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Family matters

May 26, 2011
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The discussion below was found on the blog Wordsmoker. Three WASPs take on the task of describing their families and the folkways of their common tribe. If you read the original post (here), the comments are especially entertaining.

I must say that I like BettyCrocker’s take better than Heneage’s, and especially better than Hydroceph’s (his expectation of indulgence over his sexual orientation gets tiresome, even as it forgets that discussion of sexuality of any type is Not Done; why should things be any different for him just because he likes other men?), but the whole conversation was worth reproducing.

Mama Penguino and Dahl E. Lama brought us their perspective on Judaism, teaching us many valuable things about this ancient religion and its attendant culture. In that spirit, we bring you this guide to WASPdom, where nearly everything staggers under the weight of meaning, but none of which is ever discussed. They’re God’s frozen people.

Do any of the following apply to you?

  • You take a host gift whenever you visit…even to your parents’ house.
  • You know which fork to use.
  • You were nonplussed at your first exposure to paper plates, but your kitchen to this day harbors multiple sets of china, which you use, and you know the difference between china and stoneware.
  • Many of your possessions, while perhaps once costly, sport a variety of dings, dents, and scratches.
  • You have an abject horror of drawing attention to yourself in any manner.

Then you just might be WASPtastic!

You are cordially invited to join our guides as we explore the vast and many-splendored world of the WASP:

BettyCrocker: An heir to a 4th-generation English/German granola princess mother and a snotty, angry liberal Milanese father.

Heneage Dundas: The scion of a once prominent but now largely forgotten blue-blooded family that crossed the pond in the 17th century.

Hydroceph: A descendent of the very worst sort of WASPs—the arriviste kind. His grandparents never quite shook the dust of Columbus off them, no matter how much money his grandfather made or how well his grandmother spent it in acquiring a patina of WASPy sophistication.

(Please note that this is the absolute last time they will ever draw attention to themselves in virtually any fashion.)

We’ll start by examining how WASPs interact with one another.


Hydroceph: WASPs don’t touch each other. Ever. Well, rarely. It used to be, they’d at least approach each other for reproductive purposes (awkwardly, drunkenly, pathetically), but thanks to advances in technology, they don’t even have to be in the same room anymore. In fact, it’s easier that way.

I remembers quite distinctly the first time my father hugged me. I should. I was sixteen years old. I once went to visit my grandfather, whom I saw twice a year despite living approximately twenty miles away, and a friend, who happened to be from a large Latino family, was stunned by the firm Teutonic handshake exchanged between me and said grandfather.

Heneage: This is true. In fact, the only time we’re required to be in the same room as each other is when there is a social or legal contract involved. And invitations are required (see Manners). In fact, it’s preferable if we just don’t talk to each other at all aside from the occasional incisive observation.

This is best illustrated during the holidays: Christmas morning in the Dundas household generally consists of the family sitting in the living room reading and eating until it’s time to go to church. Of course, in keeping with the traditions of the old country, breakfast is never served; one is welcome to help themselves to coffee, tea, or a slice of the previous evening’s Plum Pudding. With extra hard sauce.

BettyCrocker: Very Formal Holiday Parties. Everyone is invited, attendance is expected, and you.will.dress.up. There’s a lot of sneering across the room at cousins and air kisses in the foyer. At the end, there is a sense of a duty fulfilled followed by some dread in anticipation of the next one.

Hydroceph: Are you sure we’re not related? That was an exact description of Christmases spent with my mother’s family. Before midnight services, we’d attend the sort of Very Formal Party Betty’s family inflicted, faking smiles and warmth as we were used as props in my grandparents’ games of social one-upsmanship (but only before it was revealed that I like the dick and before anyone had a chance to inquire after my mother’s profession). The next morning, we’d first get dressed—keep in mind this is Christmas morning with children involved—and by ‘dressed’ I mean showered, shaved (as appropriate by gender), and suits or dresses. Only then would we be allowed to help ourselves to the special coffee cake that appeared only once a year on Christmas mornings. Afterwards, we would open presents and wait for dinner, which was always—always—prime rib with horseradish sauce prepared from horseradish grown by my grandfather, Yorkshire pudding, and endive with some kind of sauce.

