterwards if appropriate. And, remember that they aren't obliged to do so again. At the same time, you'll have to be clear if money is coming up as a concern for you. An example might be a casual invitation to join the family on an exclusive cruise, sounds great, but perhaps you aren't in a place where you can comfortably spend that money. Don't just make assumptions here, I know people who've been hurt because they assumed they couldn't come along to that expensive bar and enjoy the generosity of their wealthier friends (or felt that they should feel guilty for doing so) as much as anything.
posted by meinvt at 9:41 AM on September 1, 2010

Just as a data point, I come from a relatively cushy upper-middle background and while I was by no means "rich", I did live a life free of want that you mention your girlfriend probably has.

That said, I'm really intimidated by people who have actually had to work and struggle for everything they've gotten and I have a huge amount respect for them. I am completely aware that the sort of growth that comes from financial suffering is something that I will never have. Don't assume that wealthier people are looking down at you just because of your background; it's most likely the opposite (unless they're dicks, which it sounds like your girlfriend is not).
posted by windbox at 9:45 AM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and in my experience, and perhaps to the contrary to what others are saying upthread, I've been party to several conversations with different family members on my husbands' side where they talked at length about how I must have not had it that hard (these conversations arose out of almost nowhere, mind you) and yaddayaddayadda all families face difficulties. These were strange conversations, somewhat defensive and peremptory in tone, and I found myself biting the inside of my cheek. While it's not an oppression olympics, I think you have every right to feel confident in your own narrative of your life. You've faced really hard times, the type that your girlfriend has likely never faced. You have every right to be proud of what you've made of yourself. Now, it probably won't do any good to go around telling these people about your tough childhood, but know that some wealthy individuals might feel some defensiveness about the fact that they don't have those sorts of struggles in their backgrounds.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:49 AM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I dated a really rich guy when I was in college. My family was middle to upper middle class, but not close to his league. I also have a couple of very close friends who are really, really rich, and run in some circles with people who are extremely rich.

People stay people, but a very large amount of money can have some impact. For one thing, a lot of money can be a real burden. It was for my boyfriend, whose dad had died, because his mom was pretty incapable. Also, rich people can be insulated and at times a bit insular. Not all are, but it can come up. Be aware too, that although having money is no indicator of character, sometimes rich people may think it is. And, although this does not sound like it will be any problem for you, rich people sometimes suffer from the same uncertainties as beautiful people -- they may wonder if people really care about themselves for themselves, or are instead drawn to their money/looks. Lastly, although all people of all incomes come of all political stripes, rich people generally tend more Republican and pro-business. It is only human that people try to protect the property they have, and Republicans tend to be more overtly pro-property.

None of these things makes rich people different from other people, any more than you are different from other people because you have been poor. Rather, as you know, these experiences can shape your view of the world. You've already articulated how your girlfriend's background has influenced her to experience the world as a comfortable place.

I'd agree with everyone else that you don't want to be the scientist examining the strange species when you deal with your girlfriend's family and friends. Rather, you definitely want to be natural and friendly. Remember, most of these people didn't pick the environment they were born into any more than you did.

Your girlfriend sounds lovely and I wish you all the best.
posted by bearwife at 9:55 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know very wealthy people who are incredibly down-to-earth, frugal, and in no way judgemental about people from other backgrounds. Don't worry that just because they have a lot of money, they'll act like it. The fact that your girlfiend is so lovely is a good sign that they will be cool too.
posted by ukdanae at 9:55 AM on September 1, 2010

I should add:

Remember the fact that you are CRAZY over your new girlfriend is far more important than everything else in this thread.
posted by meinvt at 10:00 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

ND¢ nails it. It didn't come up until now because it's a non-issue to her, and likely to them. Do your best to allow that to continue.

I come from a working class family. We never owned a home when I was growing up and went through all sorts of cycles with money, though we were never homeless. I am now, arguably, the most successful member of my little tribe. I am successful in my field, I am well paid and own my own home.

