Help me demand more of myself and others
March 16, 2012 8:54 AM   Subscribe

I've always prided myself on being tough and low-maintenance; how can I become more demanding?

When I was a kid, the traits that were held up as virtues in my working class family were things like thriftiness, self-reliance, making-do, hardiness and good humour in the face of adversity. Things seen as shameful were waste, fussiness, acting entitled, unrealistically high expectations and shallowness.

All of which served me well when I was living in that environment, but my day to day life is now spent among middle class professionals who were raised with a completely different ruleset which I now need to learn.


I was raised to believe that cheap, plentiful and filling were the criteria for a successful meal. Using this ruleset, I catered a couple of functions with what were mocked as "brown buffets" before working out that other people were judging the food on factors like appearance, choice and nutritional value.

My first instinct on being assigned any project is to put in extra hours and do as much of it myself as possible, so as to keep the budget super-low. This is not always seen as a good thing by my employers. My long hours are seen as poor time-management rather than dedication and my low spending on the project as a sign that I don't value it.

I hate complaining about poor service, it goes against all the values I internalised as a child. I know it's expected of me now, but I am just terrible at it and end up making all sorts of concessions and finding workarounds that create more work for myself rather than just demanding that the person who made the mistake fix it.

I'm very bad at identifying when luxuries are expected or would be appreciated. In this new culture, fresh cut flowers aren't a horrifying waste of money they're a nice little touch that makes a guest-room more pleasant. Buying designer goods isn't a sign you're shallow or gullible, it's a sign you value quality. I never even think about buying this stuff until somebody tells me to. I'm an awful host, because I miss out on all the little touches that other people expect and value.

These are just some of the problems that I know about. There are a ton of other social expectations that I'm failing on every day because my frame of reference is all wrong. I think it's hurting me, both professionally and socially. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I were foreign, because then these missteps would be attributed to culture differences rather than people assuming that I am weak or lazy. I realise that the only thing that will completely solve the problem is time, but I really need to speed up the process.

Have you made this transition? What stuff used to trip you up? What techniques helped you to assimilate? I've read The Five Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor but would love to be pointed to more comprehensive resources.

If you were raised to have high expectations, what lessons growing up helped to cement that view for you? What stuff do you see people like me doing that makes you wince?

Has anybody managed to maintain these two different mindsets simultaneously? I don't want to learn these new habits and wind up alienating myself from my family. Ideally I need to be ettiquette-bilingual. Is that even possible?

Throwaway for questions:
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
It might help the answers if you told us/had the miss add what industry you work in and why, for example, your guest room matters? Answers are going to be different if you're hosting business colleagues or relatives, etc.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:14 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I hate complaining about poor service, it goes against all the values I internalised as a child. I know it's expected of me now, but I am just terrible at it and end up making all sorts of concessions and finding workarounds that create more work for myself rather than just demanding that the person who made the mistake fix it.

Why is complaining about poor service expected? If you are, say, hosting a dinner, and you need to complain on behalf of a guest or something, I guess I can see it, but in most situations it is totally optional. Anyone who thinks you look bad by letting some things slide has their own problems. Same with buying "designer goods." A lot of them are crap. Not wearing Gucci loafers is not a "five stupid habits" thing. Wearing shoes that don't fit because you are too cheap to replace them is.

A couple of the things you identify, sure. Don't use your own, uncompensated time to bring a project in under budget. Don't choose food for a social occasion based solely on what is cheaper. Don't put up with a standard of living that's truly uncomfortable when you can spend a little money to make things much better. Living like a student when you are actually a professional can make it look like you lack confidence. Although, a lot of the richest and most successful people are pretty big cheapskates. Frugality is really not a sign of being lower class, especially in these times. Don't be in too much of a hurry to throw that out the window.
posted by BibiRose at 9:24 AM on March 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is a tough nut to crack, because you have to walk a fine line between "appreciating quality" and "insecure poseur who asserts his middle-classness by overdoing it."

I hate complaining about poor service, it goes against all the values I internalised as a child. I know it's expected of me now
There are times when this is the right thing to do (hotel puts you up in the wrong room, catering company gets something terribly wrong, etc.). And sometimes, like at a restaurant, complaining about small mistakes or simply mediocre service comes across as someone using their "big opportunity" to act "in charge".

Those nice touches in the bathrooms might seem nice, but sometimes they can come across as try-hard.

