Help me avoid the WASP trap.
April 13, 2016 11:50 AM   Subscribe

My super-rich, super-WASPy, tangential in-laws, have invited us to stay with them for a few days. I do not understand their ways and am terrified of making some huge social faux pas and creating offense I don't understand that will last for forty years. What do I wear? What do I say? How do I avoid weird undercurrents? Please advise!

This is not MIL/FIL but rather extended family. They are incredibly rich, to the extent of having separate guest houses for us to stay at, and I am told they already look down their nose a bit at my husband's branch of the family. I do not want to show up and be the stereotypical low-class person I'm sure they already think he married. What do I do? I'm already freaking out pretty bad.
posted by corb to Human Relations (104 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
When I'm in a situation like this I pretend I'm in a customer service position. I just try to be as polite and positive as I can and try to draw the other person out rather than talking about myself (there lies danger).

Also, if they don't like you, you won't know. If they like you, you won't know. So don't try to read into their behavior during the visit.
posted by chaiminda at 11:56 AM on April 13, 2016 [24 favorites]

Biggest challenge: be prepared to not like them. I don't mean "don't like them" I mean "you're going to be disappointed because you're not going to like them."

It's not you - it's them.

You're not low class. Fuck that.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:01 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Bring a gift. Wine, flowers, something.

If you sit down to dinner and are faced with a bazillion utensils, work outside in. So, the salad fork will be the fork on the very outside of the place setting.

Speaking of dinner, perhaps dress a little nicer than jeans and a t-shirt.

Don't leave the guesthouse a mess. They probably won't ever know, but better safe than sorry.

Be super polite and nice. Don't get drunk.

If the hosts don't have staff to clean up after meals, offer to help. If your offer is refused, ask one more time, "Are you sure I can't pitch in?" If the answer is still no, don't help.

Observe their shoes on/shoes off preference. If your hosts greet you sans footwear, ask them if they would prefer shoes off in the house.

Tidy up after yourself whatever you're doing.

Be super non-committal w/r/t religion and politics.

In the end, it really doesn't matter if these people like you or not, does it? Unless we're looking for a mention in the will? Then don't worry about it. Just be a polite, non-issue-causing guest, and you'll be fine.
posted by cooker girl at 12:03 PM on April 13, 2016 [74 favorites]

instead of making it about them, can you look at this in some other way? can you and your husband turn it into something you are doing together, against a common enemy? or look at it as some kind of prize you've won, that is something to be enjoyed with little in the way of repercussions? or (i peeked at your profile) if you're a different nationality, feel disdain for their weird american ways (this one is great for me, but i'm english...)

fwiw, they'd have to be pretty weird to invite you with the hope that you will provide entertainment as the clowns. more likely they're just curious about you and will turn out to be quite nice in a rich way (if they are worried about "getting along" then they will likely have invited other people too, to help oil the social wheels (which will help); if they haven't then presumably they're not expecting this to be unpleasant!)
posted by andrewcooke at 12:05 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have been in an analogous situation (Old Texas money, not WASPy types, but same kind of deal)

Anyway, chaiminda has it right - be polite and let them talk about themselves. Basically, a quick re-read of "How To Win Friends and Influence People" would be your best guide book here: Remember everyone's name, show interest in the things they are interested in, and be genuinely warm. The rest will take care of itself.
posted by antimony at 12:07 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

How much time do you have? I found I was a lot more comfortable in these settings after reading a random Emily Post book. Also, the basic principle of etiquette is that you're trying to make things easier or more comfortable for the other person; as the hosts it's actually their job to help you more than the other way around.
posted by SMPA at 12:08 PM on April 13, 2016

What kind of event are you going to? Who will be there - lots of people, only a few, only family, business acquaintances? What kinds of activities - are they a "let's all go golfing"/"let's go out to dinner" group? Or is this just hanging around at their place?

What kind of WASP are they? Old-money New England types, or what?

For older money, seriously, get Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior - it's a great read and a good guide to the underlying principles. Also: guess culture.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:09 PM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have family like this. The secret is to be comfortable with yourself. You aren't in their sphere and won't ever be. And yes, "if they don't like you, you won't know. If they like you, you won't know." The paranoia can make you crazy and become a barrier of its own. The best you can do is bring your best manners (+1 to hostess gift, and remember the handwritten thank you note), and try to relate to them as people.
posted by salvia at 12:09 PM on April 13, 2016 [21 favorites]

WASPs get a bad rap. The WASP Code, such as it is, is to be polite to everyone. I have been surprised more than a few times to find progressives who are prepared to loath the new family republicans they are forced to socialize with find out that they're actually - really nice. Whoda thunk?

YMMV, of course, and every human is unique, but in a large group, chances are you will find some to like, some not to like, most to be indifferent to. How would you treat any other group of strangers?

(You identify as Nicaraguensa. For what it's worth, I would note that Jeb Bush married a Mexican lady. I know of other such marriages where nothing earthshaking happened. The WASPs involved were, to the surprise of some - really nice.)

Classic WASP anecdote: A rube comes to dinner and drinks form the finger bowl. Without batting an eye, the hostess follows suit. Because the Code dictates. It still goes on.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:10 PM on April 13, 2016 [35 favorites]

cooker girl's practical tips are great. And andrewcooke's idea is solid; if you and your husband can be spies behind enemy lines together and share some snickers in private, it can help get through the weekend.

I have some history with such folk (I guess folk is exactly the wrong word). Here's my advice:

If they are the cold sort of WASP that you fear, then you have already been judged and likely found to be lacking. Anything you do to confirm this opinion will be noted and remembered and remarked upon with others later. Anything you do to counteract it will not register a blip. You may or may not be able to detect the chill in the room, such people are skilled at masking all that behind a toothy smile. But you'll probably pick up some level of insincerity at least.

But if in fact they are not that sort of WASP, and are more charitable and open-minded and humane (there are some of these in the world), then they will be looking for ways to make you more comfortable and welcomed. You will feel such warmth and effort expended in your direction immediately. If you do, you can relax into it and just try to remember they're just other individual human beings, and see where you can find any common ground to chat.

In any case, expend some moderate effort towards showing your appreciation of their hospitality, and the comforts and warmth of their home, but don't fall over yourself to please them. Do your best to be a good guest IN YOUR OWN MIND. Would your own parents approve of your behavior? If so, then you've done fine.

Ultimately, try not to pre-judge them any more than you want them to about you. But try to cast aside any sense of caring what they think of you personally. Unless they're the owners of your employer or something, their impact on your life is limited to this rare sort of interaction, and as hosts they have some obligation not to be extreme jerks. You'll make it. When it's over you'll feel relieved you were worried about nothing, or you'll have some new Tales From the WASP Trenches to share with the rest of the reasonable world.

Good luck!
posted by BlackPebble at 12:10 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, +1 Guess Culture all the way.
posted by salvia at 12:10 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Item 1: if they already think you're low-class, the only way you can go is up! Fuck 'em!

Item 2: Chances are that if they are nice enough to have you over to their palatial estate, they think you're just fine, and they're willing to overlook most of the little tidbits you might worry about.

I'll give you my perspective from the host's side of things -- there's no way I can say this without sounding like an incredible snob, so let's just accept that as a given. My husband's cousin and family visited us recently and I was not particularly comfortable. Keep in mind that I knew they grew up on a pot farm and all that.

Things they did, which you should not do:
--discipline your kids in front of your hosts (especially physically)
--have arguments with your kids and/or significant other in front of your hosts
--when your hosts say something, anything at all, try to one-up them
--be rude about the things they like
--make yourself comfortable at your own comfort level (clothing, drinking alcohol, pets, smoking, etc.) before your hosts set the tone or invite you to do so in a particular way or location
--make it hard for your hosts to leave a situation (keeping them up late when they might want to go to bed, etc.)
--not check in to make sure you're on the same page with your hosts re: when you're all going to eat or go somewhere

I am willing to forgive a lot of stuff in the name of family. I am not willing to have known drunk drivers start drinking the moment they enter my house. MY house.

So you go to these people's house, come in, act interested in them and the things they like (even if you're faking the hell out of it and never want to hear about Nickelback again) and then ask a few questions to get the lay of the land: where are you expected to be, what are you expected to do, yada yada. And then you take a book and stay in your guest house until dinnertime.

My mom always describes things as an "anthropological experiment," so that's what you should be prepared to do. Go in and act as if you are camping in the wilderness. Bring everything you need and prepare to leave everything as you left it. If they show you where the towels are, so much the better, but you probably don't want to use their weird smelly soap anyway.