My girlfriend, who arguably had it worse off than I did, expresses all manner of concern over our financial inequality. I don't see this. She's bright, funny, kind, and ambitious. I see an amazing woman of substantial *value*. If she were to somehow change who she is just because I make more/save more than she does I would likely not see that value any longer.

Good luck!
posted by FlamingBore at 10:10 AM on September 1, 2010

The thing that'll really get you is the insane overconsumption and waste. Getting a $500 bottle of wine with dinner and just drinking 2 glasses, spending $15000 on a handbag one week then getting bored of that one and doing it again a month later, that kind of stuff.

I've had a taste of it, it was waay too "woah!" for me. On the other hand my brother's getting married to a rich girl and hasn't had any problems I know of apart from her family expecting him to earn a lot of money (he became a lawyer) and treat her in an expensively opulent manner.
posted by dickasso at 10:22 AM on September 1, 2010

These were strange conversations, somewhat defensive and peremptory in tone, and I found myself biting the inside of my cheek.

Yeah, I think that people are slightly understating the way that in certain situations -- perhaps not with your girlfriend or her family, but with people in their social networks -- you may be treated as an anthropological curiosity.

At college, I was around lots of people from wealthy backgrounds who wore it very lightly, and while money and upbringing were frequently discussed, the fact that we were in a very meritocratic environment, underpinned by a huge amount of trust, did a lot to smooth things over. It also helped that college life had its own social idiosyncrasies which served as prep to develop the appropriate level of sprezzatura.

I think that the way to navigate this is to iron-clad the sense of comfort that you have with yourself. In the early stages, don't be ashamed to use your GF as a social coach, and turn it into a game -- if she's smart and sensitive, she'll probably enjoy it -- but lean on what's integral to yourself and don't feel obliged to put on an act that makes you uncomfortable. (Better to be Nick Carraway than Gatsby.)

Looking further on, should things progress that way: your life is your life, and while your sense of values is likely to be scraped at the edges, you don't need to feel like everything's up for grabs and that you're obliged to assimilate. There'll need to be extended, honest discussions about expectations with marriage and kids and financial responsibilities, but the same can be said for all relationships.
posted by holgate at 10:26 AM on September 1, 2010

In general, I've found that middle class people tend to be more judgmental than those from very privileged backgrounds (cf. noblesse oblige). Every person and family background is different, so generalizations like that aren't particularly useful for a specific situation like yours.

As others have said, be yourself and open to the different cultural assumptions your girlfriend and her family have. If you're unsure or nervous about something, communicate with your girlfriend.

If you do wind up forming a long term relationship, keep the lines of communication open and do your best to recognize and disclose your assumptions and values.
posted by thatdawnperson at 11:03 AM on September 1, 2010

I have some experience with this sort of situation. Here are some things I've noticed, especially with the family elders:

Politeness matters. Please, thank you, a good handshake, no swearing. If you're nervous at first, listen more than you talk. Don't comment on the size of their house, boat, whatever. Do not speculate aloud how much something might have cost. In fact, avoid talking about money period (in terms of your own life as well). If her dad is from an upper class family originally, then there's a good chance that they consider talking directly about money crass. If you just absolutely have to say anything upon encountering their 50-ft yacht, say, "You have a lovely yacht," and leave it at that.

Clothes matter: ask your girlfriend for specifics about what the dress code will be before you go somewhere to meet the family. If you haven't run in that kind of environment before, the answers won't necessarily be immediately obvious to you on your own. "Oh, it'll just be casual" might mean everyone's in flip-flops and shorts and it might mean that all the men aren't going to be wearing ties. It'll make you feel less awkward if you pass visually. And when in doubt, wear slightly nicer shoes than you think will be necessary.

Class matters: many Americans may think/pretend that we live in a class-less society--i.e. that anyone can become a part of whatever class they choose if they just work hard enough and make enough money--but that's not really true. People at the top know this because they make the rules. And know that in some ways, money and class are two separate categories. That's why old money people classify some people as "new money" (I've only ever heard that as a derogatory term). I'm not sure that info has many practical applications, but I think it's useful to know.