You might want to read the social satire Class by Paul Fussell, which is a bit outdated but might give you some guidance regarding how to thread this needle.
posted by deanc at 9:26 AM on March 16, 2012

I grew up in a comfortable environment, not super-rich, but well-off (though probably not in the same culture as you). I'm in grad school, so I don't have a lot of money, but things my mother said are still stuck in my head. Right now I'm negotiating a big purchase with my boyfriend, who grew up in a more cash-strapped environment. So these issues are on my mind at the moment. A few things:
1) Food: What looks like a bargain in the short-term, may not be a bargain in the long-term. I pay a premium to eat lots of fresh foods from good suppliers -- meat, eggs, produce, dairy products. Boxes of beige processed foods may be cheap right now but they are not good for your long-term health. Healthcare expenses some years down the road can easily wipe out whatever you saved by coupon clipping. Shop around the aisles of the stores. Avoid the cheap starches and crappy sugars.
2) Clothes: Quality of material and fit matters. I can't help you with the professional wardrobe, since I don't require much in the way of work wear at the moment, but in general -- go for natural fibers (silk, cotton, wool) -- not too many pieces, and pay for their upkeep. Look for items that are not trendy or marketed heavily, but that are of actual good quality and pay the premium if required -- an often mentioned example is SmartWool socks. In general, buy so that you only have to buy that item once. Go on, you can afford it now and it'll probably end up cheaper in the long run.
3) Time management: Remember that you're not doing yourself or your project any favors by working extra hours. Learn to delegate tasks and to value your free time more. It's important, so that you continue to work as efficiently during the times you have to work.
For an interesting look at the way class works in America, you might be interested in the book Class, by Paul Fussell. It's absolutely fascinating, though you'll be tempted to throw the book across the room sometimes. It has good lists of all the social markers that different classes display in America. There's also a lot about decorating rooms, which you might personally find useful in your work.
Finally, please don't worry, you sound dedicated to your work and I'm sure your employers appreciate you.
posted by peacheater at 9:27 AM on March 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

When you have a lot of money, but not a lot of time, money becomes the expected solution to your time problems. You pay for someone to do your laundry instead of spending hours at the laundromat, you pay someone to clean, you pay for a five minute cab ride instead of spending twenty minutes on foot or public transit, etc.
posted by prefpara at 9:32 AM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow. You are me.

One of the things that helped me to start thinking differently about the quality vs. cheapness issue was to work in a store that sold very expensive foods and delivered very good customer service. I got to learn about value, which is quality per dollar, and stopped evaluating everything on the basis of cheapness (i.e., quantity per dollar). Have a look at the Sam Vines' theory of economic injustice for a basic exploration of the ways that focusing on cheapness can sometimes be more expensive than focusing on value.

I also got to learn -- in that same job -- about what good service and good hospitality mean -- which in a nutshell are just anticipating what others will need and taking steps to reduce their friction in getting it. You're probably doing all of the friction-reducing yourself, even when it's appropriate for someone else to do some of it for you since that's what you're paying them for.

You might also have a hard time saying "no" even when you want to. If you're as much like me as I think you are, your internal "no" voice doesn't come up very often, and when it does it's probably too late and you've already committed to doing the thing that your inner voice thinks you shouldn't do.

So try a couple of things:

1) try saying "No" sometimes, just to see how it feels, and to acclimate yourself to the idea that it won't be the end of the world if you tell someone "no" once in a while. They'll understand it and, unless you or they are being wildly inappropriate, they will either accept it or calmly discuss it with you.
2) start soliciting your internal "no" voice a little more. Check in with yourself from time to time to ask, "am I comfortable with how this is going? Should I have said 'no' to this?"
3) read Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, which will help to give you a good sense of how to be a good host and a good guest, as well as how to say "no" better and how to set appropriate boundaries.

Finally, while it's true that my mother -- who is hands down the most skinflinty, do-it-yourself, fashion-and-comfort-are-for-suckers, make-it-do-or-do-without cheapskate on the planet -- sometimes makes fun of me for spending my money on things that I think have lasting quality, it's never been an issue between us. She's still my mother even though we see things differently sometimes. You're not betraying anybody by taking off the hairshirt once in a while.
posted by gauche at 9:34 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

This AskMe was interesting and might have some relevance to you, at least as a window into how certain people "do things differently" than you're used to.
posted by deanc at 9:36 AM on March 16, 2012

It's not that hard to be frugal, but also enjoy the luxuries of life. That's the whole purpose of being frugal (atleast to me). For example, I recently discovered in the past 4 years that there has been a rapidly expanding craft beer market. I started with the imports and trappists, and then deviated to all the state owned breweries, making a point to sample or try a little bit of everything just to get a feel for what I liked. Mind you, an expensive hobby...but affordable at a pace. This fascination shortly evolved into other areas, beginning with types of cheeses, wines, and then finer foods and good recipes. I can proudly say now I can put together a fantastic saltimbocca and pair it perfectly with one of my favorite beers. If you asked me what saltimbocca was years ago I would have had to look it up, and then ponder what the point of wrapping meat in proscuitto was...and what exactly is proscuitto?