And yes, bring a gift. Something from your hometown is nice, even if it isn't fancy.
posted by St. Hubbins at 12:12 PM on April 13, 2016 [36 favorites]

What? These people are not aliens or enemies - they are family that invited you to stay with them. Enjoy your visit, ask questions, compliment the art, enjoy the wine.

I mean, don't prop your feet on the coffee table, but be yourself and treat your hosts just like you'd treat anyone else - with kindness and respect and forgiveness - they'll likely do exactly the same.
posted by gyusan at 12:17 PM on April 13, 2016 [15 favorites]

I've been in these situations and my basic approach is to be myself and give less than half a shit what opinion they form of me. At the same time, I try to be polite and kind and grateful of the fact that they have invited me, not because it will make me look good, but because they're people and that's the right thing to do. I think, by and large, the very upper class people I have interacted with like me because I try to be open, interested, and interesting.

If I unintentionally do something that, in their circles, reads as rude or base, and they can't look past that in favour of enjoying my company, well, that's both their problem and their prerogative. But I like to think that, when I'm at my best, I present a gracious enough demeanour that any such faux pas is written off as accidental and inconsequential.
posted by Vodka Martini on the Socks at 12:19 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Be your delightful self. WASPs can be fantastic fun! Don't be too effusive or huggy right off, but be guided by their behavior. They invited you! They want to have a fun weekend!

My Mom was family friends with an heir to the Armstrong flooring fortune. They lived in Tucson and we lived in Phoenix and we were occasionally invited down to hang out. Uncle Charlie let me tend bar. I was 10. If they're typical, drinking is a thing, but not a BFD. There will be cocktails, but no one is getting shit-faced.

Preppy is a pretty good bet for what to wear. Bring something suitable to wear to a country club dinner. In Arizona, it was a Lilly Pulizer shift dress or skirt. Ralph Lauren-type stuff is what you're aiming for. WASPs tend to have their stuff for motherloving ever, so being super trendy or decked out in labels is the antithesis of WASPy clothing. As long as your gear is of decent quality, you'll be fine. If it's still cold where you are nice jeans and sweaters are good too. It's a weekend, not a job interview.

Don't be surprised if any meals prepared at home are lacking. In both flavor and volume. The joke in our family with our friends from Minnesota was to pretend to eat and we'd get McDonalds on the way home. You will see abominations like a layered salad with peas, cheese and Miracle Whip.

My WASPy friend from High School, Sara, her Mom didn't 'cook' at all. Their fridge was full of Stouffers and other frozen dreck. They don't call them white-bread and mayonnaise for no reason. You may luck out and get a branch of the Organic, Gluten-Free WASPs, which means the meals might be better. Bring trail mix and granola bars just in case.

Be prepared for some of the furniture to be terrible. Gawdawful. Uncle Charlie had the family room, that's where the tackiest bar in Christendom lived, complete with Drunken Clown against street lamp sculpture and big BAR OPEN lamp. Did I mention the enormous lounger? That.

If they do the country club thing, they'll be into golf and tennis, so those will be safe subjects.

WASPs aren't know for their intellect. That's okay. Think about some safe subjects to discuss. In the South, it would be SEC Football. Travel or places you'd like to travel would be nice, safe subjects as well.

Don't fret, they may be extending an olive branch, they may really like your husband and want to reconnect. ENJOY it! If nothing else, be an anthropologist!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:19 PM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Bring a hostess gift.

Invite them out for at least one meal at your expense, or else cook the meal for them, or order it in. This is a general rule for overnight guests.

When you leave, strip the bedlinen and leave it folded up and tucked underneath the bedspread.

On your return home, right away, write them a thank-you note, in black ink on white or cream paper that weighs 100gsm or more, in post quarto size. If you don't have any writing paper in that size, cut down a monarch size piece of paper.

The suggestion to act as if you're in a service role is probably a good one.

Finally, remember that hostility is often a two-way process. Don't go in there assuming they look down on you until you learn otherwise. That's hearsay, you don't know it for sure.
posted by tel3path at 12:20 PM on April 13, 2016 [17 favorites]

If they "look down their noses" they are rude. Be a polite, gracious person, as you, of course, are. I've met Very Rich people. They vary, just as the rest of us do. I totally recommend not worrying about how they judge you. Just be your nice self, bring a nice bottle of wine or 2, and send a thank you note.

Also, put a Sanders bumper sticker on the car - keeps 'em on their toes.
posted by theora55 at 12:21 PM on April 13, 2016

The Preppy Handbook is tongue in cheek, but contains more than a grain of truth.
posted by brujita at 12:22 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh and if you bring a food or drink gift, don't expect it to be served with any of the meals. That's not what edible/potable gifts are for, they're literal gifts to the host/ess that s/he's supposed to thank you for and put away until another time.
posted by tel3path at 12:22 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I learned the notion that manners/etiquette are social lubricant to make interacting easier on everyone. That is, when everyone follows some set of rules, then you can rest assured that there won't be any surprises.

This usually means that any topics or behaviors that could cause friction are out: no talking politics/religion, don't get loud/angry drunk, no fights, etc.

Don't automatically mistake it for disliking you (though they might): everyone gets the same treatment until they don't. So follow their lead, go all boneless and ride it out, and paste on a small smile. At least the drinks should be good!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:22 PM on April 13, 2016

Yeah, also totally don't apologize for not knowing Their Ways, just act like I Meant To Do That is your middle name.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:24 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

One thing: if they have staff, do not offer to help the staff, do not keep the staff talking. They're there to do a job and don't need you to get in the way of that.
posted by tel3path at 12:25 PM on April 13, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Right:

1. Hostess Gift. Fancy Guest Soaps, expensive candles, tea. Nothing edible, or alcoholic.

2. Thank you notes. For sure X10. On actual stationary.

3. The Preppy Handbook. MUCH too true. True Prep is the updated version.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:27 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

My experience with WASP culture is: inevitably I always do something that my hosts would Never Ever Do, usually realizing it a few seconds late--but, because I am so obviously an outsider to their ways, they are very nice and "forgiving" about it (at least to my face--maybe they are totally horrified behind closed doors but, who cares?).

Although I DO think there could be/will be some genuine culture shock here beyond just "people are people," I think that actually it's better NOT to try to act super "in the know" about WASPy stuff (beyond just basic etiquette that you would apply to any somewhat formal social situation) because you will just stress yourself out and probably won't be able to pull it off anyway. Just assume you're going to make some minor faux pas; but if you're trying to be a grateful and pleasant guest, who can reasonably blame you for that? Re: conversational awkwardness, my strategy (which may or may not work for you) is, rather than studying up on tennis or private jets beforehand, if the topic comes up, to just be polite and muster as much genuine interest and curiosity as I can (regardless of how out-of-body weird it can feel in the moment), and say, "Actually, I've never had to buy Prada shoes for a movie premiere at the last minute before! Was it really hard? Who do you even ask about that?" People, no matter who they are, are generally perfectly happy to talk about themselves to an interested audience.
posted by Owl of Athena at 12:30 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Step 1: Watch just an epic ton of Gilmore Girls on Netflix
Step 2: Pretend you are in an episode of Gilmore Girls while you are there

Seems ridiculous but for real, this has gotten me through a LOT of uncomfortable WASP situations. Just remember to be a Rory, not a Lorelai. ;)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:31 PM on April 13, 2016 [26 favorites]

Best answer: Last summer I spent a month WWOOFing (think volunteering, but with more dirt under your nails) at a winery with attached castle and B&B owned by a very posh British family. I always felt a little like you describe: the clueless poor relation always potentially making some sort of faux pas.

How I countered that/minimized the possibility of causing actual offense or becoming super anxious about it:

1. Be on my best behavior. Please and thank you, always on time, impeccable table manners, etc. Even if the "best manners" I was raised with as a US Southerner don't line up perfectly with upper crust British manners, there's enough cultural similarity that please and thank you and refilling others' water glasses before you refill your own is generally recognized as a good thing.

2. Keep my nose clean. I was there primarily to do agricultural work, but there were tasks to be done in the castle (wine tastings, meal prep, etc), and meals were with the family as well as any B&B guests. I always made sure not to walk into the castle without clean clothes, styled hair, and clean hands, face, nails, etc. I would "dress" for dinner, if only to change out of the grubby sweats and ponytail I wore in the fields all day. This may not be as much of a factor in your situation, but making sure to be presentable at all times is good advice. If you're doing an activity, dress appropriately for that activity (boat shoes for boating, something cute for brunch, etc).

3. Be gracious. Beyond just politeness (which can vary by culture), I also made it a point to be kind and generous. Never assume someone is trying to offend or being passive aggressive. Always help others before yourself. Be good to the elderly matriarch with the slight case of dementia. Do a little more than strictly required when it comes to things like clearing dishes, loading up the car for an outing, etc.