The fact that your girlfiend is so lovely is a good sign that they will be cool too.

I would disagree with that. Just like with any family, she could be the wonderful product of her upbringing or she could be a genetic sport. Most important though is that she is your best ally in all of this: she knows her own family and knows the rules. If you can figure out a way to talk to her about all of these complex things without either of you getting defensive or upset or just crabby, then you've got a really strong foundation.
posted by colfax at 11:18 AM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

There are too many possible variables to make a specific response a good idea, so I'll just say that a warm smile, personal integrity, direct and honest questions, and clearly communicated expectations are always, always acceptable, particularly among "families of good breeding." This was taught to me in actual real-life bona-fide honest-to-god charm school. If you don't know what to do, ask; if you need things to be a certain way, say so. If they expect you to pick up the check and you really can't, just say "I'm sorry, this is beyond my means. Next time, we'll go to my favorite spot and it will be on me," or words to that effect.

Consider it an exercise in cultural anthropology; nobody's superior or inferior, there's just a lot of difference. You'll be fine. :-)
posted by KathrynT at 11:24 AM on September 1, 2010

Here's the only thing you really need to know: depending on how her family obtained and doled out and talked about their money, your girlfriend may be much better than you at managing (saving, budgeting, investing) money -- and so you should try to learn from her as much as you can -- or much worse at managing money because her family kept her covered and she never needed to learn how to manage it.

To be honest, that's not really about wealth per se; it's just about having enough. When you're dirt poor, you don't have the option about being careless with money, but you also don't have enough to justify developing extensive financial management skills. When you have enough money each month, it's easy (as parents) to give your kids opportunities to learn how to manage money skillfully, and just as easy to give your kids money so they "don't have to worry about it."

So keep an eye out, and figure out which kind she is. Does she make her own money, spend according to a budget, and make wise investments (or generally avoid investments beyond IRAs, 401Ks and CDs?) Then let her know you're impressed by her ability to manage money, and you'd like to learn from her. Does she get a monthly check from her family, spend it all on useless things, and then complain if she can't get more from them (or worse, when an emergency comes up, doesn't fret because she can ask for, and get, a check on a moment's notice?) Then do everything you can not to fall into that trap yourself, and don't get into the habit of relying on her funds to finance your lifestyle -- it's seductive, and then you'll become dependent on it.

Beyond that: people are people, and her wealth may have given her opportunities to experience things you've never experienced, but being poor has taught you a lot that she hasn't had to learn. You should compliment each other nicely.
posted by davejay at 11:32 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, one more thing: the more money people have, the less they notice the things their money provides. Someone who saves for three years to buy their first new economy car is going to be much more proud of that car than someone who bought a really nice Porsche with a check they got from their family on their birthday.

The point here is that you keep on treating people like people, even if they happen to be a person with a 50-foot yacht and a house big enough to make you think you're dreaming. I still remember the first time I bonded with a friend of a friend; she was much older than me, and I knew very little about her, but after we simultaneously caught my dog stealing her pizza from her plate at a party, we had a lot to talk about. Much later, I had occasion to visit her house and as we pulled up I thought "oh my god, that's the biggest house I've ever seen." Then we turned the corner and saw the long side of the house. Yet she was, and is, a wonderfully down-to-earth person with a wicked sense of humor.

What does this mean for you? Well, I assume you're personable and charming, and you treat people nicely when you meet them. So continue to do so. If, say, you meet her father and he shows you his garage full of collector cars, don't be intimidated by "oh my god, look at all these amazing cars", instead ask "which one was your first?" because the first one he ever bought was probably the one he worked hardest for, and the one he'll want an excuse to talk about.
posted by davejay at 11:38 AM on September 1, 2010

seems like you (& others) might be talking about cultural differences vs actual money differences. Most of my relationships were with people from vastly different backgrounds (ie raised in a diff country, raised w/ or w/o money, raised w/differnt values, raised conservatively/liberally). i can understand your concern & while you don't necessarily have to change yourself, you might want to read up on the things that your gf mentions that are new to you just so you have some basic knowledge. you can then ask questions and go from there.
posted by UltraD at 11:40 AM on September 1, 2010