Part of breaking out of these old habits will also be hinged on taking calculated risks. Perhaps pick up a hobby that could be a passion, like sailing? Owning a sailboat is cheaper than one might imagine...a good 22 footer usually runs between $900-$4,000 for a 1970's fiberglass hull. Add to that a small investment in sailing lessons and you're ASA 101 certified and are in a completely new and potentially exciting lifestyle.

These are things that helped me personally evolve from the ramen eating college kid to a more sophisticated and worldly adult...and I know I have much much more to learn. But I think the key thing to pay attention to in your situation is the results rather than how expensive it is to get there. Yes, expense is very important still and should be factored, but you're putting expense and aversion to risk in front of the end results, which is probably why you feel you're letting people down in the process. Start today by filling up your gas tank with premium gas, just to see if you get better mileage/efficiency. Treat a friend or S.O. to a nice dinner...doesn't have to be super fancy, but better than McDonalds. Be generous, thoughtful, and appreciative of the things in life where good amounts of effort are put into its creation. Budget for, and savor them.
posted by samsara at 9:49 AM on March 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think in terms of work, you need some more guidance from your bosses and a mentor. Ask your boss about budgets. Ask your mentor about the other workplace stuff.

In terms of the more personal stuff, here's a thing: having more money allows you to expend more resources on the comfort of others. I think of this as being gracious. It is possible to be both poor and gracious but it is easier and therefore more widespread (and thus, expected) if you are middle or upper class. You have the resources to provide for the comfort of others, and thus it is expected you will do so: good sheets, copious clean towels, extra toothbrush, a basket of toiletries, fresh flowers, and a good reading lamp. If it helps, extend them comforts you would not extend yourself and then work on extending them to yourself from there.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:50 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you are hanging out with or working with assholes. Who mocks a buffet? Don't assume that because the people around you are demanding and picky, that's the "normal upper middle class way of acting." I think LOTS of middle class, well educated people would think "fresh-cut flowers in a guest room" would be a laughably wasteful, pretentiously Oprah Winfrey touch. The more well-off people I meet the more I am impressed with the ones who are frugal and low maintenance.

Reading your question, I don't think there's anything wrong with you. Perhaps you should be better at figuring out exactly what your employer expects. But this is NOT an issue where you need to start buying luxuries because you think that's what successful people do. Lots of successful people are frugal and never buy luxuries, never buy fresh flowers, and that's perfectly fine.
posted by jayder at 9:50 AM on March 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Who mocks a buffet?

Anyone in the Bay Area, basically. Presenting a blatantly terrible buffet would be shocking and would make your company look bad, on par with everyone in your company showing up to a conference in cut-offs and flip flops. Some gentle mocking would be one of the kinder responses.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:55 AM on March 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

A lot of times labels we put on values are just rejiggered to make things seem positive or negative.

thriftiness, self-reliance, making-do, hardiness and good humour in the face of adversity

All good things right? absolutely. Only they can also be labeled, Stingy, isolated, cheap and delusional.

and waste, fussiness, acting entitled, unrealistically high expectations and shallowness.?

How about, refined, precise, knowing what you want, idealistic and being focused on what matters to you?

same things, different words.

Of course quality does not necessarily mean designer label. "Designer label" does not preclude quality, but all that it means is that someone is willing to spend more for it based on the name associated with it, which is independent of quality.

But, yeah, as to specific replies a lot of it it's going to matter what exactly you are doing. if you are interacting with people who are use to having money, you are going to have to be use to using money to bump up the level of quality you provide, not only in service but in management of other people. You will have to find people that are good at doing what you need them to do and use those people over and over rather than hiring people who are half-assed about it.

Think of it like this: You have limited resources and your fridge breaks down. You can either buy the $200 crappy model that will break in a yea or two, or you can go without a fridge. You will likely just buy the crappy model every few years and after ten years you will have paid $1000 and produced a lot of waste. If you have more money to spend you could spend $600 on a fridge that will last 15 years, save you a lot of money and hassle and reduce waste. But.. the $200 fridge is being thrifty right? nah, that is just a mindset people reward themselves with for not having the funds to invest in quality.

Of course the corollary to that is the rich folks who purchase the "eddie bauer" fridge for $700 and it breaks down after 5 years, which is the worst of both worlds.