4. Understand that I can't actually *become* them. They're going to realize I'm a lowly nobody American, and nothing I can do will change that. But better to be the polite American or the charming American rather than put on airs or try to be someone I'm not.

All of this did me well, and I left after my month at the castle friends with the owners. I'm sure they thought I was a complete weirdo, but at least I was a polite, clean, kind, and down to earth weirdo.
posted by Sara C. at 12:34 PM on April 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

I'd suggest not to accept everything you're offered. Hostess will be in hostess mode, which involves offering a drink at every opportunity and having the chips and crudites set up an hour before a meal and a snack in between. There may be a lot of festive food, and it's always a balance between showing your appreciation of the effort, and being so enthusiastic of an eater that you look like you're just in it for the food.
posted by aimedwander at 12:34 PM on April 13, 2016

Can I ask clarifying questions? (It really might make a difference.) You say WASP with money but I was wondering if this was "old money" or newer money, and are they living on the East Coast/ish or West Coast/ish, and are you staying at their main residence, or a summer/vacation home? Both clothing and behavior and expectations can vary depending on these variables.

In other words, me visiting my husband's old money relatives in their Upper East Side NYC apartment is a different experience from visiting them at their summer house in Maine. The general advice about hostess gift, thank you note (hand written, on stationery), and other polite behavior, holds true wherever you might be, of course.
posted by gudrun at 12:47 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Gotta disagree with an above suggestion: ohhhh my gosh do not bring rich people WINE, that cannot possibly fail to fail to impress.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:48 PM on April 13, 2016 [33 favorites]

Anedote: I brought a decidedly non-WASPy date to an event with my WASPy-ish side of the family. Date proceeded to go on and on about the monetary value of things "Ooh, look, this is so fancy! Have you ever seen anything so fancy?" and "Oh, this must have been very expensive!" etc.

To my date's Guess Culture way of thinking, he was complimenting the family on their ability to afford fine things. Meanwhile I was DYING of embarrassment that he was exposing himself for being so poor that he had "never seen something so fancy".

Don't do that, and you'll be fine.
posted by vignettist at 12:49 PM on April 13, 2016 [15 favorites]

Number 1 and 2 rules: Relax and treat them like people. The likely worst thing that can happen is that you are tense because you don't know the "rules"; you get sick of being tense so you get angry; you decide you are angry because you know that they think they are better than you; and you start acting poorly because of the perceived slight.

Just because they have money does necessarily mean they are assholes. It might trend more that way with the wealthy, but who know, I might be judging it all all television.

Be relaxed, be polite and treat them like you would treat anyone you don't know but are stuck with for a short while. Who knows , you might even find out you like one of them.
posted by rtimmel at 12:53 PM on April 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

The WASP Code, such as it is, is to be polite to everyone.

This is the biggest thing you can know, to my mind. If they're WASPs they're going to be in constant "don't make a fuss" mode. Keep it quiet, low key, and unemotional. Getting angry or even passionate about pretty much anything is what will confuse and upset them. My WASP in-laws have been, by and large, pretty easy to navigate, and I think most WASPs are. They might look down their noses at you, but they're very unlikely to say or do anything about that. There's probably going to be some treatment of you as a curiosity or cultural misunderstandings, but if you're looking to fit in, just roll with it and keep things uncontentious.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:58 PM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

Invite them out for at least one meal at your expense, or else cook the meal for them, or order it in. This is a general rule for overnight guests.

If this is a sort of "Stay at our beach house for the weekend" situation then you won't be going out and if you really are the "poor relations" no one expects you to spend money on them. A lot of the WASps in my general family treated the house like some sort of destination resort and inviting you there basically meant giving you the hookup where everything was on them, within reason. The routine I am used to is that people get together for meals and then a lot of the rest of the time is just "hang out" time where people will do a few different things and you can opt-in or out. You walk around the grounds. You bring a book. You work on needlepoint, whatever. So you show up clean and dressed for meals (not like fancy but just at a business casual level but with shoes on and stuff) and be mannerly and make small talk and steer around difficult conversations and say "Thanks for inviting us, this place is nice" and act generally decent and do the best you can. Don't get invested in status games if it's people you're rarely going to see. Send a thank you note when you get home.
posted by jessamyn at 12:59 PM on April 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

Be yourself. You are fine, and you are enough. Well-mannered hosts make you feel comfortable. The guest isn't there to serve or impress the host. Be gracious and be a tidy guest. Treat any household staff with perfect respect. (Nothing you wouldn't normally do! I told you that you were enough. There's the proof!)

There are two things I'll note:

1 - Regarding meals, working from the outside is technically correct, but problematic. You pick up your flatware AFTER the hostess. You pick up what she picks up. This work from outside-in business works when meals are not hosted (for instance, at a charity dinner when there might not be a host a the table.)

2 - Sport clothing is worn for sport only. Casual clothing is worn at other times. Even very nice golf or tennis clothes are not worn for other events. Be prepared to change for lunch if the hosts do so. It depends on how formal the house is.

However, even if you misstep it is the job of the host to set the course right. And it is their job to do so in a way that is absolutely discreet and honors your dignity.
posted by 26.2 at 1:02 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yeah, make a serious OFFER to do it and fully intend to follow through, but they may perfectly well do the "oh no we couldn't possibly" dance.

If you're taking them out or ordering in, you have the advantage of getting to choose the venue, and I'm sure there are good yet inexpensive food sources around them. So worst case, you probably will be able to afford to follow through. And worst of the worst case you'll have to cook them something.

But do be prepared to do it is all.
posted by tel3path at 1:03 PM on April 13, 2016

Maybe have a sense of humor about it? Not like self depreciating humor, but like "gosh this is all new to me!"
Doesn't it seem like people LOVE being the expert about things?? They get to tell you what to do and feel super important.
posted by tangomija at 1:03 PM on April 13, 2016

Yeah, just like 26.2 said, you are enough.

These are relatives who've invited you to their home. Isn't that nice of them? Assume good faith until you can't any more. The idea that they look down on the rest of the family could well be somebody's inferiority complex that has nothing to do with anything your hosts ever did.
posted by tel3path at 1:05 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Can I ask clarifying questions? (It really might make a difference.) You say WASP with money but I was wondering if this was "old money" or newer money, and are they living on the East Coast/ish or West Coast/ish, and are you staying at their main residence, or a summer/vacation home?

From what I understand, old-money West Coast-ish (original midwest), and we'll be staying at their main residence.

I know they will be having a dinner for us on one of the nights, and get the vague sense that we are expected to be present for a good chunk of the other days (they have mentioned some possible activities) but I have no idea how to tell whether we are overstaying or understaying or what.

I will definitely get a hostess gift - what are good nonalcoholic hostess gifts for this?

Also is there a good way to say "I am friendly" in reserved? I'm worried I'll try too hard not to be effusive and will wind up communicating exactly opposite.
posted by corb at 1:11 PM on April 13, 2016

Beer might be a better gift than wine? It's easier to get good, interesting beer at a reasonable price point, and if you can hit up a microbrewery or get something unusual and imported (for instance, the liquor store in the fancy part of my neighbourhood has beers from Eastern Europe- ideally try to find a place they haven't visited recently, if at all). That's something interesting and conversational that's not as easy to mess up as wine. Check in w/ your people first to see if that's a good idea- I'm kind of guessing based on what I think some of my richer acquaintances might enjoy.

Make a point to go up to the homeowners privately before you leave and shake hands/hug and sincerely thank them for having you. Then get a pretty thank-you card in the mail within 2 days. In both cases, mention something you are particularly enjoying (the food, the pool, the atmosphere, how welcoming they've been, etc). Being gracious is a great way to compensate for any little faux pas you might make along the way.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:11 PM on April 13, 2016

Best answer: Also there is probably one member of the family (and probably not your SO) who is horrible and everyone knows it and everyone tolerates it as best they can and ignores their terrible behavior and pretend it doesn't happen. So if most people are totally AOK to you except that one person who says totally weird and inappropriate things and you're like "Why is no one sticking up for me when this person does this?" it's because that personal has basically been socially hellbanned and they no longer respond to them for anything, even for saving guests form an awkward situation. Talk to your partner about this afterwards, try to ignore it in the moment.

The biggest deal about these events is that you and your SO be on TEAM US and don't let it get you down and try to go together and have a good time. There is good time stuff to be had if you can just treat it like weird fancy people cosplay and not a situation where you are likely to be found wanting. You are fine. You are enough.
posted by jessamyn at 1:11 PM on April 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Okay:

* My mother's side of the family tends towards being upper-crust New England intellectuals. Like, my grandfather founded a course program at the University of Connecticut; that's how WASPy we're talking (or, WASC-y, in our case). My maternal uncle lived in a house that today would qualify for "McMansion" status but actually was a historic house that just had a lot of additions put on it over the years; his kids all went to a prep school that had sailing classes; the whole nine yards.