BettyCrocker: But that’s not to say we don’t love. Of course we do. We’re just more restrained about it. This means that if your WASP friend, cousin, or partner touches you in any physical way, it carries much freight. I will never forget when my buddy Mark leaned into me and enveloped me in a very awkward straightie hug, murmuring “You’re my bro, bro.” The scent of gin and limes filled the air and although I was deeply moved, we never discussed it again. We didn’t have to.

The WASP hug is often accompanied by a short but very sincere comment. Examples: My older sister Catherine embraced me after opening a very thoughtfully chosen Christmas gift from me, and said “I think Mom’s a bitch on wheels,” which sent me into hysterics, because the bitch in question was making crepes for everyone and bitching about it the whole time. Also, the very best ice cream I’ve ever had came from Friendly’s, not because it was delectable, but because Dad grabbed my hand and said “Don’t tell your mother.” There was so much awesomeness behind that simple sentence that it lights me up just to think about it 30 years later.

WASPs can also convey a lot by their pronunciation of certain words. When a WASP says “Thank you.” It conveys gratitude. But a stern “Thank you,” delivered with an arched eyebrow, means that you’ve been dismissed.

Hydroceph: This has been passed on to another generation, as Hydro Jr. has already determined that when I say, “Thank you” in an appropriately glacial tone, it means ‘cease and desist.’ “Thank you, that will do,” means he’ll shortly be exploring solitary confinement in his bedroom for an extended period of time.

BettyCrocker: But it’s not just children. Strangers on public transit with whom a WASP is forced to share seating will be greeted with “Good morning” or “Good afternoon.” This greeting warms up significantly if the stranger is attractive and the WASP is single.

The query “Really?” in response to a statement means that the WASP thinks you’re full of shit. The number of “e”s in “really” is an indicator of how much you are full of.

Heneage: This is true, and it leads to a lot of confusion for people who are unfamiliar with the environment. Much of meaning of what is said is expressed in how it is said. Very very slight changes in tenor, a fleeting facial expression, using just the right word—all of these are picked up on by people in the know. The rest of the world just passes by obliviously, and invariably makes a fool of themselves. You should also never confuse politeness with friendliness—or any interest at all in what you are saying. “Really, that sounds fascinating,” is not in fact an invitation for you to continue talking about yourself. The fact that you’re talking about yourself at all was your first faux pas.

WASPs and Money

Hydroceph: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about WASPdom is that WASPs are all sitting on huge wads of money, and that just isn’t true, which is why WASPs have long distinguished between money as a marker of social class on the one hand versus manners and deportment on the other.

Heneage: Money is one of those things that Just Isn’t Discussed. Probably because the financial resources of the old WASP families have been in decline for decades, and it’s not how much you have but how you use it. It is the trick they’ve used to keep out the nouveau riches that have money but lack breeding.

True WASPs are identified by their thrift. They buy the highest quality things but wear them into the ground. It’s another way to tell an old family from a new one, in the old family everything will be beautiful but slightly worn. The point again is to show that the money & taste have been there for a while—it’s difficult to purchase faded grandeur.

Hydroceph: But not impossible. Antique stores and used-furniture stores, for example, go along way toward allowing one to acquire magnificent pieces for pennies on the dollar.

BettyCrocker: Nice People Don’t discuss how much money they make with anyone with whom they do not share a pillow. One can safely discuss general investment strategies and particular stocks or mutual funds with friends and neighbors ONLY if actual amounts are never mentioned. Bragging about the use of coupons at the supermarket and bargains found at a Lord & Taylor sale are acceptable, bordering on virtuous.

Hydroceph: This, I think, was where my grandparents succeeded in their infiltration. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what my grandfather did for DuPont’s agrochemicals division, only that I got dizzy when I went into his garden shed and that he still had grotesque quantities of DDT stockpiled when he died. But my grandmother did an admirable job in instilling many of those virtues in her descendants, at least some of them (I won’t go into details about some of my cousins). Money was not discussed. Ever. It was simply assumed that while it was there, you had to be wise about it. Antiques, clothing in classic cuts, and sensible cars were reasonable things to purchase. Anything trendy was though frivolous and met with a cold stare.

