Many of the top Google results for “how to be classy” are pretty unclassy. They include top-10 lists, and brilliant observations like “don’t burp in public”. They co-mingle words like “fabulous” and “hip” with “classy”, as if they mean the same thing. They don’t. You can’t define classiness by a “Top X” list with big headlines that are easy to scan. Classiness is not a step-by-step process that you learn, but rather a philosophy that you adopt as you become classier. Classy people don’t know they are classy, because classiness is not something they think about. It’s something they are.
Classiness is not easy. As you become classier, people will call you a snob, or even worse. You may feel guilty when you become repulsed by the unclassiness around you. Classiness is something most everyone says they have, or at least, that they want to have. But few have it. Those who do are ostracized by those who seek it. Family members stop speaking with you, because they feel intimidated by how classy you’ve become. They feel judged by you, when in reality they judge you for your new-found class. Classy people lose friends. The lucky ones make new classy friends, and don’t care what others think.
Classiness is not talked about. Those who talk about class are considered vulgar by the classy. I realize this is ironic, because here I am talking about class. I don’t consider myself classy quite yet. I emerged from an environment that didn’t appreciate or understand class. I brought much unclassy baggage with me. Over the years I’ve started cultivating class, and so I’ll share with you how I believe one becomes classy.
Before we begin, I must tip my cap to Paul Fussell, the author of the groundbreaking work, Class. Written in 1983, it has aged well. It will shock you. When I read it aloud to my wife, she would gasp at something Fussell said that was hard to hear, but obviously true once you heard it. I highly recommend you buy his inexpensive paperback book, read it, and then read it to those whom you love. It will change the way you see yourself and the world.
If I could boil class down to one overarching concept, it would be Restraint. Classy people don’t boast. They don’t seek attention. A hoodlum posts a photo to Facebook of himself posing with a pile of stacked $1 bills and a collection of his favorite guns. He’s being unclassy because he’s proving his insecurities. He is so insecure with his finances that he feels compelled to show off what little wealth he has once he gets it. He’s so insecure about his manliness, or his ability to protect his loved ones, that he shows off his entire arsenal of “gats”.
A classy person doesn’t tell the world about all the money he has. He often has far more than the hoodlum, but he keeps it a secret because he is a secure person, and doesn’t need the world to know. His wealth might even embarrass him. The unclassy person buys the largest flat-screen TV he can’t afford, and places it in a position of honor in his living room. The classy person could buy a nice flat screen, but he doesn’t have one (or if he does, it is somewhere inconspicuous, like a basement). The unclassy person buys new, name-brand sneakers every year. This shows the world that he is so rich (when he isn’t), that he can drop a wad on an overpriced item. The classy person buys himself one pair of nice, but understated, wing-tip shoes, and he wears them for years until they wear out.
It all comes back to self-restraint. Unclassy people interrupt others’ conversations, because they need to be the center of attention. They complete other people’s jokes because they want the world to think they’re funny. They’re loud, because they want the world to notice them. Classy people don’t need to be noticed. They let others finish their thoughts before chiming in. They have the decency to laugh at others’ jokes. It is more fun to be in good company with clever people, than for everyone in the room to think how clever you are. Classy people speak measured words when they have something interesting to say. Unclassy people say the first thing that crosses their minds, because they need to be noticed.
Unclassy people refuse to let others pay the bill. When they dine out, they are the first ones to pull out the credit card. They even get angry and belligerent if someone else insists on paying. The classy man splits the check when dining with friends. If someone insists on paying for everything, the classy man lets him. The unclassy man wants the world to think he is a man of means by showing how generous he is. The classy man already knows he is a man of means, and doesn’t need to broadcast it.
Some things are vulgar, not because classy people are snobs, but because those things loudly broadcast a person’s insecurities. There are varying degrees of classiness, usually in step with how secure a person is. Right now, you’re probably already a little classy. For example, you may think that shopping at Walmart is vulgar, but you can’t explain why. We look at websites like People of Walmart and laugh and shake our heads. We know these people are unclassy without understanding why. I’ll explain it.