* My father's side of the family, meanwhile, is pretty much New England Swamp Yankee - grandpa was a SeaBee in the South Pacific, Dad got an engineering degree at a trade school rather than going to college and one of his chores as a kid was to feed Grandpa's coon hounds.

When my father asked for my mother's hand, apparently Grandpa was WILDLY opposed to it at first because he was "lower-class", and pretty much told him so, at length, for about two straight minutes. But then he gave in. And by the time I was born three years later, they were practically best buddies.

And the way my father won Grandpa over was - simply by being respectful and polite, but also honorable and decent. Dad doesn't put on pretensions, or fret too much about which is the right salad fork; instead, Dad takes a genuine interest in everything, asks people questions about themselves and their lives, and sees every new meeting with somebody as an opportunity to learn something cool about someone else's life. Yeah, he may have had his own fretting to do about "do I use the right salad fork" or whatever, but he also tried his best, and - he trusted my mother's family enough that they would forgive him if he did screw up, so he wouldn't be all flustered about it. He also looked for the similarities between them rather than the differences. (That's how he and Grandpa both became fishing buddies, and that's also why Dad kept it secret that Grandpa was sneaking a couple beers during their early fishing trips - something that Grandma would NOT have approved of!)

They're WASPS, yea. But they're also people who have unique likes and dislikes and opinions. Ask them about that, be genuinely interested in their answers, and be willing to put yourself in their shoes for a while and consider things from their perspective (and be SUPER-polite if their opinions differ wildly from yours on sensitive topics rather than trying to Change Their Mind or something). Right now you only know them as "the Waspy in-laws", but go into this with an open heart and you may find yourself fascinated by the intricacies of this whole other world you would never have known about unless you'd met them ("Whoa, I didn't know that debutantes had to actually take CLASSES in that kind of thing!")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:15 PM on April 13, 2016 [15 favorites]

Best answer: If at all possible, avoid discussions of money. This will be a sensitive topic for them. Super rich people get targeted for scams and are constantly imposed upon by folks with less. It becomes a way in which they wind up feeling victimized and dehumanized a la "I have dozens of friends and the fun never ends, that is as long as I'm buying."

Since you do come from a non waspy background, it may help to try to reference that when smoothing things over rather than framing it in terms of income differences. In other words, if you think you have made a faux pas, frame it as "Whoops! The place I grew up..." Or "Whoops! In the army..." Do not make it about class or income.

Do not get into the issues about they look down on that branch of the family. Family stuff tends to have a long, entrenched Byzantine history. Just assume they have their reasons and their reasons are not about money.

Beyond that, try to be considerate and polite like you would with anyone you barely know who is doing something kind for you.
posted by Michele in California at 1:19 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Cooker girl said was I was going to say, except wrt silverware: if you're not sure, do what the host does. This also works for activities and meals-- follow their lead. If something bad happens, laugh it off to your best ability but don't make a scene.

If they have servants, don't offer to help with clearing the table. If they don't have servants, offer, but take their word for it when they say no.

When you leave, strip the beds but leave the top bedspread neatly over the bed with a folded pile of linens on top. The goal here is to leave the bed looking presentable and "made up" in case someone walks down the hall and glances at it, but also make it clear which linens are used and should be washed and replaced.

Also when you leave, everything in the guest house should pretty much be where it was when you arrived. If there was an alarm clock in the bedroom that you moved to the living room because it ticks too loud, put it back where it was.

Good non-alcoholic hostess gifts are a bouquet of flowers, a box of chocolates, or a local food specialty that they don't have to eat right away. Fresh fruit is also OK but a little offbeat; get organic if you go this route. A live plant is OK too because they are at their main residence-- not if they are at a summer home or something.

Finally, WRITE A THANK YOU NOTE ON THE WAY HOME AND MAIL IT. Use your best handwriting, email is not good enough. You already thanked them on the way out, but you also have to write a thank you note. Blank paper in a plain envelope is fine. Blank thank you cards are better.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:26 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: From what I understand, old-money West Coast-ish (original midwest), and we'll be staying at their main residence.

My guess would be that these are just some real friendly-variety WASPs. Surface friendly, to be sure, but I highly doubt you'll get the iciness that sometimes comes with the East Coast variety. It's okay to just pretend to yourself that the friendliness is 100% genuine! It's what they're doing too, after all. (And may in fact be true.) Source: lifelong Midwesterner.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:32 PM on April 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

I will definitely get a hostess gift - what are good nonalcoholic hostess gifts for this?

for this I would consult Miss Manners. On the one hand, a default is some kind of food gift or flowers, but on the other hand they could be allergic to pollen or gluten-intolerant or something. Whatever you bring they will smile and say thank you, though.

Etiquette guides are really good about "what should I bring as a hostess gift". Sometimes Martha Stewart has some good ideas too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:32 PM on April 13, 2016

Best answer: I will definitely get a hostess gift - what are good nonalcoholic hostess gifts for this?

No one has ever gone wrong with a nice box of chocolate. Especially something from a store that is local to you.

More broadly, a gift that is very local to where you live, and more distant for them may also be a nice touch. Now that I live in New Mexico, I like to give something chile related as hostess gifts when I travel to friends in other places, something analogous might work for you.

If you don't want to bring food, my go-to is a cookbook. Especially a cookbook that is attractive and in some way a personal gift. So not the latest Food Network cookbook, but maybe specific to where you live or where you are from (Expect that your host will never cook a single thing out of it - so it should be something that looks pretty on a shelf in the kitchen)
posted by antimony at 1:33 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I will definitely get a hostess gift - what are good nonalcoholic hostess gifts for this?

You're in NYC, right? Go to The Meadow! They have the right kinds of fancy chocolates (ie, not Godiva), and also gobs of insanely fancy salts. A three-salt sampler from there, even in the tiniest size, would be a perfect hostess gift, or just go for some of the chocolates. The staff are super helpful too, and if you tell them your concerns I bet they'll be happy to help.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:33 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you don't want to bring food, my go-to is a cookbook. Especially a cookbook that is attractive and in some way a personal gift. So not the latest Food Network cookbook, but maybe specific to where you live or where you are from (Expect that your host will never cook a single thing out of it - so it should be something that looks pretty on a shelf in the kitchen)

The Pok Pok cookbook is beautiful, and half-travelogue. It would make a great gift, though I'm not sure how these particular WASPs feel about Thai food...
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:35 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My family is super WASPy (literally founded Brooks Brothers WASPy) and there's some good and some very bad advice in here. The basic things I'd say are:

1) They might be bemused by you, but they will probably NOT look down their noses. They might be awkward (the first thing my grandfather ever asked my husband was "Did you go to day school?" meaning "or boarding school?" which was a damn weird question especially since, like, my husband went to public school) but he really was trying to be nice and inclusive. If they're not trying to be jerks, cut them some slack and don't point out if they do weird stuff.

2) Make sure you know what to call everyone! Mrs., Aunt, weird nickname?

3) Don't wear jeans and/or sneakers unless you know that someone else who is visiting is wearing jeans and/or sneakers. Try to make sure you are dressed more conservatively than at least one person (e.g. don't be the only woman with bare shoulders).

4) Compliment but not effusively. Try to compliment things of which people are clearly proud (e.g. a garden, a unique piece of jewelry -- something that has meaning).

5) Chocolates, especially fancy chocolates (my family likes Harbor Sweets) are a great thing to bring. Don't bring anything that might need to be displayed (candles, soaps, ornaments of any sort) -- WASPs can be VERY picky about their decor. Also at least in my family a lot of WASPS don't like strong scents.

6) When in doubt, it's okay to be quiet. Just be pleasant and ask questions about relatively neutral topics; house remodelling always gets a lot of mileage in my family. It's boring as hell to me but it lets other people talk about something important to them and it is often very stressful even for people with a lot of money.

7) Offer to help the family by clearing the table (DON'T STACK THE PLATES! Carry one plate in each hand. This is especially true if they're old plates with gold leaf or similar that might rub off if you stack them) but don't offer to help staff (this is hard to do but it'll make everyone feel weird).

8) Technically you're not supposed to begin a course until the hostess has lifted her fork. In practice, just make sure you're not the first person to start eating at any course.

9) If you sense a weird tension, DON'T SAY ANYTHING! If it looks like someone snuck off to cry and came back with red eyes, DON'T SAY ANYTHING! If someone is clearly pretty drunk, DON'T SAY ANYTHING! It will make the person who is feeling bad feel worse and make everyone else feel awkward.