It would be worth understanding, somewhat, what her relationship to her parents' money is. My folks aren't rich but I've definitely lived "a life of comfort and free from want" for the most part. My grandparents paid for college, I paid for my own grad school, I had access to good dental/medical care my whole life, I have supported myself since I graduated from college, etc. However, each of my folks [who are separated] have completely messed up [in my opinion] approaches to money that have caused money to be "a thing" in my life over the years that I was growing up. So you might look at where and how they live and draw one set of conclusions about them AND me, but if you talked to me about it you'd get a different story.

The "no one talks about money" thing that many people say above is definitely true, you could almost extend it to "no one talks about class/status" because that's often true too. My father remarried a woman who had grown up poor and the biggest thing I noticed about hanging out with her versus hanging out with my folks was that she was really openly disdainful of poor and down and out folks and sort of obsessed with money and had these bizarre ideas about money so much so that I couldn't really talk to her about it and found it upsetting to be around her.

So, it might be worth having a discussion with her about whether money is used as control in her family [did she choose where she went to school? when her parents buy her things are there strings attached? does she have her own money that she can use now? is she expected to pay her own way now?] and what her relationship to it is. Then you can have more of a you+her perspective when you meet her folks.

Money on its own does not equal class, or intelligence, or education, or hard work, or luck. However, you'll meet many people who think it does. To me, it has always equalled choices, and people may not even know that this is somethign they have. In line with what ND¢ and others have said, it's easy to think that people who have money have fewer or less serious problems than people without money. However, at some level once your basic needs are met, as someone one said on AskMe "everyone's hardest struggle is their hardest struggle." I had kids at school who were jealous that my college was paid for and I was jealous that they had parents who were sober and hung out with them. Everyone's got their thing.
posted by jessamyn at 11:45 AM on September 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

What ND¢ said. I had a comfortable upbringing, but I still have trouble stifling my money-related comments when I spend time with the actual, bonafide wealthy. Nothing negative, but stuff like "wow, your furniture is so fancy!" has definitely passed my lips, and is not cool to say. "You have a lovely home" is much better. Basically, you can compliment their taste, and the spending choices they've made, but any insinuation to those things' cost or worth (or the unusual-ness of having such things) will subtly communicate to them that you are not one of them. (This goes the other way, too -- the wealthy do not swap tips on shopping deals and money-saving sales or whatever awesome thing they bought at Goodwill that week.)

I've made this class distinction thing something of a study after noticing the way some of my coworkers interact with each other. The ones with upper-class upbringings have a sort of "ease" about them when they are talking to people much higher up (and much better paid) in the company, and some (that would be me, though I am not the only one) act more careful, self conscious, and reserved. This ability to comfortably interact with the higher-ups as "one of them" gives them a professional advantage. It's all extremely subtle but completely fascinating to me. Anyway: Try to follow their lead, and do not react with surprise (even if it's happy/complimentary surprise) at displays of their wealth.
posted by chowflap at 1:26 PM on September 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

1. Be yourself. Obviously your girlfriend likes you for you.

2. Don't talk about money.

3. Use the silverware from the outside first then in towards your plate. Watch your seating partner if you''re confused.

4. If you can't do something (golf, sail, etc.) admit it, but state you are eager to learn (if you are). "Wow, I haven't had a chance to do XYZ, sounds like fun!"
posted by deborah at 1:58 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

What hasn't been brought up here that I've found personally is that if you speak with a certain patois specific to working class people, you might be treated as a curiosity, spoken down to, commented on. Especially if you are of a different race than your SO's family. Since you're educated and haven't mentioned this, I assume you can assimilate your speech patterns to some extent, but it is something to keep in mind.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 2:09 PM on September 1, 2010

Rich people are just like poor people: neither worries about money. Either you got it and you'll always have it, or you ain't got it and you'll never have it. More to the point in this context since money isn't a variable, it gets factored out of how people behave.

And so what one is left with is character.