Many people who shop at Walmart are unclassy because they spend money they don’t have on poor quality things they don’t need. These items look expensive, so that the unclassy can appear “better off”, but they tend to be cheaply made and designed to be disposed of. This is particularly true of Walmart clothes and furniture. Now I’m not one of those anti-capitalists who think all forms of consumption are wrong, or that the free market is evil. Far from it. I point out that consumption without restraint is unclassy, which is what those who shop at Walmart exemplify.
Flat screens, entertainment centers, name brand sneakers, the latest gadget, pre-worn jeans, glitz, bling, fake fingernails, animal-print jackets, animal print tights, fake fur headbands—they all scream, “Look at me! I’m insecure”. Animal print is hideous to anyone with eyes, but those who wear it think they wear something nice, pricey, and quality. Why? Because animal print looks like something that is expensive—actual animal skin. They wear rhinestones on everything, because rhinestones look like something expensive—diamonds. Do you see the pattern forming? Unclassiness is the result of insecure people vomiting their insecurities out into public for all to see. That, my friend, is why you think shopping at Walmart is vulgar.
We’re All Snobs
Before I offend those who like shopping at Walmart, let me point out that every one of us is at his or her own level of classiness. You may not yet be classy enough to see Walmart shoppers for the vulgarity they are, but you’re classy enough to be disgusted at the fellow who has a gun rack in his truck. (He’s so insecure with his toughness that he has to broadcast the fact that he has an arsenal). Or the guy who hangs metal cow testacles from his bumper. (He’s so insecure with his virility that he uses the most blatant symbol possible to scream, “I am a man!” at every car he passes on the freeway). Or the kid who leaves price tags in his hats and clothing. (His insecurities demand one of two things; either the world to see that his items are new and to see how much they cost, or to think that he is a tough individual with the balls to steal them).
Classiness permeates all subcultures. Let’s take gamers. The hard-core FPS or MMO gamers sneer at the Facebook gamers, who post things to their friends like “I just earned 10 gold candies in Crush Candy Saga!”. And for good reason. Those Facebook gamers have such little restraint that they can’t help but boast when they earn an empty and meaningless Facebook game achievement. Or to post “I just bought 500 special sauce points in Sauce Land!”, to show the world that they have enough money to waste on a frivolous micro-transaction.
But you know what? Those Facebook gamers feel the same way towards gamblers. Gamblers, who play in public to show the world that they have cash to burn. Gamblers, who pose for photographs holding a giant cardboard check when they win $500, which they share with all their friends to show how clever they are for “beating the odds”.
It all comes full circle when the gamblers scorn the MMO players for finding self-fulfillment in defeating Mega Boss X with their 30-man raid. (As if spending every weekend for six months to learn the weaknesses of an epic boss so you can have the gaming-cred to say “We were the first on our server!” actually means something. When it doesn’t.)
So, then, how do classy people game? With restraint. When they play FPSs, they run around with friends for 30 minutes before moving on. MMOs? They play casually with friends, taking months or years to reach top level. Gambling? They burn $5 every 5 years at a bachelor party, and call it done. And Facebook games?
Well. Classy people just don’t play Facebook games.
How to Be Classy
I covered the principles of class in my article “About Class”. They include humility, confidence, taste, self-discipline, curiosity, and standards. I think these all live under the umbrella of Restraint. With self-restraint as your guiding principle, we can produce limitless attributes of the classy individual.
Classy people don’t wear tattoos. Tattoos come from a time where men wore them as badges of honor, (which is, of course, unclassy because classy people don’t need to boast of their exploits). But at least back then, sailors earned tattoos by banding together to defeat Charlie. Gang members earned them by defeating their rivals, and wear them to shout their allegiances.
Nowadays, teenage girls get tattoos of their first boyfriends’ names. College frat boys get penises tattooed to their bodies while drunk. Suburban American boys get Japanese words they can’t read but translate to “raining” and “ninja” tattooed to their biceps. Worst of all, people cover their bodies with hideous, colorful tattoos as a way to be rebellious, all while calling it an “art form”. While it may be art (what isn’t these days?), it is also the visible manifestation of insecurity from a person who craves attention. He wants everyone to notice him.
