Learning The Elite Class
my experience at fancy parties
(This isn’t a “true story”, but rather a collection of tiny true details from lots of different parties, strung together for a vibe)
I’m in a high end hotel/penthouse/conference venue, and a lady in a black uniform walks by, holding a platter of pre-filled champagne glasses. I pluck one off and start sipping it a little too fast.
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“I’m thinking of running for office,” says the man in front of me. He has a greying beard and clean glasses. “I have some connections way back from boarding school who are thinking about funding me.”
I know boarding school is a thing, but I’d never heard of anybody I met, or any of their friends, having anything to do with boarding school for the first few decades of my life. Aren’t those gender segregated, or is that just a trope? Is it all year, including the summer? Is that a thing where parents send bad kids? Unclear. I think it probably costs money to go, which is why I never heard anyone mention boarding school when I was growing up.
Boarding school must be fancy, though, if kids who go to boarding school end up rich enough they can fund each other. I try to imagine growing up in a world where my old friends grew up to do something other than running their own gutter-cleaning business or working in middle management at Walmart or becoming a housewife. It must be super cool to have known anyone successful who you met before the short period of time ago that you became successful.
The new guy who joins our conversation has been successful for a longer time, though. He runs a podcast I’ve heard of, and a lady next to me says “Oh I haven’t seen you since Jerry’s wedding in the south of Italy”. I ask him how he got where he is, and he says well, he actually is in real estate, and this is where he makes most of his money, and that’s how he throws these parties. Oh, this party is his party. I pry further, and he says he got into real estate after spending a few years working in finance on Wall Street. How do you even get into finance?
This isn’t the first Wall Street guy I’ve met, but it’s still a black box of mystery to me. You probably have to go to college to go do finance, and then major in something specific, and then apply to a job at a… finance firm? I didn’t know many people who’d gone to college, and if they did it definitely wasn’t in finance. It felt like someone telling me they’d been brought up in India in a religious society where they were trained to be a monk; I knew it was possible in theory, but it didn’t feel actually possible; it was a mythical backstory, requiring moves that were arcane and invisible to me.
An employee in a uniform approaches me and offers to take my bag. There’s a back room for bags, she’ll store it there, and when I want it back I should just talk to anyone in her uniform and ask for my bag and they’ll bring it to me.
The next person I talk to is a startup founder; she’s working on some company that aims to help crypto companies deal with the legal system. I don’t understand most of what she says, but it still feels familiar - I got into crypto early, and was around the edges of the formation of the cryptosphere, and the basic culture isn’t arcane to me. I have vague background intuitions around what sorts of things are scams and aren’t, the ways crypto carries risk, the way the public views it. When she uses words like “community” in relation to crypto, it touches lightly into a web of other concepts, and I feel I understand the nuance and implications of it.
She tells me she’s doing a fundraising round and it’s looking promising; her team is building an app that’s going into beta next week and she is flying to a conference tomorrow morning and she was in calls all day earlier fixing an emergency with bank payments not going through to one of her contractors. Her life seems intense to me, and I don’t understand how she’s here at this party looking lively. I personally can work on my research a few hours a day before I need to go nap or watch some youtube videos. Is she fundamentally different from me in some profound way? Does she just have more energy resources? Or does she (and everyone else here) habitually exaggerate their productivity?
Everyone here does seem more… mentally together. Conscientious, maybe? It seems like they’re probably working way more hours than I am. I don’t understand how they do it, and I can’t tell if I or they are the weird ones. People here are directors of strategy or vice presidents or head tech coordinators or editors at magazines. I don’t think I could do any of that even if I had all of it handed to me.
She asks what I do, and I tell her I research fetishes. She asks for what university, I tell her uh, no university. I just got funded to do it. She asks so… for a company or something? And I’m like no, it’s my hobby, and someone gave me money to do it full time. She goes wow, that’s so cool.