So, you want things to look and be nice and provide quality at the same time. You have to spend money and be wise at the same time. You don't have to waste money, but you do have to use it. Just like your time. Having the skill of managing the right people to accomplish something is much more valuable then having the skill of doing it all yourself and getting it done cheaply and half-assedly.
posted by edgeways at 9:58 AM on March 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

I had the good fortune as a teen spend a lot of time around upper-middle-class professionals who handled all of this in a way I still see as very tasteful and "correct." They weren't materialistic -- they would *definitely* have seen buying designer goods for the name only as "a sign you're shallow or gullible." They were good hosts, and were good at anticipating the wants and needs of their guests, but they wouldn't have had fresh cut flowers in the bathroom. They had their luxuries that they enjoyed but weren't wasteful. They would have thought frivolously ordering around waitstaff was tacky and rude. (I actually see that behavior WAY more among broke people who want to feel like they are rich for a day and imagine that's how rich people act.)

After spending so much time around these people I was actually very confident in my choices around what to value, what to buy, how to behave, etc. So I was actually shocked when I got older and I did encounter different rich people who actually *did* judge me on the brand names of my possessions and silly things like that. I mean I couldn't believe there were people who actually acted like that unironically. But it didn't shake my sense that my own behavior was perfectly tasteful and fine, and that they were the ones who were kind of tacky.

So you will encounter those people, and you will also encounter others who have money and STILL would think someone who just had to have designer goods all the time was kind of a dupe. To get in the mindset I'm talking about, I think the best thing to do is find someone you truly admire, someone who seems to get all this stuff right, and just kind of observe them as much as you can, emulate them, and ask them for advice.

If you don't have someone like that in your life, then of all random-seeming things to recommend, I wholeheartedly second Miss Manners. I think if you spend a few months reading her columns regularly, you will become more and more confident about all these sorts of things. She's awesome -- smart, funny, down to earth, completely anti-pretentiousness. I think you may actually find yourself agreeing with her way more than you might imagine. And it may be the first time this has been uttered on this site, but I'd recommend reading Martha Stewart too. Don't go whole-hog on her stuff because it'll freak people out. But reading her regularly will just give you a very good sense of what you COULD do, and that sense is the main thing that's valuable to have.
posted by cairdeas at 9:59 AM on March 16, 2012 [13 favorites]

Like Cairdeas, I spent a lot of time as a teen and young adult around wealthy or comfortably well-off people who would have thought many of the behaviors you're describing were inappropriate, shallow, or extremely gauche. The fact that their standards are different doesn't mean they're right.

In addition to people's excellent recommendations above, I'd recommend Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts, which is a spectacularly good book about housekeeping, guests, hosting, and making other people comfortable in your space. I think it'd be really useful for you in terms of clarifying expectations and explaining what bits are important and what bits probably aren't. Plus, it's a good read.

The work hours thing is probably the biggest real problem here. On that front, I'd also recommend the book Women Don't Ask, which is focused on problems women have asserting themselves in the workplace. I suspect you're female, based on these expectations people have for you, but even if you're male, I think the focus on learning why, when, and how to assert your needs will be very useful.
posted by pie ninja at 10:16 AM on March 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

I hate complaining about poor service, it goes against all the values I internalised as a child. I know it's expected of me now, but I am just terrible at it and end up making all sorts of concessions and finding workarounds that create more work for myself rather than just demanding that the person who made the mistake fix it.

So you go to a restaurant, the service is poor, the food isn't hot, the diet coke is flat, but don't tell anyone about it because you're not a diva. But the thing is, if you don't voice your concerns, then they can't make any improvements. So the server doesn't get good training, the kitchen staff doesn't get better heat lamps, and the soda mix doesn't get fixed. Which means everyone who goes there gets crappy service, cold food, flat soda ... and the restaurant gets a reputation for crappy service and cold food and flat soda, and it gets dinged on yelp so there's a permanent record of its shoddy service and cold food and flat soda, and business dies down because why would you waste your money and time there when there's good service and hot food and fizzy soda across the street? And the restaurant closes down and everyone you wanted to be nice to is out of a job.

In the short term it's easier and conflict-avoidier to just settle for things and prevent hurting feelings. But in the long term it doesn't do anyone any good.

And in reality, if you take on all the various aspects of a project rather than ask other people to do them, then you're really telling them "I can do a better, faster, and cheaper job at this than you can. I don't respect your ability to do your part." It's not an imposition to ask other people to help, rather it's an insult not to.
posted by headnsouth at 10:22 AM on March 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Curses! Gauche beat me to linking the Vimes thing. I'm not a huge Pratchett person or anything, but that little bit is an elegant encapsulation of the truth in why it can be worth it to spend more on nice things. I'm currently fairly poor, but I still have a very nice pair of shoes that I bought when I was more flush like 5 years ago and they're still extremely comfortable, still look good, and are still in great shape.

Regarding food - go to some really nice restaurants. Choose your destinations beforehand with a careful scouring of local food criticism. For example, if you were in the Twin Cities I could personally make some recommendations as well as point you to some local publications to help make choices. You want to get a sense for the difference in gustatory experience between stuff like Perkins/TGIF/whatever other chain place and someone that really knows their stuff thinking carefully about flavor and texture and using first-rate ingredients.