A classy person does not get tattoos. But if he does anyway, he at least gets them in places clothing can cover.
Classy people are not fashionable. There is a difference between style and fashion. On one hand, fashions change from year to year, but style never goes out of style. You would not be caught dead wearing the purse you bought last year, because this year it’s out of fashion. You wouldn’t be caught dead in bellbottoms and curly chest hair, because they went out of fashion 40 years ago. You’d rather die than wear legwarmers or parachute pants to work, because you’re not an extra in The Breakfast Club. Fashion is not classy.
Style, on the other hand, is classy, because style is always restrained. A tuxedo looks good on almost everyone because it is simple—black and white. You know what ruins a tuxedo? Glossy pant stripes, black shoes made from shiny fake leather, pink cufflinks the size of silver dollars–anything flashy.
Every man should have at least one nice sports jacket that fits him, made from real animal-derived materials. Find a local tailor, befriend him, and visit him often. Get your pants hemmed and your shirts and jackets fitted. Invest money into making your clothes fit you better, and then keep good care of them. The secret behind a man who walks into the office looking effortlessly classy is that his clothes fit him.
Unclassy sports jackets are made from man-made materials like nylon, acrylic, or polyester. They often don’t fit because they come right off the rack. These are unclassy because the wearer is striving to look classy without understanding what makes a sport jacket classy—the fit and durability of the product.
You see, classy people are frugal. They pay off their credit cards, they balance their checkbooks, and they don’t spend money on trash. Plastic clothes are unclassy because they are trash, and classy people would never waste money on them. Any garment designed to be disposable is a waste of money, and is hence unclassy.
Since classy people don’t want people to notice their wealth, they don’t spend time in malls. They don’t shop. They buy few things, and then they take care of those things. They only buy new things when the old things wear out. They don’t want to be seen as spendthrifts, so they have a yard or estate sale to get rid of unneeded stuff instead of throwing it away. Better yet, they donate their unneeded things to friends, family, or charity, and do not replace them.
Classy people are slow to adopt technology, and they never hoard gadgets. Unclassy people have to own every new version of the iPhone as soon as it comes out. This gives them social status and shows the world how tech-savvy they are—something the classy person wants to avoid. While the unclassy man sees the new iPhone and says, “Ooo, the screen is 1mm wider!” and buys one thinking everyone will envy him, the classy man sees the new iPhone and says, “The screen is 1mm wider? Is that it?” and he keeps his old phone until it stops working.
The classy man may read about the iGirdle, but he won’t be the first in line to buy it. He waits until the iGirdle comes out, because he knows that it isn’t until the 3rd or 4th generation of a product that it becomes good. He watches other people wear their iGirdle and takes his time deciding if he needs it. Once convinced that the iGirdle will improve his daily life in a significant way, he then buys one, but he keeps it hidden. He doesn’t wear it out for all to see. He never talks about it. Instead he uses it, cares for it, and keeps it for years without replacing it until he wears it out.
Unclassy people see things as disposable, replaceable, to be used and discarded. Classy people realize money doesn’t fall from the sky, and they care for their goods.
A loose tongue makes enemies, but tight lips end arguments. Unclassy people have no control over their speech. They are loud, they dominate conversations, and they swear. Frequently. I’m not getting goody-two-shoes on you here, nor does swearing make me squeamish. But classy people control their tongues because they have respect for others. Unclassy people don’t. Unclassy people focus on themselves—their rights, their stories, their desires. They are the first to offend and the first to find offence. Having no control over their tongues, they sprinkle four-letter-words into their dialogue like commas. In their minds they think that swearing is rebellious, the mark of great personality, and cool. Because classy people don’t need to be cool, they don’t swear.
While the way you talk is an important class indicator, so is what you talk about. Unclassy people gossip. This is unclassy for obvious reasons. The gossiper is trying to make himself look important by having knowledge about a person you might not have. (Thus, he is more influential and popular than you). He’s also trying to discredit a person whom he sees as a social rival. If he can make that person less respected by his peers, then perhaps he, the gossiper, will gain more respect. (We all know, of course, that the opposite occurs. We don’t respect gossips). The classy person doesn’t gossip because he doesn’t need to prove that he is influential. He doesn’t need to cannibalize another man’s social standing by tearing him down.