But in my family, sharing a pillow wasn’t enough to justify detailed discussion of money, and to this day, I’m not entirely sure how much my husband makes each year, and of course, I wouldn’t dream of asking.

Keeping Up Appearances

Heneage: Keeping up appearances is the ne plus ultra of WASPs. From the gilded age to the end of WWII, rarely would a month go by without a mention of our immediate or extended family in the Times society pages. We were a “second-paragraph” family, but shared columns with the Astors and Morgans nonetheless. However, thanks to dwindling financial resources, growing distance between our branch of the family and its more prominent relatives, and my great-grandfather’s succession of wives (the number of which would make Henry VIII blush), we have not been “in society” for nearly half a century.

The family’s preoccupation with status touched off a rebellious spirit in my father and uncles, who couldn’t be bothered to care. Thus, and fortunately, it was not an all-consuming issue for me growing up and I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted in life that would make me happy.

Hydroceph: You’ve hit the nail on the head. It was all about appearances, and even though she’s been dead for well nigh fifteen years, I can still hear my great grandmother wheezing, “What will the neighbors think?”

My grandmother had cause to repeat that frequently after my mother graduated from college with a degree in home economics and eventually made her way into wastewater treatment and solid-waste management. I can only imagine my coming out occasioned a similar lament, but that only goes to show how out of touch they were. All well-bred families have a homo, now. They had them then, too, but they didn’t talk about it.

Heneage: I believe that’s where the phrase “confirmed bachelor” originated. My Grandfather’s 80th birthday was earlier this summer, and my Grandmother was overjoyed because she could trot out the successful grandchildren like show ponies in front of all her friends. My brother—currently in his final year at West Point—was the Lipizzaner Stallion of the group. I was the “Jet-set global businessman” who would be attending the London School of Economics next fall. I haven’t even applied to the program yet, but the neighbors don’t know that and a little white lie never hurt anyone, as long as it’s in the service of the family’s image. My cousin with Aspergers was barely introduced, and my other cousin—who dropped out of college and is working construction right now—wasn’t discussed at all.

BettyCrocker: An important part of keeping up appearances—which Heneage touched on above—is the injunction that you will purchase only the very best that you can afford, and you will care for it meticulously. So! Ethan Allen sofas, which will be vacuumed twice a week and reupholstered every five to seven years. Lincoln Town Cars—oil changed every 3000 miles, washed every Saturday, waxed once a month. GE appliances—coils vacuumed on the fridge, lint removed from the dryer every time. Porthault sheets, changed twice a week, and carefully wrapped up for each kid when he or she left home. The lawn is cut Saturday and Wednesday. The house is painted—inside and out—every three years. It’s just What Is Done.

Hydroceph: OK, that explains a lot. Both my childhood home and my grandparents’ home were both filled with old things and it all looked “well loved.” Cars were older, well maintained, and run into the ground before they were replaced.

BettyCrocker: If the family car’s an import, it’s probably German, and silver, white or black. And it was expensive when it was new, which embarrassed us. But that was ten years ago, and in the intervening years it has been meticulously maintained with regular oil changes and washings. Dents? Scratches? Honey, that’s what we call character.

This car is clean. It has a first aid kit, a roadside assistance kit, and a tool kit along with sustainable grocery bags in the trunk. The spare is functional. The fluids are full. We take care of our car and it takes care of us. There are no fuzzy dice or pads on the steering wheel. There is a notepad and a working pen in the glove box, and tissues and chewing gum in the center console.

We will be satisfied when the odometer reaches 200,000 miles. At that point, if the transmission starts going “ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa”, as James Thurber would say, we will regretfully scout around for a replacement, which we will baby in the same manner. WASPs do not buy lemons, or anything flashy, ever. The only thing remotely telling about a WASPwagon is the country club/sailing association stickers on it, and those are usually small and tasteful.

Heneage: It cannot be overstated how thrifty WASPs are. The beer fridge in my Grandparent’s garage has been humming along nicely since 1957 with only the occasional Freon recharge. I think the family Packard was still on the road during my Father’s confirmation. I’ve already requested that my grandmother pass down the ruby-red cut glass juice glasses the family has been drinking OJ out of since 1965. In fact—Hydro & Betty—do any of your relatives have glasses that were once jelly containers but designed to be used as drinking glasses once they jelly was gone? Not only do we have dozens, all matching for some odd reason—but the oldest is probably older than I am. And they were free!