The difference is astonishing. I don't have a refined palate by any means, but when you have a really deeply, intensely flavorful and satisfying meal (or even just a bite), it's an experience that stays with you.

Also consider watching some Food Network for a sense of the craft skills needed for really good food. Programs like Chopped and Iron Chef America can give you a sense of the craft and artistry behind really good cooking.

So I think the way for you to bridge your cultures is not to focus on the sort of external trappings, but instead to think deeply about quality. You spend more on a dining table or a set of sheets because the experience of using those items is so much better and they will last forever. Fine food costs more, but instead of just looking better it also tastes better, making the whole experience more enjoyable. The people working under you are professionals whose time your employer spends handsomely to obtain - time management means making the best possible use of that expenditure.

There is a lot of shallowness amongst the class-conscious and you and your family are IMO totally right to scorn that. Focus on actual quality. =)
posted by kavasa at 10:26 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you are confident enough, you can cultivate this as a jokey thing instead of trying to hide it, or promote it as a positive. You can be "the cheap one" and have it be friendly ribbing instead of nastiness.

However, it sounds like you are surrounded by assholes. Not sure that that will work in that scenario.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:40 AM on March 16, 2012

My first instinct on being assigned any project is to put in extra hours and do as much of it myself as possible, so as to keep the budget super-low. This is not always seen as a good thing by my employers. My long hours are seen as poor time-management rather than dedication and my low spending on the project as a sign that I don't value it.

I wonder whether the problem is not really the long hours, but the perception that you are working long hours on relatively unimportant tasks. I can see, in a workplace full of dynamic, assertive people, that if you act mousy and servile, that could rub people the wrong way. It could make it seem like you are not efficient, you have no life, and look, you work all these hours and all we got is this nasty brown buffet!

There's something I have jokingly referred to as a "redneck work ethic," the air that some people give off of being perpetually beleaguered, always on the go, gosh I'm working such long hours, with crappy results and lightweight responsibilities. I wonder if maybe you're giving off that air. If so, perhaps you should strive for a bit more panache and élan, more sprezzatura -- do things with a lighter touch. And no more brown buffets (love that phrase).
posted by jayder at 10:44 AM on March 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think in terms of work, you need some more guidance from your bosses and a mentor. Ask your boss about budgets. Ask your mentor about the other workplace stuff.

I agree wholeheartedly with DarlingBri about getting a mentor. I feel for you for having to pick up the nuances of middle class or upper middle class culture - you are absolutely experiencing the effects of privilege (or lack of it) first hand and this must be very stressful. But the situation you are describing is also very common for many young professionals, even those coming from a more middle class background. Because what you need to adapt to is not generic middle (or upper class) culture per se, but your own organization's distinct culture and expectations about food, meetings, etc. So, although class privilege is very real, it may help you to reframe it as adapting to workplace culture, because that is something you have more control over.

I have no idea about your personal workplace demographics so this may be unhelpful (and maybe stereotypical) but are there any well-dressed and maternal/nurturing middle-aged women around? I am describing my own mother as well as the "mother hen" at my former workplace. They absolutely love the chance to help young people out in these matters and are flattered to be approached - and won't make you feel bad about yourself for having to ask.
posted by Ladysin at 11:12 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions, but to add that you are negotiating cultures, and provided you didn't grow up in a horrible situation that you need to emotionally leave, you will probably be happier if you can love both cultures.

I grew up upper middle class, my husband grew up working class, and three of our kids came as older children from urban slums. It is hilarious at times watching us all negotiate our different backgrounds in one household. My kids are/were suspicious of strangers, incredibly stingy and bargain-focused, refused to complain about physical pain, must have meat with every meal, place great importance on personal grooming but don't care at all about interior decoration, etc. All things that made them thrive in their urban slum community.

The key for us was to find ways to turn those into assets for their new working-class schools and middle-class family environment. Some of it was explicitly taught, such as practicing conversations and table manners, and some of it was by demonstration for how to treat wait-staff and loving books. But they will never be able to "pass" as the younger child, adopted at eighteen months, will.

But they're hard-working, and they know to acknowledge pain for doctors in a clinical fashion, that houses should be neat and tidy, that they need to consider quality for some purchases in a bargain, and that their suspicion of strangers can be cloaked under politeness and be "cautious reserve" instead.

You need professional "passing" skills for working and networking socialising with middle-class and upper class people. That stuff can be learned by observation and reading (I second Miss Manners, Martha Stewart and Home Comforts. Real Simple is another good middle class aimed magazine).

