How to be a Class Act (or at least not a complete classless oaf)

My grandmother used to have a great expression that I don’t hear much anymore: Handsome is as handsome does. Essentially it means that what makes a person attractive or admirable is their character (and resulting actions) vs. their looks, performance or how “cool” they are. That is to say, matter how suave, gorgeous, charming or sexy a person is, if they don’t have a good moral character, they’re not worth suffering.

What does it mean to be a “Class Act”? Class is something that means different things to different people, and to make defining it even harder, any given person’s definition of class is often influenced by whatever wonderful quality they themselves have an abundance of. If a person knows that the fork goes on the left and that a certain year was a great harvest for Bordeaux, he’s going to put more emphasis on the “The Knowledge”. If a person was raised with the notion that a commitment made with one’s mouth must be followed through with one’s actions, they will put more weight on honoring their commitments, regardless of size.

I think most would agree that “right action” is infinitely more important than “the knowledge”, but yet the lesser important one seems to get the most attention. To create a discussion we can follow, let’s quantify that degree of importance of each one. Let’s take some liberties and make our quantification fit into the popular “80/20 rule”. (Pareto’s principle: Eighty percent of any results come from twenty percent of the causes, more or less). In this case we’ll call the 80% side the “right action” and the twenty percent side the “knowledge.” So on the twenty percent “knowledge” side is where you can fit all the shiny stuff. What kind of wine glass to use, what type of crystal is best, identifying the thirty types of dirt, tobacco and berry buried in that twenty year old bottle of Bordeaux. Even the more obvious stuff: how one dresses, how often they shave, their breath and other basic hygiene. By placing these things on the side of lesser importance, I don’t mean to imply that they don’t have SOME importance. Twenty percent is still a pretty good-sized chunk, after all. You might not get far enough into a group, club or organization to show all you have to give unless you’ve checked a few boxes on the 20% side. But the point is that this is all stuff that can be learned. It’s largely knowledge and practice. You might say, “anyone can pull it off with a bit of elbow grease.” This is an oversimplification, but learning about wine or antiques is infinitely easier than developing and maintaining good character, making hard but right choices, controlling what comes out of your mouth, and generally behaving like there’s other people in the world besides you.

I’ve always been fascinated with this subject. I spent a good deal of my life dirt poor, and a decent chunk of it very comfortable. Having lived in both worlds, I noticed that wealth and window dressing didn’t always accompany good manners and strength of character, but USUALLY did. Why? Because despite the battle cry of social injustice and inequality of wealth, I believe that more often than not, success and monetary wealth are the result of the consistent and continued actions of people of good character. In other words, “class acts”.

Sometimes it’s easier to spot the weak points than strengths. Strength just kind of sits there quietly, ready when needed. Strength of character needs little in the way of feeding and watering, and it’s only kryptonite is laziness and compromise. So I think it will be easier to give some examples of weakness, self-centeredness and poor etiquette than to paint a portrait of virtue. Like a sculptor, we’ll ferret out and chip away at the undesirable excess to uncover the masterpiece in the middle. And I’ll try to do this without sounding like a cynical self-righteous old bastard! And let me be the first to tell you. I’m guilty of so many classless acts I can’t even count, so I come by this knowledge honestly. I’ve bought and paid for the rights, so to speak.

Self honesty:
This is a strength that is hard won and if you meet a person who doesn’t bullshit themselves and believe their own bullshit, don’t let them slip out of your life. They will be of great value to you. Because if you ask them to, they will make sure you don’t bullshit yourself either. To be fair, there are many degrees of self-honesty. Even the most courageous have at least a few blind spots. But an abundance (or lack) of this strength can determine the quality of relationships. We have people we’ve known a short time that we’re inseparable with and others we’ve known twenty years with which our relationship will be wonderful, but always have less depth because they know they’re doing things in their lives that aren’t right in their hearts but aren’t ready to expose those choices to the light of day. That creates a wall that limits the depth of any relationship. A whole segment of their lives are “off limits” so to speak. This is a hard row to hoe. “I’m fucking up, and I know it, but I’m not ready to change yet.” Once you really say that, and mean it, how long can you continue fucking up? Not very long without some restless nights. But there are almost limitless reasonable sounding excuses available to us to aid us in our mediocre meandering down a more comfortable path.

I spent six years meeting with a group of men, in the woods, for 3 hours at a time, once a week for the sole purpose of becoming a better man and helping the men I was with do the same. The levels of self honesty were extraordinary and a little frightening. So I work hard to continue this habit but am also amazed at how quickly I can forget and go back the other way. Comfort never stops calling.