Hydroceph: No, no jam-jar drinking glasses, but the breakfast dishes have been the same cut glass bowls for years, first at my grandparents’ house, and now at my mom’s. Food-storage containers? Tubs for brands of margarine that haven’t been on the market for years.

Not only that, but both my mother and her parents canned extensively, and my grandfather also made his own wine. Why pay good money at the grocery store when food can be had for the trouble of rummaging around in the dirt? I carry on this tradition by assisting my husband as he makes our soap.

That’s all for now!

Join us next time as we take up the relationship of the WASP to God, as well as an invigorating look at the WASP as he entertains (variously defined) and dresses himself.


WASPs and God

Hydroceph: The P may stand for Protestant, but WASPs don’t believe in religion much. But you’d better go through the motions, preferably Episcopalian, possibly high-church Lutheran in parts of the Midwest. Do not say the word ‘Methodist’ out loud. You’ll make them think of minivans with fake wood siding and that’s just rude. As P. J. O’Rourke said, worship of manners (well, that and quiet, well-cut clothing) has replaced faith in God.

Heneage: Much like the Marchmains, I come from a mixed religious household with a devoutly Catholic mother and an indifferently Episcopalian father. Fortunately, Mother’s Catholicism is of the progressive variety so that hasn’t caused too much heartache.

In general, religion is one of those topics that just aren’t polite to discuss.

Betty Crocker: Thou shalt be Episcopalian and thou shalt despise fundamentalists and those who read the Bible literally, since such people are often bigots and an Episcopalian will have no dealings with racists/homophobes/misogynists. Catholics get pity for not getting it yet. Other mainline Protestants are treated as cousins.

The WASP Entertains


Hydroceph: There’ve been whole books, if not libraries, written on this subject. See the oeuvres of Miss Manners, Emily Post, and (ahem) me elsewhere on this blog.  Like most things WASPs do, manners are about controlling other people. WASPs are big on control.

But manners aren’t just about regulating interactions with other people. They can be deployed in the home, as well. The interactions between me and Mr. Hydroceph display a marked deference and politesse that even Queen Victoria might’ve found just a tad stuffy. Hydro Jr. once exclaimed, “Wow, you guys are really nice to each other.” Um, yes, we are.

Heneage: Mother found this out the hard way once when Grandmother got upset about not being invited to my father’s birthday. They were staying with us at the time and my mother assumed they were joining us for dinner. However, a formal invitation was not extended, leading to much confusion and ill will.

I was also sent to etiquette “boot-camp” for 10 days at Grandmother’s house when I was twelve years old. Thank you cards, table manners, and the proper way to be disdainful were all topics of conversation. In fact, I think this is where the High-WASP withering glance is picked up. You know the one – where contempt and amusement and “you’ll never be one of us no matter how hard you try” is conveyed in a single instance.

It is also worth pointing out that wishing for hot summers (so the olds die off and more spots open up at the club) is not considered poor manners amongst WASPs.

Betty Crocker: The WASP lexicon of manners can be summed up in two predicate clauses: Nice People Don’t and You Should Always Remember To.

Nice People Don’t:
-talk about money
-brag about their possessions
-intentionally hurt people or animals
-be casually cruel
-be dishonest

You Should Always Remember To:
-be kind, respectful and generous to the help
-honor elderly people’s birthdays
-send children mail—they love it
-brag about your spouse
-drive courteously
-treat animals with dignity

Honestly, the world would be a better place were these maxims followed.

Dishes and table linens

Hydroceph: As long as I’m thinking about it, were we the only ones who had multiple sets of china (as distinct from the stoneware)?

Heneage: No! In no particular order, we had the everyday china, the “summer festive” china, the Spode china we used at Christmas, the Royal Doulton blue china that was for decorative purposes, and the antique Rosenthal Phoenix collection we used only for the highest occasions. I may be forgetting one or two, but my parents eventually threw out their wedding china because we had too many sets and it was a bit on the cheap side.