But you also need to pick the parts of middle class culture that you like, that match the strengths form your working class roots and blend them into *you*. The real you for your family and real friends (not networking people).

My kids are weird. But they're awesome for who they've combined to become, and anyone who doesn't appreciate the haphazard blend of cultures and classes they are can go and get stuffed.

Just - screw those people who made fun of your working class roots.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:25 AM on March 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

You may be in the wrong job. Something to consider.
posted by rhizome at 11:33 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

One other thing I have to say about Martha Stewart that you might find interesting. Martha Stewart had an unremarkable upbringing that wasn't wealthy. Here's how she raised her daughter: "If I didn't do something perfectly, I had to do it again. … I grew up with a glue gun pointed at my head."

But her daughter grew up wealthy and here's what happened: "She makes up her own mind. I sometimes try to offer advice, but if it's not taken, so be it. She really did pay attention. She really does know how to do everything. And still she chooses not to follow in my footsteps."

That's what I mean about reading this stuff and finding out what you could do, but not going all the way with it. When you've found out about all the various things people do and are confident that you're well-informed about that, then the next step is to exercise your own taste and judgment and make your own choices about what's best to do. Just kind of doing everything willy-nilly would be too much.
posted by cairdeas at 11:38 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

As you've surmised from the reactions of your colleagues, the goal of the buffet was not just "consume calories." There was some kind of aesthetic goal at work here. So, let's challenge some of your characterizations and help your craft your answer.

My long hours are seen as poor time-management rather than dedication and my low spending on the project as a sign that I don't value it.

Long hours are bad for more reasons than just cost. For example, long hours lead to low quality. Your long hours are also perhaps indicative of your inability to manage others rather than a conscious choice to reduce costs. You should consider the "sweet spot" where quality and cost intersect to make the best possible product, not the cheapest product. Also, consider the long-term health of the company, which relies on using and training the manpower that it has.

I hate complaining about poor service, it goes against all the values I internalised as a child. I know it's expected of me now

You're not expected to complain about poor service. You ARE expected to fight for the service you paid for. Again, there's a sweet spot between "jackass" and "being taken advantage of."

workarounds that create more work for myself rather than just demanding that the person who made the mistake fix it.

You answered your own question here. If you're creating more work for yourself, it means you're not doing work you're supposed to be doing (or spending more time on it, risking its quality).

I'm very bad at identifying when luxuries are expected or would be appreciated. In this new culture, fresh cut flowers aren't a horrifying waste of money they're a nice little touch that makes a guest-room more pleasant.

Let's pretend you're setting up a hotel room. What are you selling? Because you're not selling the bed and access to the TV. No, you're selling happiness and the experience of comfort. You're selling the notion that the hotel cares about its customers, always and in the future. Fresh cut flowers are pointless to an auto-wrecking business. To a hotel, they're the kinds of things that provide context to the bed, the television and the pool.

Buying designer goods isn't a sign you're shallow or gullible, it's a sign you value quality.

Think of this as a min/max equation. Let's say you're buying shoes. What's the goal? If you're just out to protect your feet from sharp rocks, any shoe will do. But shoes do more than that -- among other things, they're fashion statements that display attributes about yourself to others.

Figure out the goal first, then get the shoes that best serves the goal.

Always, always ask, what's the goal here? What am I really doing? What's the context I'm doing it in?

Figure out the goal and make your response.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:50 AM on March 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh boy, Wake up and smell the coffee :)

Okay, if only you knew how rich people live you would be horrified at your behaviour and thinking.

There is sooooo much money out there and sooo many people with that money that it is unimaginable
Ask for more. Seriously. On your job, in your life, in your relationships, in the store, ask for more. Learn to ASK. Without apology, without shame, without guilt. Start small, one step and then ask. Make it a practice. Whether you are sitting in a restaurant, ask for one more condiment, in a store, ask and talk about expensive items.
Buy something expensive that you can wear. No, not that you put in your purse, but that yoiu can wear, which you would consider overboard in terms of expensive. Buy it, wear it, walk in it, feel it, walk down the street with it.
Spend an entire day going through stores that are exclusive. Something you would never do. Talk to the sales person. admire the watches, touch the shirts, the clothing, hold eye contact with the person behind the counter. At first it will feel awful like an act then you will get used to it-both the fact that you are in close proximity with "rich" arena and the fact that you are even there.
Go to a very expensive restaurant and order the most expensive item there.
Get a bunch of Fortune magazines and see where and how rich people live.

To get over this you will have to experience rich/money first to know how it feels. The rest of your issues will fall off once you understand how good being deserving of it feels.
posted by pakora1 at 11:58 AM on March 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well, many of these traits - thriftiness, toughness, learning to deal when things don't go your way - are great to have, in moderation. You're not wrong, and a lot of middle- and upper-class people probably share or aspire to your outlook.