Self deception is a sneaky creature. It comes up in conversation a lot like this: Years ago, I was talking to a business owner about taxes and real estate, and it was clear that she had only a layman’s knowledge of income tax law and investments. She quickly backed out of the conversation with the old standby, “I have people who takes care of that stuff.” Those weren’t the exact words, but close. Another stand by is the guy who “pays a kid to mow his lawn because in the hour it would take him, he could make one sale and make $2,000”. This is actually true many times…but this excuse has been “commandeered” by the masses and used in the most outrageous ways to get their wives to let them out of the most menial chores. This is the land of carrying credit card debt, being mystified why one can’t lose weight, and using well worn meme’s like “We don’t go out to eat” to justify their other overspending.

Notice I’m using examples with men a lot. The truth is, I think men are much better at self deception than women, as a whole. I think maybe it comes from the tradition of men as hunters and gatherers. Men traditionally have had to do much more lying, cheating, stealing and murdering than the average woman to get resources, and I think those skills have stuck with us!

I suppose the best way to grow in terms of self honesty and self-awareness is to respond in such a way as to make it clear I’m open to feedback from people. When I respond with a knee-jerk negative reaction, I can apologize and reassure the other that I appreciate what they have to say. Not easy. And of course there’s a place and a time. Social situations are not appropriate because their purpose is comfort and fun. Earnest one on one conversations between friends seems an appropriate venue for this type of work.

Courtesy and conscious of others:
Self centeredness is a very common thing. We’re taught from age 0 to about 4 that we’re the single most important living entity in the universe. So a lack of self centeredness is a hard won virtue and worthy of respect.

When you invite people to your home, do you set things up to make sure your guests are comfortable, or do you focus on your comfort? If your guest has allergies to perfume, do you go without or rationalize yourself into thinking that just a little dab will be ok? If a guest is allergic to dogs do you put the pooch in another room for a couple of hours or bullshit yourself into thinking it will be OK because you vacuumed that day? Or worse, adopt the whole “Fido’s part of the family too” philosophy?

Teeth brushing: Every man, woman and child has bad breath twenty minutes after eating. This is fact and varies little from person to person. Even if you haven’t eaten, bacteria grows fast enough to produce semi-dragon breath to some degree 3 hours after thorough teeth brushing. This is a tough one. Nobody takes it well when notified of bad breath, so we have a delicate situation here: 9 out of 10 friends and family will not tell you that you have bad breath, and we have a hard time detecting our own bad breath, yet unless you follow the formula above…your bad breath has been detected by someone. There’s no point counter point here. No debate, no “yeah but I’ve always been different”. If you drop a book, it will hit the ground. If you don’t brush your teeth after every meal, (or at least every 3 hours when no food), then you have bad breath.

Other hygiene related etiquette:

  • At any buffet, or buffet-style spread, do NOT pick or eat while at the buffet. Fill your plate and sit down.
  • Playing games with friends: You must NOT put your fingers in your mouth and then touch game pieces or cards that other people are going to touch. Fingernail chewing, licking fingers while eating and picking food out of your teeth are common examples.

Being a guest: There’s some etiquette to follow in being a guest too; not all the responsibility is the hosts alone. Some examples: 90% of the population is ok with basic fare. If you’ve got allergies or sensitivities, bring your own food or just understand you’ll need to eat when you get home. If it’s a potluck function, you can bring something you can eat. And if you’re on a low carb diet, don’t inconvenience friends and family by asking them for special dishes when you know you’re going to cheat at least twice that week anyway.

Attitude: As both a host and guest at a social situation, display of negativity is a sure sign that you’re lacking in class, and guilty of excessive self-centeredness. The message is, “My expression of emotion is more important than everyone’s comfort and good time.” I have a hard time with my emotions, given my healthy case of unmedicated adult ADHD, but I’ve have been hard at work on this one. The harder I work the easier it gets. Now I’m noticing it more in others and have to work on not shocking them with a reminder that I have a shit ton of silver back Alpha stored up, just looking for an excuse to use it. Games are a tough one. Competitive spirits come out. A man’s work is never done!

When one does transgress, whether a flare of temper or an off color remark that may’ve offended, it’s important I think to clean that up. We all are guilty putting dents in relationships. That’s part of the human condition. But doing our best to “pick up after ourselves” goes a long way toward communicating who we are. I try to do it in person but I think an earnest email or text the next day is better than in-person two weeks later. My first question to myself is, “Am I texting because I’m not going to see this person within an appropriate amount of time, or am I texting because it’s more comfortable than a phone call or face-to-face chat?”

Road trips!
So one thing that will at least hint at a person’s class is this. Let’s say you’re the designated driver for an all day shopping trip. If you have to pay for a single cup of coffee, tolls or lunch, at least one person in your party is flirting with classless oaf territory. If someone else is driving you to dinner, and it’s more than 10 minutes away, (and allows you the luxury of having a couple of drinks without worrying about driving later) you could buy them a drink. There’s some gray area here of course. Maybe it’s friends who trade off being the driver, for example. I tend to be a little overboard, and my wife reins me in from time to time. But people don’t forget these things. I was on a road trip once, and the agreement was that everyone would give the driver a few bucks toward gas & tolls. One person wanted to find a particular gas station so he could use a special gas card he had. Once it was clear we weren’t going near one he said he’d chip in at the next store. We all got out, I asked him again and he said “hold on, I’ve got to get change” and he walked into the store, bought something, came out, walked past me and got back in the vehicle. From that day forward, I made sure to have the details clarified when that person was involved. Otherwise, someone was going to get severely hurt feelings. That person put me in the position of asking for gas money 3 times and I never even received it.