Overall be pleasant and accommodating, don't try too hard (e.g. talk too much, laugh too loud, whatever), maintain basic table manners (don't chew with your mouth open, ask people to pass things instead of reaching across them) and know that if they are worth your time they won't be assholes to you even if they find you kind of befuddling and recognize where they are trying to be kind in their own weird way by including you in conversations (and don't be too offput if they say, with utmost kindness and sincerity, something like "Oh, you must go to Monaco, it's lovely" -- some of them really won't realize that this is not a helpful thing to say to people on a budget). Good luck! Feel free to MeFi mail me if I can help in any way!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:43 PM on April 13, 2016 [56 favorites]

This is my husband's family, kinda sorta, and I've finally blended after 20+ years of marriage. Be polite, offer to help, but if your services are not required, don't force it. Plain ways beat fancy. Conversational topics should be general, not political, not religious, not stories about your Crazy Aunt Bessie. (Ever seen Annie Hall? If not, watch Woody at her family's Easter table.) Also check out Lisa's blog at Privilege.
What WASPy people look down on is showing off, overly passionate tirades about obscure subjects (no fanfiction, please), dressing up when everyone else is dressing down, being sloppy, taking things personally, and general emotional outbursts, unless it's about the Harvard-Yale game.
American uppercrust types value plain speaking and common sense.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:47 PM on April 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

dressing up when everyone else is dressing down,

Oh yeah this is a huge one! It was made VERY CLEAR to me that it's better to be underdressed than overdressed. That doesn't mean jeans because we have Standards and there's a floor for these things but don't go too formal; I would aim for conservative but not too fancy and make sure it's appropriate for the occasion (e.g. don't wear to lunch clothes you'd wear to dinner, if you're meeting at the country club go sporty casual like L.L. Bean shorts and a polo shirt or whatever).

For accessorizing, my grandmother told me that when you're ready to go you don't look in the mirror to see what you can put on, you look in the mirror to see what you can take off. Don't overdo ANYTHING, be it clothing, accessories, conversation, perfume, food, or alcohol (you might be the only one following this particular rule).
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:53 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

If they have some "possible activities" and you know what those are, and they're things like tennis or whatever for which you need equipment - bring your own, do NOT expect to borrow from them. Borrow from a friend prior to, if you have to.
posted by tel3path at 2:00 PM on April 13, 2016

I think this thread points out the *kind* of mismatched expectations you're likely to run into. You might not have enough dressy-but-not-too-dressy clothes to wear different outfits to every meal, or boat shoes, or be able to afford really super-fancy chocolates for a gift. And that's fine, and if they're dicks about it, then they're dicks.

Those are the straight-up money things, and for a visit, it's not worth the hassle or expense unless you're desperate to appear wealthier than you are (and the desperation is *very* likely to show through - see above about what kinds of labels are considered tacky, and what kinds are considered default. That's raw cultural knowledge that you probably don't have, and your partner might not, either.) You're much better off if you don't try to pretend anything, and just do your best to be polite, attentive, and respectful to the best of your ability, and treat it like a business outing rather than a social one.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:11 PM on April 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

do NOT expect to borrow from them

I think this really depends. The people I know in this category would have borrow-able stuff for guests. Your husband can ask ahead of time if they'd like you to bring your own, or if you might be able to borrow spares... depending what equipment it is, at least.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:13 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I forgot to mention this in my first response, because it wasn't a factor in my "hanging out with rich people" experience, but

Never talk about money.

Not just, as was mentioned above, not angling for a handout, but, like, no mention of money at all ever the entire time. Don't talk about how much anyone makes (you, them, the President, anyone), real estate prices, school tuition prices, or the price of luxury items either owned by someone present or hypothetical. As stated above, don't compliment their taste by saying something "must have been expensive". If you go out to dinner, don't gawk at high-dollar menu items or comment on the value or quantity of anything. Ideally don't talk about material things or conspicuous consumption at all.
posted by Sara C. at 2:15 PM on April 13, 2016 [26 favorites]

Lots of good advice in this thread!

West Coast rich people are way easier to deal with, generally.

Bring a bunch of outfits at varying levels of formality, and then read the room once you get there. Simple clothes that can be fancied-up with different shoes or jewelry or whatnot are super handy for these kinds of situations.

Assume that a loud older man is going to try and corner you into having a conversation you don't want to have at some point. Don't be afraid to make an excuse (I want to see if they need any help in the kitchen! I need to go freshen up! whatever) and get the heck out of there if you feel like an interaction is starting to head to a place you don't like. As long as you smile and act really polite while you do it, you should be fine.

Assume that if everyone else there knows each other, and you're one of the few new faces in a given interaction, that people will ask you a ton of questions. I personally try to answer these questions politely while saying as little of substance about myself as possible, and then turn the conversation back around to them and what their kids are doing etc etc.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:18 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and super seconding the "If something completely insane happens, or if someone says something TOTALLY BONKERS to you, just act like everything is normal" advice.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:22 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

do NOT expect to borrow from them

Yeah this may be highly variable. With my family it would be seen as a personal failing if you did NOT have enough stuff for every guest (so like you don't even bring a beach towel or an umbrella, the house has twenty of them). Unless they are jerks, they know you're from a different background and won't assume you are like them (except year they may say dumb stuff about how everyone MUST visit Monaco...). And yeah West Coast WASPs are a lot more chill than Northeast ones.
posted by jessamyn at 2:23 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: It was made VERY CLEAR to me that it's better to be underdressed than overdressed. That doesn't mean jeans because we have Standards and there's a floor for these things but don't go too formal; I would aim for conservative but not too fancy and make sure it's appropriate for the occasion (e.g. don't wear to lunch clothes you'd wear to dinner, if you're meeting at the country club go sporty casual like L.L. Bean shorts and a polo shirt or whatever).

Is there any quick breakdown of this stuff? (ideally, on the web) I have literally zero understanding of what is "too fancy" short of "if you would wear it to a wedding, don't wear it here", and my only understanding of dressing for dinner vs dressing for lunch comes from overconsumption of regency romance novels.
posted by corb at 2:32 PM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

Grab a stack of Sunset magazines from somewhere and look at what the people showing off their remodels and garden parties are wearing.
posted by wintersweet at 2:35 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

It might help to google terms like "professional" versus "business casual". You would want to be more "business casual"-ish to make sure you aren't overdressed.

You could also do a quick read through of "Dress for Success" which is research based and has some info on what signals high class and what does not.
posted by Michele in California at 2:36 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would qualify Sara C.'s advice, "Ideally don't talk about material things or conspicuous consumption at all" (my emphasis). The qualification: if you're knowledgeable about some kind of material possession that they have, and you can offer an appreciation of its quality or characteristics (not its cost!), then do so if it comes up. I'd cheerily chat with a rare book collector about their collection, because in my line of work I handle a large number of rare books; they just happen to be owned by research libraries, not by me (more's the pity!). Ditto for someone with an interest in bicycles. The point is, only bring it up if you have genuine common grounds.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:37 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

No sweat pants or hoodies, no flip-flops, and probably not shorts unless it's a summer home/beach town kind of visit or you'll be going out on boats and stuff.

Nothing that is actually gym clothes, or actually pajamas, or actually meant as heavy workwear (carhartt, overalls, and the like), or any other not-being-used-for-the-proper-thing types of clothing. Frankly I wouldn't be so worried about jeans, but if you're bringing jeans, bring nice ones in good condition and probably don't wear them out to a restaurant unless everyone else is. I mean, wealthy WASPs aren't actual Downton Abbey type people, they know about jeans.

I'd err on the side of conservative in terms of cut, trend, how much skin to show, etc, as well though this may not be such a huge deal. Ditto logos and slogans and the like on your clothes.

I frankly would not worry about things like which brands are considered "good" and L.L. Bean and Top Siders and such, both because it would be silly to buy a whole new wardrobe and because it's not like these people will simply die if they see somebody not wearing seersucker. This goes along with my "realize you can't actually *become* them" advice above. Pack what you have. But, not, like, yoga pants and a worn out State U hoodie.
posted by Sara C. at 2:40 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Men (and even kids, really) should be wearing collared shirts (polo, button down-- definitely long sleeves) unless they are doing some physical activity.
posted by sandmanwv at 2:43 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Re: dressing appropriately — a good host will never breathe so much as a hint that you're not wearing the right things.