You don't provide a ton of detail, but if I had to guess, it sounds like you're in a line of work where appearances and details really matter. Corporate event planning, maybe? And that can take some getting used to.

Here's an exercise in appreciating luxury: buy a better version of something you use every day - shoes, bag, jacket, bedding, even something like soap. Something you can afford, but normally wouldn't drop a lot of cash on. Not flashy, just a little better. Ask one of the professionals you're around to recommend a good brand. Then use that new thing all the time. Chances are you will be able to tell the difference: the bag lasts longer, the good sheets are softer and sturdy.

My first instinct on being assigned any project is to put in extra hours and do as much of it myself as possible, so as to keep the budget super-low.

Ever had this backfire on you? Like, you're planning an event and you see these awesome decorations that you know you could make yourself for a third of the price, but it takes you five times as long as you anticipated and doesn't look as good? There's a balance between saving money and saving time, and between cheaply done and professionally done. Sometimes you'd rather have the time than the money. Sometimes the results are more important than the money. And it's worth keeping in mind that although there are many things that could theoretically be DIYed for cheaper, there are a limited number of things that any one person could do himself with decent results. Some people can wire their own houses or cut their own hair; I can't. It's all about recognizing your limitations and finding balance.

I've got one more piece of weird advice: befriend some nerds. I don't mean to stereotype, but nerdy people are often less materialistic than, say, yuppie executives. Many of us nerd-types appreciate the finer things but don't insist upon them; many of us don't really care either way. It can be a good palate-cleanser to hang around people who aren't all guest towels and cut flowers.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:17 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Doris Lessing wrote an exceptionally intense and vivid description of the horrific wound that results when a person is essentially ripped in two in a futile attempt to bridge these two worlds, in her short story "England vs. England", which I recommend highly.

Except for "humour" and "internalised" I'd have no reservations about also pointing you toward Judith Martin's Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, which was invaluable to me when I was unexpectedly called upon to make hour upon hour of small talk with people who considered themselves a cut above-- and because I was virtually unsocialized as a child-- but as far as I know, it has never been translated into British, and could potentially lead you astray.
posted by jamjam at 12:58 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Jamjam makes a good point that advice about class habits and expectations will vary by location.

If in fact you are in England, not North America, I recommend Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.
posted by Ladysin at 1:56 PM on March 16, 2012

I hear you. You're not alone! I'm also in a little trouble at work because I haven't been spending funds, because it's my instinct to make do and get along without. I'm about to lose unspent funds, so that's a pricey lesson in being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

In my household, as a drastically cheap person with a modest upbringing, I've been able to convince myself to invest in some more expensive but better quality stuff that has really paid dividends in terms of durability, ease of use, and esthetic improvement. The example that leaps to mind is good sheets. OMG, the fitted sheet has elastic all the way around and it is sized properly so that it goes onto the mattress without having to fight with it, and it didn't shrink down to be too small the first time I washed it and the elastic has held up and not gone all slack. The sheets look and feel so good, so thick and plush! And after years of use, they're still great. I get a return on that investment every night in bed. Every time I change the sheets, I appreciate all the more how great they are and how wise it was to invest in good ones. And, here's the kicker: I bought TWO SETS, so I don't have to wash the sheets the same day if I want to change them. That's right, I spent TWICE AS MUCH AS I HAD TO, but seriously, it made my life loads better. And, rationally, buying one set, and then 10 years later buying a second set when the first wears out, doesn't save me any more money than over having 2 sets that last for 20 years because each only gets half the wear.

I still need to work on spending money to improve my life, though. Here's something I always wanted to try:

I should work out what I think is a reasonable amount of money to spend on clothes per month, like $50, and set up an account where I automatically put $50 from every paycheck. I'm only allowed to spend that money on clothes. I will get a dedicated credit card (maybe a card from a clothing store or website that I use a lot, with a rewards program) whose bill was paid automatically out of that account, and use that credit card for all my clothing purchases, and only clothing purchases.

I'm 100% sure that, even after I buy socks and underwear and the occasional T-shirt or cardigan, money would accumulate in that account at an alarming rate. I would be able, a couple times a year, to buy, mostly without guilt, one or two really nice items, like a great blazer or a pair of practical but fashionable shoes or a cashmere sweater, good-quality stuff that would look great on me, see a lot of wear, and last a long time, but which I would usually dismiss as far too expensive.

Someday I'll get around to setting it up!
posted by BrashTech at 3:16 PM on March 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Being reasonably picky but polite is not at all the same as being rude. You need to speak up when someone doesn't deliver. Think of it as being assertive and not allowing your comfort and dignity to be compromised, rather than being aggressive.