Unclassy people also talk about (in order of class), movies, news, television, and sports, for similar reasons. Classy people talk about none of these things.
The unclassy person thinks that by talking about movies, he’s showing off how cultured he is. He wants the respect of a tasteful man, so he memorizes every geeky detail of his favorite movies so that he can impress his peers later. Even if you have not yet seen the movie, he will talk to you about it and encourage you to see it too (thus vindicating his taste). He typically loves Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino.
Talking about the news of the day is important to the unclassy man. In doing so, he taps into something he thinks is important—collective knowledge—thereby making himself feel more important. This is the same psychology behind wearing brands, as Fussell pointed out. People wear items emblazoned by Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, because everyone knows of them. By wearing them, he feels connected to something others find important. It’s the same with news.
Now, I’m not saying classy people are ignorant of the news. They just don’t talk about it, unless asked.
Unclassy people talk about television because they want others to know that they, too, tuned into the show at the same time millions of others did. It makes them feel accepted, and less likely to be judged, for having done what so many others have done. Since television tastes change fast, the soup de jour will be different from year to year. But right now, the unclassy person watches Game of Thrones and Mad Men.
At the bottom of our conversation totem pole of class is sports. Even those from the movies and news crowds think watching sports is unclassy. (You frequently hear them jeer sports enthusiasts, saying things like, “Imagine if they exhibited the same enthusiasm in the stands towards defeating hunger in Africa”. Then they talk to you, with gleaming eyes, all about the latest plot twist in Breaking Bad.) Unclassy people watch sports because they associate themselves with a team. This team becomes part of their identity. They feel their lives are bereft of meaning, so they find meaning in the success of a sports team that might represent them in some small way. The team represents a city they live within 50 miles of, or belongs to the college they graduated from 30 years ago. Even with such tenuous connections, unclassy people find great personal fulfillment in the victory of these teams. Thus, they have much at risk when their teams meet on the battlefield.
Among sports, classiness ascends along a scale from golf to baseball to basketball to football to Nascar. Note that this also scales from less to more violent.
Instead of these, classy people prefer to ask questions. They don’t talk about which character George R. R. Martin killed off in last night’s episode. Instead, they ask you how you’re doing, about your education, or your work, or your family, or your upcoming vacation. They want to know about you, because they are interested in you, and they want to learn from you. They also tend to talk more about personal philosophy. Sometimes they wander into news and politics, but usually only to illustrate a point. A classy person will only refer to the wildfires in California when making a point about how lightning is more responsible for wildfires than campers. An unclassy person will instead say, “OH, by the way, did you hear about the wildfires in California? No? 15 homes were destroyed! Isn’t that awful?”
In response to this essay, some will say that I’m a judgmental curmudgeon. A man who takes no joy in life and who wants to see everyone plain, normal, and boring. They will say that we should all just rejoice in whatever each other likes. That every person should be himself without having to worry about class.
My response is that I’m simply putting into words the innate nature of mankind. All people judge the class of everyone they meet, either consciously or subconsciously. Every day, we broadcast our class signals to the world with what we wear, listen to, say, eat, where we go, and who we hang with. It’s a pretty watercolor universe where we all rejoice in each other and delight in whatever anyone else likes, does or says.
That universe doesn’t exist. It’s a fantasy. In the real world, we lose and gain along class lines.
You’re here reading this because you wanted to know how to be classy. Thus, you, like all other sane human beings, want to be more aware of how people interpret the signals you send. This knowledge will help you can get a better job, or marry a person classier than you, or find classier friends, or raise classier kids. I’m not saying that classy people are better people, or that being unclassy is necessarily immoral. Better, moral, right, wrong; those words have no place in this topic. Class is something apart from these things. The statues of class are part of the unwritten rule-book all humans evolved to play by. Knowing them can give us an upper hand as we travel through life, so we can find better fortunes and have happier lives.
Class is a frighteningly practical thing. The wisest among us excise ego, pride, and emotions from the subject so that we can reflect upon ourselves honestly and become classier.