The best example from my life: at my backyard wedding, my sister brought her boyfriend, who chose to show up dressed as Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We all pretended not to notice he was wearing a jockstrap outside his pants, or his fake eyelashes, and carried on with the reception. A few weeks later, he showed up to a family barbecue dressed in leather and latex bondage gear. He sat down next to my grandmother, hoping to shock her, I suspect. Instead, she turned to him, and asked, 'Such an interesting collar! Wherever did you get it?' He cheerfully told her that he made it himself, and the two of them proceeded to spend the next half-hour discussing the merits of various buckles. That earned him the nickname of "Bondage Boy," but to his face, we were scrupulously polite.

If Bondage Boy's outfit didn't get him scorned, nothing you could possibly put on your body will even come close to getting you censured.

(The boyfriend was featured a few months later on an episode of some daytime talk show, in which his parents lamented that they couldn't control the way their child dressed.)
posted by culfinglin at 2:43 PM on April 13, 2016 [24 favorites]

Oh, I sympathise and I can help! I am from a WASP background that we used to call 'noble poverty' -- my father's an Episcopalian priest, we are educated but have no money, and we were constantly invited to (and hosted our own) social events with wealthy parishioners. When I was a kid, it was my job to pass the hors d'oeuvres. So I am used to being the poor person among the rich.

Here's some quick advice.

1) Do not talk about money. You can praise things (that art, that table) but don't ever mention or allude to what anything cost. Avoid expressing surprise or discomfort related to their affluence -- like, "OMG servants" or whatever. Don't offer to pay for anything, ugh. The unstated assumption / polite fiction is that next time you will host them.

2) Dress neutrally and to blend in. Don't try to ape their look (Lilly Pulitzer, Brooks Brothers): it's too much work and you won't do it well. Just ape some of the key signifiers. That means, no legible clothing, nothing sexy, neutral low-saturation colours, minimal jewelry and makeup. Go with plain simple clothes, and natural fibers are best. Think wool, cotton, cashmere. WASPs tend to wear lots of layers because they come from chilly climates, so think about outfits like tank top + button-down + cardigan, or whatever. Don't dress too formally --fancy skirt, shiny stuff, high heels-- to them, this is a casual weekend with extended family, not a dress-up occasion. You do not need to wear different clothes to dinner than to lunch: that's ridiculous.

3) Best hostess gifts are long-lasting consumables, ideally something upscale from your part of the world, ideally something that has a tiny story about how it's the best or the oldest or whatever. You're in New York, right? I would consider Li-lac Chocolates at Chelsea Market or maybe do a small basket from Chelsea Market Baskets. Don't make a big deal out of it though: just hand it to your hostess when you arrive, say one sentence about it, and never mention it again.

4) Prepare yourself with a stock of stuff to talk about by reading a few back issues of the New Yorker, the Atlantic, maybe Harpers or the New Republic. Nothing political or in any way controversial: this is the kind of thing I mean. I don't mean, 'put yourself through a crash course in news and politics so you can talk intelligently about whatever is going on in France'; I mean 'come up with a stock of light pleasant topics to pass the time with.' Fairly safe subjects: food trends, gadgets and tech, why email sucks, travel and recreation, sports, the natural world, anything popular science related, arts and culture including books and movies, anything funny. Less safe: politics, the environment, the economy, anything sad or negative. (OTOH it is always safe to talk about Donald Trump, as long as you limit yourself to light horror. And if politics does come up, in general you will be okay as long as you keep it a little wry, a little detached.)

5) WASPs talk a lot about work. Be prepared to talk about what you do, why you like it, what your future plans are for it, etc.

6) Be up for whatever! They may want to play monopoly or a card game. Maybe there will be some kind of hike or recreational activity. Whatever is proposed, participate with pleasure. Asking questions and cheerleading are forms of participation :)

You'll be fine! Really, politeness is the lifeblood of WASPs; there is no world in which they will humiliate or be unkind to you.
posted by Susan PG at 2:48 PM on April 13, 2016 [19 favorites]

corb, you will make yourself crazy.

There is no need to remake yourself or your wardrobe. Dress modestly and conservatively. Seriously, I am of this tribe and trying to fit in is a losing battle. (Vuitton bag? YUCK, not the horrible coated canvas. Chanel bags are acceptable. Oh, but you got the Cerf? WHO CARRIES THAT ON WEEKENDS!?!) Don't punish yourself for being who you are.

None of us know these people or their specific idiosyncrasies. They invited you - likely with the best of intentions. They want to get to know you. If they just wanted to be distant and judgy, they could do that without ever meeting you.
posted by 26.2 at 2:52 PM on April 13, 2016 [22 favorites]

Go with plain simple clothes, and natural fibers are best. Think wool, cotton, cashmere. WASPs tend to wear lots of layers because they come from chilly climates, so think about outfits like tank top + button-down + cardigan, or whatever.

This is extremely good advice. A cotton t-shirt will go over better than a dressier polyester blouse that you spent more on. It is more "authentic."

Go through your closet and try to bring the things that are mostly natural materials. That will be a good start.
posted by Michele in California at 2:53 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

[don't] discipline your kids in front of your hosts (especially physically)

So the rule is not to make a scene, and not inflict emotional baggage on anyone else. Private problems are private. Take the kid outside, to the car if necessary and deal with the situation there. I spent a number of nights in the car waiting for mom and dad to say their good-byes, and this was for dinner with close family.

I will definitely get a hostess gift - what are good nonalcoholic hostess gifts for this?

Bring a gift you would want to receive, though it should clearly be well chosen or prepared, if hand-made. Authenticity is valued, even exoticised.
posted by bonehead at 2:57 PM on April 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

I once drank out of a beer bottle at a wedding reception. A lovely WASP friend who'd been to boarding school brought me a glass in a completely off-handed manner to let me know that I should be drinking out of a glass if I didn't want to embarrass our mutual friend, the bride. (This buddy has lovely manners that I was never raised to have myself but admire and appreciate when I'm on the receiving end of his social graces. ) He was my ally then, as I expect your husband to be yours during this visit, whether the extended family members have opinions about his family or not. It's his family and, thus, his job to help you through this by sharing the emotional labor of a taxing visit and all that. Have fun!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:57 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Too fancy are things like acrylic nails, lots of costume jewelry (lots of real gold that you never take off is acceptable--some women wear their stuff to the beach, to church, in the shower...), high heels at home. In my MIL's house, we are expected to be fully dressed at the breakfast table, no bathrobes, but YMMV.
If things in the house are old, chipped, faded or scratched--they're probably priceless heirlooms. New, shiny, matching, perfect things are so New Money.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:00 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

This just reminded me of a funeral that we went to in upper-crust Pennsylvania. We were very kindly invited to stay with people we didn't know, but were members of the extended family. We took wine (we live in CA wine country) and I think something else. They were obviously old-money but turned out to be delightful. I admired their beautiful garden and took several photos of it. When we got home, I wrote a hand-written thank you and included a small (4x5 at most) acrylic painting I'd done using one of the garden photos, which they loved.

Years later, that couple moved in with their son and daughter-in-law and apparently they had the little framed painting I'd done in their bedroom. They said it was their favorite image of the beloved garden they'd left behind.
posted by Gusaroo at 4:39 PM on April 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

Ask your husband about the scene, he'll probably have direct info about what to expect, and modify from there. Every family's different. My advice is don't try to impress anyone if you're feeling insecure, that probably won't go well. Chances are you'll be around people who have Ivy League or other top-tier educations, travel regularly to incredible sounding locations, and work for top-flight industries in executive roles. Law firm partners. Old money types with jobs to kill the time. Some may even things named after their families going back more than a century. Just nod and smile. It doesn't matter in the end who they are or what they have and what you don't. That's my experience with my own family at least. They're a little more on the brutal/ice-in-the-veins end of things, so it'll be different with everyone.

Just be an observer and take a learning stance. Absorb the atmosphere, take note of rules and hierarchies, and remember it for later if this is going to be a regular occurrence. Don't try any bold moves because you may end up violating some rule you have no clue about. When I was a kid I got ripped to shreds on the car ride home for laughing the wrong way. Whatever.

Think about what your goals are: is it to win their favor? Or is it for your relationship with your husband? If so, what would it take to succeed at that? Then just do the bare minimum to achieve that goal and don't worry about the rest. I'd say just be conservative about the whole thing and don't expect much if they already look down on your husband's side of the family, because you're "one of them", and you probably won't ever get out of that category, no matter what. And if you aren't their sort-of person, there's no productive reason to get in good with them anyway, because it'd probably just be exhausting, and life's too short for that. Good luck!
posted by gehenna_lion at 5:00 PM on April 13, 2016

It's perfectly okay to call your hostess and say, "Camille, we're so excited to be visiting you, I'm doing my packing list and I wanted to get an idea of the sorts of clothing we'll need, anything special for sports or events?"