Hydroceph: Whenever the dishwasher broke, and it broke a lot (see Part 1 on buying and wearing out), we just ate off the china and used the sterling. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to my mother to use disposables, not from any particular environmental commitment, but because it Just Wasn’t Done.

Heneage: I was terrified as a child when I saw my first paper plate. What is this thing?

Betty Crocker: Something must be said about cloth napkins. All WASPs recoil in horror from paper napkins.

Hydroceph (breathes a sigh of relief): It wasn’t just us? Because it sure looked like it growing up, at least going by my friends’ houses.

Heneage: No, we used them, too.

Betty Crocker: Napkins are kept in a piece of furniture called a server, located in the dining room. They are usually white, heavy cotton, and at least 20” x 20”. Sometimes they are monogrammed or have some embroidery on them. There should always be far too many of these to be feasibly used by a normal household. Their smaller cousins are cocktail napkins. Paper may not serve as a substitute for either kind of napkin—they shred at the slightest provocation and are wasteful.

Hydroceph: We have a drawer in our kitchen devoted entirely to cloth napkins. Opening it is a bit like turning a crank on a jack-in-the-box because napkins explode out of it when it’s opened. The table clothes and placemats live in a chest in the living room that we only half in jest refer to as the linen press.

Heneage: Ha! We had one of those drawers too—and you’d have to cram the napkins back down as you were closing it or you couldn’t push the drawer in all the way and they’d end up sticking out.

Betty Crocker: Keeping the napkins company are tablecloths, which are fraught with contradictions. We WASPs love fine linen, and our great-grandmother’s china looks lovely on it. But our great-grandmother’s dining table is Chippendale mahogany, and we hate covering it up. We have come up with the solution of pure white linen hemstitched placemats, which are by definition informal but add a sort of something.

Hydroceph: We have to use tablecloths because our tables, along with the rest of the furniture, are not younger than seventy-five years old and look every minute of it.

Betty Crocker: As long as we’re on the subject, what about linens and linen closets? We always had a designated place for that sort of thing.

Hydroceph: Doesn’t everyone?

Betty Crocker: One would think. For their part, towels are very heavy 100% cotton, always white, and folded into squares – each long side folded towards the center, then folded in half, then in half again. The makes the monogram front and center.

Monograms are not necessary. They should not be paid for, because that’s ostentatious. However, if the company offers them for free, by all means take advantage. Block initials are preferable to script. The initial of your last name goes in the center and is given some prominence, so if your name is Thomas Nicholas Thayer, the monogram reads .

Hand towels are best if they are the same type as the bath towels. There should be about five per bathroom, depending on how it is used. Guest/half baths should probably have ten, and no one should ever be made to feel as though using them is a crime.

Kitchen towels are 100% cotton in a cheery pattern – matellasse is always good. They are folded into squares and stacked just out of splashing distance from the sink. Never, ever drape a kitchen towel over the oven door handle. It might be convenient, but it’s Just Not Done.

Sheets are always white and of the very best quality one can afford. Ideally, there should be at least three sets—one, one off, and one in the wash. A duvet is best, and there should be a couple of these as well—one of heavy cotton sheeting, one linen for hot nights, and one flannel to be cozy in those long New England winters. Bed linens are changed twice per week—in our house, it’s Wednesday and Saturday. Even with frequent laundering, good quality sheets will last for years. The mattress pad, pillows, and comforter are sent out for professional cleaning once a quarter.

Heneage: When hosting, the bathroom should be checked every half-hour or so. If the hand-towels are even the slightest bit damp they should be replaced with new ones. Guest soaps are always put out but never used.


Heneage: As in all things, WASPs have rules (or guidelines) when it comes to alcohol. Drunkenness is tolerated, however the proper etiquette must be followed when it comes to choosing one’s alcohol.

Gin is the standard summer drink, and is also suitable for daytime water sports (sailing, or lounging beside the beach) and the garden. Whiskey is the preferred drink for winter, and daytime land sports (hunting, riding, or any other task necessitating a flask instead of a tumbler).

Champagne is appropriate before dinner and never adulterated outside of a champagne cocktail. Good champagne should not be marred by pouring orange juice all over it, and a WASP would never drink anything other than good champagne.

Wine is served with dinner, and fortified wines or cocktails round out the evening.