It's the middle class that worries about money because it is a variable.

So what do you do? Stop worring about money, and exhibit and expect excellent character. This isn't politeness per se, it's being kind, generous, honest, trustworthy, and friendly -- and very importantly: being honest about what you can and cannot do, what you have and have not done, who you do and do not know, and where you have and have not been. Don't be phoney -- both the rich and the poor can spot bullshit a million miles away. Just be yourself.

It's like visiting a foreign country, really. Be open and honest and welcoming to new experiences. It'll be much easier for you because one of the "natives" has taken a shine to you. So, follow her lead... but do it as yourself.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:32 PM on September 1, 2010

I'm working class and once happened to visit the very posh house of an acquaintance, along with some other folks. Some of them were all "oh my, look at the size of these rooms, is that a real Picasso, come here and see the view from this window" and I thought this was in terrible taste. It wasn't a museum, it was fancy but it was a guy's house and while I would not have put my feet up on the chairs, and might've said in the privacy of my own head "wow, a real piece of Art over here," I thought calling attention to the opulence was pretty sad stuff.

My minor experience with the wealthy is summed up thusly: Let them do the talking.
posted by zadcat at 2:46 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't talk class politics with them -- even if they bring it up.
posted by jb at 5:02 PM on September 1, 2010

I'll basically reiterate what a lot of other people hear have said. You probably need to have a conversation about it at some point. You'll want to say something along the lines of, "I grew up poor, you grew up rich. I'm worried that it will become an issue for me and I don't want it to be. Let's talk about it."

My other piece of advise is about gifts. My wife has trained exterminators so when people have an issue with pests, she gets excited about being able to add her expertise. My dad is a used car sales manager and I've sold cars for a living so we both love to help people buy cars. I worked banking for while so I love to help people out when they have a problem with a bank. Your girlfriend and her family have money so when you need the kind of help they'll can provide, they will (assuming its serious and they like you) probably want to help out with what they have. If they can help by giving you money, they might be excited to help out in any way they can. It can be tough to just accept extravagant gifts or money from them but it probably isn't a big deal for them to give it in the same way it isn't a big deal for me to help people buy a car.
posted by VTX at 6:56 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Never ever make her feel like a lesser human being because she seems more "entitled" about choices or life's expectations. She is this way because she has been able to and doesn't know a different reality.

2. Never express disgust at stories of extravagance, be it from her childhood or present day! They are what they are and will do what they do! Live and let live.

3. Never make her feel like she had an easy ride through life due to money - tragedies, sickness and emotion happen to rich people too.

Other than the above, just treat her and her family as you would any woman you adore and her loved ones! Be polite and your awesome self and they will love you too. It's only a problem if you make it one!
posted by shazzam! at 4:18 AM on September 2, 2010

I agree with symbebekos. The wealthier people I’ve met were always not impressed by any sort of shock or awe. They are ALL about nonchalance. This comes across as kind of a “been there, done that” type of attitude. Also, in these circles it’s generally concidered tacky to talk about money, how much something costs, etc.

Generally, the wealthy get a better education, are exposed to more cultures through travel, and have a good vocabularly. They know how to pronounce French words. Food is served in smaller portions but is much higher quality. They do lots of expensive hobbies such as boating, skiing, golf , horsebackriding, and tennis and basically don’t think much of it, i.e., I don’t think it occurs to some of them that other people might be interested in the same hobbies but just not be able to afford them.

When I was younger I dated someone who came from a very wealthuy family. The tough part about it was feeling like I couldn’t join in activities he was doing unless he paid for me. For example, he invited me to join him on a long overseas sailing trip but it was unclear whether he would pick up any of the cost. At the time I was a broke and unemployed recent grad with no savings to speak of, so I demurred. This was very awkward and left me feeling sort of sad.
posted by mintchip at 1:52 PM on September 2, 2010

Always unimpressed, I meant to say.
posted by mintchip at 1:53 PM on September 2, 2010

This site called the inheritance project might be of interest.
posted by umbú at 8:50 AM on September 3, 2010

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