Camille should be happy to help you out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:24 PM on April 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

I disagree that you should act very nice, overly polite, and imitate someone in customer service. That's exactly what rich people get all the time and IME, they hate it.

You should act unimpressed. "Sure, $10,000 dishes. No biggie. Whatever." "Oh, squash. Sure, that's a normal sport. Never got to play much myself."

You should also not be too effusive. You should be confident and a little bit blase. Rich people really like that. At least they have in my life. "Don't act like some weird pleb, you're making us feel like we're not normal." Just waltz in there, don't bat an eye. SO mundane. They love that.
posted by quincunx at 5:54 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm WASP-ish (my dad's dad was an umpteenth-generation New Englander who went to prep school) but not a WASP (Dad's dad married a French Catholic from New Orleans. My mom is Italian on her mom's side and German on her father's side).

That said, I've lived most of my life in the WASP heartland of New England, and here are my experiences:

1. Food is so *not* a thing in WASP culture. My family are enthusiastic cooks and eaters of all the cuisines in our own ethnic heritage and then some. When I visited a WASP friend during school vacation in college, dinner started with a long drinks period and lots of Ritz crackers and cheese. The main course was the above-mentioned Stouffer's chicken pot pies, and I think dessert was fruit cocktail.

Not that I minded. (I'll eat almost anything put in front of me.) It was just a surprise.

This particular friend is a great guy and would drive me to my parents door during our vacations. When we reached the virago homestead, where there's an open fridge policy for visitors, he'd hang for about an hour, scarfing the most recent leftovers -- eggplant Parmesan, with homemade tomato sauce, was a fave -- before heading home.

2. I can't favorite the "thank you" note recommendation enough. The social niceties mean a lot.
For example: My sister married a guy we all like a lot. He is a WASP (his mother's maiden name is one of those almost comically WASP surnames, like Worthington).

I met my BIL's grandmother once, at my sister's wedding. When she passed away, about a year or so later, I sent my BIL's mom a note expressing my condolences and sharing my memory of a pleasant chat that Grandmother Worthington and I had had at the reception. That letter was just a couple of lines long, but it was very well received.

3. Also double-triple-seconding the recommendation to act as if all is normal no matter how bonkers in actuality.

As one of Edie Sedgwick's acquaintances said in the bio Edie: American Girl:

Growing up around Boston, everybody's slightly mad. Old families have strangers people in the attic. Staying with one family, you're told never to speak to Uncle James. One day a friend of mine looked out and saw a naked man under his car looking at the mechanism of the undercarriage. It was Uncle James.
posted by virago at 6:07 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

(That would be "...strange people in the attic.")
posted by virago at 6:13 PM on April 13, 2016

not that you're going to read this, because *millions* of people have commented before me, but my parents practically ARE these people so..

I would stay away from wine or any other alcohol for a gift. some cutesy bagged food or candy is good, but many WASPs have different feelings about alcohol, what's good and what's not, and if it is low-class to drink hard liquor (my parents REALLY think it is). Additionally, if they're that wealthy they'd probably turn up their noses at anything even remotely in your price range.

In terms of manners, just play the game Follow the Matriarch. You can't go wrong. If she cooks, offer to help. If she lets the live-in cook prepare the meal, sit with her and chat, don't offer to help! She drinks, you can drink. She stops, you stop. etc, etc.
posted by leafmealone at 6:15 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Follow the matriarch is good advice. Thinking about it on the way home today, I realized that men, especially older men, often get away with stuff guests and women don't. If you sit down and an adult woman is eating? Feel free to eat, and use the fork she's using.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:28 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd say keep an open mind, too. My aunt who married into the family is from New England old money, and I remember at a party once she was regaling me with this story about how her great great great whatever started some goofy sounding tradition at Yale. I was sitting there like, "Yeah, I don't think I can contribute anything to this conversation." But she was a nice woman, she had her own marketing consulting thing going on and helped me write my resume after I graduated college.

The rest of the people in my family are utterly miserable jerks, though, even if on the surface they seem completely charming and warm. Looks can be deceiving. Just play it loose and cool. People are people, and families are their own little social systems, so the same basic rules apply like anywhere else.
posted by gehenna_lion at 6:41 PM on April 13, 2016

I also think your SO is your best resource here, but: it's really difficult for me to imagine a wealthy WASPy West Coast family serving Stouffer's or jello salad or whatever, midwestern origins or not. (Admittedly, I've spent more time with the extremely comfortable than with the fabulously rich.) Wine and food are perhaps not as overly fussed over and discussed among the wealthy here as among the middle and aspirational classes, but ... taking food seriously is pretty normal among the upper crust here. (Now I'm kind of dying to find out what they do serve.)
posted by wintersweet at 7:22 PM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

A good hostess gift is a nice candle, artisan-type, maybe with one of those cute boxes of fireplace matches, or some taper candles; sea salt or other high-end spice, nicely wrapped; a pretty dish or piece of pottery suitable for holding cocktail snacks; high-end tea, nicely wrapped; etc. I'd avoid alcohol completely, but especially beer and wine - much too particular, and you want to bring something that reflects good taste but is not interesting enough to warrant talking about later as a reflection on your character.

f it is low-class to drink hard liquor (my parents REALLY think it is)

That is funny, the New England WASPS I know are exactly the opposite.
posted by Miko at 7:49 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have step-in-laws from this tribe and the biggest advice I could give is, if you're prone to kvetching (as I am, coming from a family of ace kvetchers), do your best to curb that impulse, so if you're at dinner and the waiter is terrible or whatever, and your family would usually be rolling their eyes and bonding over how awful he is, just quietly sip your water and make a bland, neutral comment about the decor. In my experience, only the matriarch is allowed to make zingers.

Also, if someone compliments something you're wearing, don't immediately tell them what a steal that item was at the thrift store or TJ Maxx.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:14 PM on April 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

Also is there a good way to say "I am friendly" in reserved

Okay, so I know my WASP in-laws pretty well at this point, which is maybe why this is doable, but: if they're older, and things are pretty smooth conversationally already, asking an older couple about the ups and downs of marriage can be pretty entertaining/relateable across broad swaths of different classes and backgrounds. Money doesn't make you any better or worse at the early awkward stages of dating, so the "how we met" topic can create something of a level playing field amongst couples of different backgrounds, I've found.

Also, you have so much advice upthread, but the one other thing I'd like to point out that tags onto other people's act like service / help with stuff advice: if you are uncomfortable as a woman performing gender expectations of helping with cleaning up after dinner, etc, have a conversation with your husband about how he needs to take the lead on this stuff. WASP culture can be hella gendered, especially if only the guy in the marriage did any work out of the home for a living, and so if you start to clean up plates with Mrs. Waspy In-Law, Mr. Waspy In-Law may pull your husband aside for Manly Waspy Chats and culturally, it would be really rude of him to break things off and help clear off the silverware. Basically the only way out of this that doesn't cause offense that I've ever seen (admittedly, my experience run just shy of live-in hired help and is mostly in the South, but not just) is for your husband to be Mrs. Waspy In-Law's right hand man, asking if he can help at any turn, and not taking no for an answer. So if your husband isn't willing to step up his game proactively, do be prepared for Uncomfortably Gendered Labor Dynamics Weekend With Fun Lady Times Cleanup Socializing About The Mens.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:19 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This thread is bumming me out! You're an adult, you've always come across here as a thoughtful person, and I'm positive you know how to be polite in someone else's home. Its okay to act slightly different than they do, because you are different than they are. I mean I get not wanting to act like a big rude yokel, but stressing about the perfect color shirt and the perfect gift don't sound fun for you. I'm sure you would appropriately read the tone of any environment in which you're a guest and comport yourself just fine and I don't see the need to suck up to them just because they're rich and white.

There are so many rules here! Ask your husband the two or three most important things to remember and let the rest go. I think you will needlessly worry yourself if you try to impress snobs. Snobs by nature will not be impressed, it's a fool's errand. If someone deems you low-class because you wore the wrong fabric or something, then they are entitled to their awful opinion and you still get to be you. They probably aren't all snobs, anyway.

Trying to parse the WASP code is stressing me out even reading about it. It seems specially designed so that people like you and me will run afoul of it so they can have something to be offended by! Oh well. If they look down on you, at least they're enjoying themselves.

There's a Friends episode about this.
posted by kapers at 8:24 PM on April 13, 2016 [13 favorites]

I think all you ever need to know about WASP culture in the here and now, you can glean from George Howe Colt's The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home. When I read it, I was nodding along in recognition nearly constantly.