Betty Crocker: A WASP can be drunk and still be respectable—if, and only if—he is a happy drunk. Belligerence is disgraceful. A lady WASP is not drunk if she can utter the following phrase clearly: “Oh, the glory of it all!” WASP children over the of age ten should know how to mix a martini and open a bottle of wine, even though they can consume neither. Gin + ice and limes and soda = June. Whiskey / Bourbon + ice = October. And there should always be a bottle of prosecco in the refrigerator.

Hydroceph: I think this is where my grandparents definitely failed in their social climbing. Grandpa always drank whiskey, regardless of the time of year and was a vicious drunk. That said, we always had champagne in the fridge. Always. That my parents’ choice of champagne makes my hair stand on end doesn’t change this basic fact.

WASPs Getting Jiggy Wid It

Hydroceph: Sex? They don’t have it. Ever. That’s part of the problem. I was given to understand that only hetsex is acceptable sex, which may be why WASPs seem like such raging closet cases. And the one time I remember my parents discussing sex with me was before a prom and I was instructed in no uncertain terms not to get my date pregnant.

Heneage: This is one area in which the Americans differ from their ancestors across the pond, where it’s difficult to find a Public School gent who’s not had a homoerotic tryst with a schoolmate. To quote Waugh:

It is a kind of love that comes to children … before they know its meaning. In England it comes when you are almost men; I think I like that. It is better to have that kind of love for another boy than for a girl (Cara, in Brideshead Revisited).

I think not talking about sex is a lingering sentiment of Victorianism and still serves as a bulwark of WASP culture against the hypersexualism of modern society.

Betty Crocker: We may disagree here. While there is a good deal of repression, P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster spoke often of The Pash, a between-the-wars reference to passion. And isn’t repression an acknowledgement that something is a bit out of control? WASPs like a good shag as much as anyone. We just don’t want you to see it or discuss it much.

WASPs and Their Clothing

Heneage: WASP dress has become synonymous with preppy style, which is true to some degree. However, the WASP knows the difference between city and country clothing, and never the twain shall meet. Much of preppy style is proper for the country – boat shoes, polo shirts, etc.

City clothing is different from the “preppy” and takes its cues from English social mores. A well cut jacket, loafers or wingtips (depending on the season), and an exorbitantly expensive yet understated timepiece, are all components of proper city dress.

In both city and country dress, the person wears the clothes and not the other way around. Clothing must not be the center of attention, instead its proper role is to enhance the appearance and stature of the wearer.

In general, fashions don’t change much amongst WASPs from generation to generation. Little boys have their Gant shirts and topsiders—just like daddy, and little girls long to wear pearls and a smart jacket—just like mummy. My grandfather looks like a cross between Silvio Berlusconi and Michael Caine, and I’m ok with that.

BettyCrocker: Yes. I will add that natural fibers—cotton, wool, linen, silk—are to be preferred. Quality is likewise preferable to quantity in clothing. Your clothing should never look as though someone else picked it out for you. Lady WASPs look fantastic in vintage “Betty Draper” gear. Modesty is the order of the day.

Hydroceph: You both sound exactly like my grandmother. But since I grew up in California, Grandmother despaired of teaching me to dress correctly, and so settled for prep—ie, country-wear—when she outfitted me. But shirts were always cotton (possibly linen for summerwear but only one or you’d be thought frivolous), suits were always wool in various weights (again, for summerwear seersucker might be allowed), and regardless of the material or the season, was used as a means of distinction. If someone was pulling at his collar, you could tell he wasn’t used to wearing it buttoned.

But we were always more of the “a few good pieces” dressers, rather than lots of flashy labels. Clothing had to be made to last. But that’s one of the beauties of WASP adulthood. Eventually one acquires sufficient good pieces and as a result, the wear is spread out and things don’t show their age much, not even cashmere, despite its tendency to pill at the slightest provocation.


Well, there we have it, folks. We’ve pried the lid back and given you a glimpse of the seething cauldron of woolens, manners, and faded glory that is WASPdom. Next time, we’ll delve into the mysteries of all that plaid and just why it is that birds are a fit subject for prints and etching on martini glasses. And you thought WASPs didn’t have a sense of humor.

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