In general, money is probably the most sensitive but easily solvable dilemma with friends and family. I say easily solvable because all one has to do is refrain from the two most obvious landmines which are:

1.) Refrain from the “one check and we’ll split it” route. I don’t think any social system has ever caused so much unspoken resentment as the “group check”. For my wife and I, it’s easy: We simply eat less than anyone else, almost without exception, so we always go it alone. Some people’s tabs are always higher, and these are often the people that support the “splitting the tab” method. But by taking care of your own check, you don’t have a mental tab going in your head, causing resentment down the road.

2.) Don’t be cheap. Give a decent tip. And if you had a small bill tip accordingly. If we eat at a cheaper place and spend two hours but have a bill of $50, we tip like we had a $100 check. (This blends nicely with paying our own check vs. a group tab because the waitress knows who the generous people are.) If the agreement is $10 for gas, have a $10 bill ready. Don’t screw around. If you want to brand yourself a crass, classless ass who discovers they’re not being invited as often as they’d like, being cheap and not paying your fair share is the best way to guaranty your branding.

I have a contractor working for me who is a rock star. He’s been with us 20 years and counting & I expect we’ll both retire about the same time. He used to work for another business in town and left very quickly. Why? He wasn’t getting paid on time, and had to jump through some hoops to get paid. Do not play games with paying people who work for you, either as employees or contractors.

Probably the single most inconsiderate thing I’ve noticed is with RSVP’s. Imagine you’re planning a party or get together at your home. You’re taking on the organization, the stress, the cleanup after, most of the financial burden and all you ask is that everyone let you know if they’re coming by such and such a date and to make a decision about what they’re bringing for food, if anything, and to let you know so people aren’t bringing two of something.

When you’re taking food from a buffet, take what you think you’re going to eat. Nothing says classless entitled oaf than someone who piles their plate high and pushes back from the table leaving half a plate of food.

Be on time. Nothing says to a host “your time isn’t important as mine” more than showing up late, (especially without a heads up or specific apology, and especially if it’s chronic). If arrival time is “flexible” that’s one thing but if a party starts at 2, be there at 1.50 at the latest. And if you’re going to be late, don’t go on and on about how you have to get home in plenty of time so you won’t be late for church or getting dinner on the table. And don’t be annoyed at your host for being annoyed with YOU for being late. You haven’t earned it. They have.

Other tidbits

When someone “gifts” you, don’t deny them the experience of their gift. Example: We were invited to a friends home recently, and they bought pizza and wings for everyone and didn’t ask us or the other guests to bring anything. A couple of days later we all went out to eat, and the host drove. I bought him a drink, mainly because he did the driving which took the pressure off me to watch my alcohol consumption. BUT, I made a boo-boo and told him that the drink was for driving, and for the nice pizza and wings earlier that week. It never occurred to me, but my good wife, who is the epitome of a “class act” educated me on this finer point.

That reminds me, when someone offers to pay the check at a dinner, you can make a gesture of objection and maybe offer to pay the tip, but then drop it. Years ago we treated some people to a nice dinner out, and one of them brought it up two or three more times, to different people, after making a huge fuss about it at the table. It was really embarrassing and took a lot of the joy out of the gift for me. some of these finer points aren’t easy to recognize. In fact, the whole concept of denying someone’s gift was foreign to me until my wife Deb helped me see it. So this is where it helps to adopt an attitude of openness. I like to hear myself talk sometimes, and I’m pretty knowledgeable about a few areas, but as often as possible, I try to adopt the attitude of being a “student” in whatever context I find myself. It disarms people and they’re more willing to share their knowledge, perspective, advice, etc. if they feel secure that you’re not going to pout or sulk.

Speaking of gift giving, it can get expensive at holidays, everyone feeling the spirit and the obligation to get something, even if a trinket, for all their good friends. But if you make an agreement among your friends to forego gifting, be sure to follow this rule. There’s nothing remotely positive or generous about surprising friends with a gift when you’ve already agreed not to. You’ve actually made a withdrawal from the relationship bank account, instead of a deposit, AND it cost you whatever you paid for the gift to MAKE that withdrawal. It’s just drop dead bad etiquette all around. All it results in is the recipient feeling guilty, then angry, then guilty for feeling angry.

But hey. Life is hard. Some people have more energy in certain areas, and certain things come easier to them. There’s upbringing. This article is just about things I’ve noticed over the years, and what I’ve come to believe. Nothing more.

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