Have fun! If you're nervous because you've been told "they already look down their nose a bit at my husband's branch of the family," consider the source and ask for the history. It might be an unfair or inaccurate misperception. And as others have pointed out, these people want to spend time with you and want to enjoy the weekend. So long as you don't go into the adventure assuming cousin Kate will stand up, clutch her single strand of pearls and gasp, "Prole!" at you, you'll be okay. Cousin Kate may well be dying to sit down over a drink and dish with someone who hasn't heard all her stories before, been in her stories, or told her theirs.
posted by sobell at 9:46 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm of west coast WASP extraction and food is very much a thing for many of us- it just tends to be bland Mediterranean styles. A good hostess gift around here is a really fancy bottle of sourced or varietal olive oil. Sourced, varietal anything is a good bet, come to think of it. Varietal chocolates were a thing a couple years back, even.

I agree with "don't make or notice a scene," & "don't talk about money", and I'll add "generally don't talk about sex or bodies." (After a while you'll figure out which rules to break and when. )

Otherwise, go ahead and be yourself. You'll be exotic. Even WASP east coasters are slightly exotic here. Feel free to accentuate whatever you've got.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:56 PM on April 13, 2016

Re the hostess gift - customs vary, of course, but one of the few seriously wealthy (old money) families I knew years ago did not bring a gift upon arrival - especially when meeting/visiting for the first time - because how would you know what was appropriate? Instead, they sent a gift after the visit, whenever possible, something that referances the visit, e.g. a book by an author discussed at dinner.

And they never, ever brought or sent wine - too cliché.
posted by she's not there at 2:33 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you have a favorite, local-to-you wine it would be okay, probably. In my experience, the gift should be very small, preferably consumeable, and personal to your area. If you live someplace that grows peaches, and you showed up with 5 carefully packed peaches, for instance, it would be a huge hit, at least in my circle. (Be sure to talk a little about where they're from, why you like them.) If you live near the best shaker pie in the world, bring one of those. It's not so much about the cost as it is about the wanting to share.

You can also ask your boyfriend to research for you but he probably has some idea of what snacky things would go over well.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:49 AM on April 14, 2016

The way to convey that you are friendly, even if you are reserved, is to smile. You don't have to be a chatty cathy to make a good impression.
posted by *s at 7:55 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

You know, you're not going to Japan. The fundamentals of US etiquette should be enough here. Host/ess gift, thank-you note, offer to provide one meal whether offer likely to be accepted or not, don't tread on toes of any putative staff, leave your room tidy and your bed stripped, never discuss money or the monetary value of anything. Since you don't know them well, you avoid discussion of well-established controversial topics such as politics, religion and that other one I forget. That's all, really.

You don't have to disguise yourself to look like them.

You don't have to live in fear of Offending Them, either. They're WASPs, not hornets, at least until proven otherwise.
posted by tel3path at 9:18 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

The way to signal "friendly" in a reserved way is to be thoughtful and observant and not overly personal. So, if you notice they are struggling with something and you can unobtrusively insert yourself and open the door for them or whatever without embarrassing them, they will notice and will appreciate it.

Be chatty, but tone down overly personal observations about yourself or others, especially anything that sounds critical.
posted by Michele in California at 10:16 AM on April 14, 2016

Best answer: I will back up the idea that West Coast WASP is much chiller than the Connecticut stereotype. My extended family has some fairly serious money, and most of my clients come from old money. The difference is that old money here really isn't; most wealthy families on the West Coast are only a few generations removed from an oilman or a shopkeeper who got really, really lucky (my great-great-great grandfather was a traveling mason who got really lucky). So there's more connection with roots. Most wealthy people I know who grew up with wealth (from LA and the Northwest) are really adverse to the flashy. Only the Kardashian types would be so vulgar as to make you feel out of place. You'll be fine.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 10:43 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't strip your bed unless they ask you.
posted by Miko at 10:47 AM on April 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Just came here to say as someone who came from a eye-roll-inducing uptight rich island family on one side, who also dated someone from an uptight rich family like this, that Moonorb and cooker girl have the right idea. That, plus always having a sunny demeanor will make them like you. All the other stuff are little things that can come later.

I have step-in-laws from this tribe and the biggest advice I could give is, if you're prone to kvetching (as I am, coming from a family of ace kvetchers), do your best to curb that impulse, so if you're at dinner and the waiter is terrible or whatever, and your family would usually be rolling their eyes and bonding over how awful he is, just quietly sip your water and make a bland, neutral comment about the decor. In my experience, only the matriarch is allowed to make zingers.

I can't favorite this one enough. I love complaining. Just don't.

I just breezed through another encounter with a family like this by just being cheerful. Seriously gets you further than anything else.

And yea, don't bother with the wine. Come up with something else. Basically every rich person i've met drinks, but not all of them even really touch wine except to take a few sips at a dinner. Others suck it down, but have some specific type/vineyard/etc that's their primary drink. That's Advanced Gifting if you even go there.

I've seen multiple bottles of fancy Cognac go in the trash after everyone leaves.
posted by emptythought at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

I feel like there's a lot of weird stereotypes and bad advice in here. Also, some good advice.

I think in general, this should be like meeting any people the first time. Be polite. Make conversation. Be aware of your surroundings and interactions with people. Have good table manners (don't talk with your mouth full, don't put your elbows on the table, etc).

It's not that hard. It's not like they are from another planet.
posted by reddot at 8:14 AM on April 15, 2016

Response by poster: Okay, a report back and follow up question

First - things that I did: follow the matriarch, including if they mention something, use it. listen to what they are talking about and talk competently, and be sunny and don't make a scene. I didn't buy any new clothes and just wore nice family earrings and it seemed to go fine. I managed to share two of their hobbies which was enough for conversation.

Complicating question: it is morning of second day and there was a death in my family and I really, really need to get out of here and deal with it. How do I gracefully extract myself?
posted by corb at 7:04 AM on April 17, 2016

Death in the family basically trumps anything. Make your polite goodbyes and leave.
posted by jessamyn at 8:32 AM on April 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm so sorry for your loss.

This is when it's on them to be gracious. Just take care of yourself and do what you need to do.
posted by wonton endangerment at 9:25 AM on April 17, 2016

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by sobell at 12:33 PM on April 17, 2016

So sorry for your loss, corb.

Yes, all you have to do is tell them what's happened and go do what you need to do.
posted by tel3path at 2:19 PM on April 17, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you guys. I told them and left and am back now and have been able to make my calls and plans for everything. Thank you again for answering that so swiftly, I was hanging out dithering over what to do and working myself up. As ever, you are the best.
posted by corb at 2:49 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

Last time I stayed with people fitting this description, I brought some gourmet soup mix made locally (Central Illinois isn't all that exciting, really) and some popping corn (because Central Illinois, yay). And some fancy crackers to have with the soup. They loved it, because it was something they could keep in the cupboard and make when the cook had the night off and they themselves didn't want to cook. (And they ate ALL the crackers with wine and cheese the night I stayed with them and were trying to figure out where to get more.)

Other possible consumables: local jams or fruit butters, any other nonperishable local specialty that can be eaten for breakfast or a snack; a tea you really like; your favorite coffee (I often take Intelligentsia, roasted in Chicago, as a present if I know my hosts are coffee drinkers). Even an interesting liquor might be a good gift, if you know their tastes and that they do drink alcohol (I recently tried some good Japanese whiskey and found that it rivaled some of my favorite single malt Scotches). If they're worthwhile people they'll value different and interesting over expensive.

I took my aunt (wealthy newspaper family) a little cat stuffed with dried wheat husks and lavender, made in Vietnam, that can be warmed in the microwave and put under one's neck. I bought it at Ten Thousand Villages. She loves it and mentions it whenever we talk on the phone.

These are all things I would give my non-affluent friends and relatives, too. But if I'm going to give someone something "fancy," like special chocolates, it's going to be someone who considers it a treat and would never buy it for my mother.
posted by tully_monster at 11:53 PM on January 5, 2017

Yikes, didn't realize this was from last year! Glad the trip went well. Funerals can be stressful. I had a similar experience in early November (family funeral in the Bible belt, wealthy conservative Southern extended in-laws whom I didn't know well, stayed in one of several houses they owned). Wore black and my crucifix (as a high-church Episcopalian I can out-Catholic most Catholics, which negates the whole damned liberal Yankee feminazi thing). Stayed quiet and polite. Got up early and set out breakfast for family and washed up afterwards. Excused myself to slip off to our room to read a book when the talk got political. (My husband managed to guilt his relatives into turning the conversation back to family memories...after all, when did they all get to see each other?) Felt like Louise from Thelma and Louise...didn't want to spend more time in Texas than was absolutely necessary. But the important thing for me, as it probably was for you, was supporting my spouse through it all.
posted by tully_monster at 12:27 AM on January 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

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