Which foods do you enjoy? Which clothes do you love? Spend time exploring these things. By that I mean spend time and money discovering which fine foods and clothing appeal to you-- the good stuff which makes your pupils dilate.

Do you experience anxiety at upscale restaurants? Well, perhaps immersion therapy is required.

The main thing is to familiarize yourself with these things, and that is going to basically require a self-administered crash-course in fine dining, good clothing, etc. Go to the farmer's market. Figure out what you like there. Think about how much fun it will be to find new foods you enjoy. Buy a few understated, classic designer accessoires, such as a wallet, fine pair of shoes or a scarf. Buy them on Ebay if the retail sticker shock is too much to bear.

Honestly, once you are familiar enough with, say, well-made clothing you love to wear and fine foods you love to eat, your natural choosiness wil kick in. After all, you have to know what you're dealing with before you can have preferences.

I grew up in a family with smilar ideas to your own, and what it easy for me to distance myself from that attitude is that I've always been picky as hell. I am vegan, I do not eat sugar or crappy trans-fat swill. I do not go to crappy chain restaurants. I do not wear ugly, cheaply-made clothing. I do not watch mindless sitcoms. I will not watch bawdy comedies. I do not associate with people who are loud and obnoxious in public. However, I'm not a snob-- I don't think I'm better than anyone, ever, I just have my preferences. I try not to make a big deal out of any of it, but now and again the food has to go back to the kitchen, you know?

You have preferences, too- the more you learn to embrace them, the better you will feel. And don't be afraid to say no thank you, politely, of course.

As Diana Vreeland once said, "Elegance is refusal."
posted by devymetal at 6:06 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

PS Nothing is a bigger social gaffe than a host or participant who is being downright cheap with the resources at hand. Not frugal, which is admirable, but cheap, which is embarrassing for all.

I'm not saying you're cheap. All I'm saying is to watch out for this.

And as for the line between cheap and frugal, well, it's a hard one to draw. But it's like pornography-- you know it when you see it.
posted by devymetal at 7:41 PM on March 16, 2012

I am just reading The Theory of the Leisure Class and am convinced that it can be used as a manual.
posted by themel at 1:04 AM on March 17, 2012

Fresh flowers and fresh food are not bourgeois (and expecting something other than brown food at a buffet does not make someone an asshole, cripes). I've been all over the world, broken bread with rich people and poor people, and "quality" does not equal "profligate Kardashian". Daisies in a jar? Bread from the oven? A good table wine? A moonlight swim in a nearby body of water? Just a few examples of the most refined, elegant and inexpensive or free ways to celebrate. A little sophistication, MeFi, please.
posted by thinkpiece at 1:32 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

When it comes to your work hours, it might help to figure out what you time costs the company per hour (incl. benefits) and delegate things that other people or companies can do more cheaply. For example, if stopping by the local market to pick up snacks is going to cost you 4+ hours (shopping, driving, prepping food, cleaning up), then it's better to hire someone else to do it.

If you're gotten grief from coworkers about events where you've arranged entertainment or food details, you need to ask a few of those people to help - by giving you some clearer expectations for next time and vetting your suggestion for the next one. Or alternately, find out who cared the last event people liked, and hire them.

When you suspect you're being cheap or might be (such choosing the cheapest catering option), find out what the previous event was like, or take 2 options to someone else to reality check. Such as, "I'm trying to decide if we should get the $40pp steak or the $20pp buffet, what do you think would be appropriate boss-lady?".

In corporate entertaining environments, you can also ask your caterer or other service providers: what did the competitor do? What do you think would be appropriate for this audience? Do you recommend anything else? That's some of the service you're paying for.

Regarding criticism of service providers & supervised staff, if you don't tell people thwt something's not up to snuff, they won't get a chance to improve or demonstrate they can. I often try explaining the problem and requesting the provider suggest a solution, esp if I don't know what might be possible. For example: "We don't have enough chairs," "the sound isn't carrying far enough", "this document isn't in a form I can take to the president because it's hand written/poorly spell-checked".

Ask for what you want & need, and you're more likely to get it.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 2:17 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the "designer goods" meaning "you value quality", that's not quite true.

There are inexpensive clothes; the kind you buy at Walmart. Those fall to pieces more quickly than most, and don't fit well.

There are designer clothes, which are super expensive. Those often fall to pieces more quickly than most, but hopefully fit in a very flattering way. When they're *new*, they convey wealth; when they're old, they're often completely out of style.

There's a happy midrange, and "designer" has gone too far the other way. Clothes *must* fit well to be stylish, but going towards designer clothing implies that those clothes will also fall out of fashion faster than needed.
posted by talldean at 5:50 AM on March 24, 2012

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