I am open about my sex work, and people take it well. When people introduce me to each other, my credentials are the amount of twitter followers I have, or a podcast they heard me on, or this one weird survey I ran. I don’t know who I am to these people, who all seem to have this shared language and culture. Am I like a fun novelty toy? I have no idea how seriously they take me. My desire to be legibly prestigious runs up against the fact that I’m often bored here and want to cause a little social chaos because at least maybe something new would happen; I pull out a deck of Askhole and ask someone eating a plate of chicken why they’re against bestiality.
I’m surprised to find that many people here aren’t very good at thinking. Like, they’re good, but not very good. I have some deep gut-level belief that successful people have precise thoughts and good at introspection. But it seems like they’re very good at some different kind of skill - good at getting things done in the world. Jungian typology says there’s two types of thinking - internal and external. “Internal thinking” is thinking that’s interested in curiosity “all the way down”, and tends to be precise, very thorough, and interested in puzzles, having fully fleshed out, consistent mental models. “External thinking” is curious to concrete ends - if an intellectual curiosity isn’t directly furthering your goal, you put it to the side. It’s concerned with faster, more effective decision making, provable real-world impacts.
I’m skeptical of brains actually having dichotomies like this, but the model feels like it helps me understand something here. This party feels full of external thinking types; they are pretty calculating, but in the sense that this builds them cool companies, and less in the way that it provides them fully consistent moral frameworks.
I’m passively listening to a larger conversation, and one of the men casually uses the term “white trash” to refer to someone who he doesn’t like. I am surprised to find this strikes a little pang into my heart. “Does he know I’m white trash?” I find myself thinking. This is weird; I don’t think I ever identified with white trash before. But here in this beautiful room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a colorful skyline, I feel defensive.
I chat my way through the crowd, and I notice a part of my brain is trying to figure out how rich everyone’s parents were. I casually ask where people went to college, but I’m secretly using the question to find out if they did go to college at all. I know going to college doesn’t mean you’re wealthy, but it’s somehow lodged in my brain that college teaches you the secret language that everyone here is using.
I confide in one friendly woman that I feel intimidated by the class difference here. “Don’t worry, I felt that way too when I first joined this crowd,” she says. “They don’t mind that I’m an outsider, or that I only bought my first vacation home last year.” I appreciate that she’s trying to help, but she’s a person with a vacation home who’s trying to help.
Something feels different in my body. I don’t know how much this is a class difference, but maybe it comes out of my discomfort with the class difference. I sit in chairs at tables with folded posture, I often walk around barefoot, I sniff my armpit. This is all stuff I do normally; it is genuine expression, but doing it here feels like taking a tiny, silly stand for something. I want to get naked and fart loudly. I feel desperate for something raw and disgusting, a frame where context doesn’t matter.
The conversations here are really nice, but it often feels like there’s a polite plastic bubble around each person that nobody’s really trying to pierce through. I don’t know why people aren’t trying to pierce through them. Some part of my mind far away in the back is screaming at me that we’re all going to die, why are we not spending this time trying to touch each others souls? I wonder if I’m being unfair - do I hold non-fancy people to the same standard? I don’t think so; maybe I just feel more uncertain here, and if I could touch someone’s soul maybe then I would feel safe.
Something is unsettling about the fact that I’m not sure how much people can tell I feel like an outsider, or that I am an outsider at all. Do they understand how little of their world I’m familiar with? Do they understand how much implicit knowledge they take for granted that I don’t have? Can they smell it on me and are being polite, or can they just not see the cultural gulf between us? I’m not sure - I’ve been to many of these parties, and it’s very rare for me to meet someone else of my class, which means everyone else here probably rarely meets someone of my class either.
Earlier, in Austin, I attended the Tesla gigafactory opening party, which was spectacular - drone shows, music shows, and beautifully lit examples of machinery inside of a ten-million square foot building. I went with some (very warm, lovely) people who seemed very financially successful to me; they talked about investing and the businesses they were running and the houses they were renovating. We entered the factory, and the smell hit me like a phantom invading my brain - it was the same smell as the factory I used to work at. The floors were the same concrete, the walls the same aesthetic. The smell wouldn’t relent, screaming memories onto my vision. I walked through the factory with these beautiful, beautifully dressed people, and I was transported back to working 55-hour weeks, absolutely exhausted, rarely seeing the sunlight, spending hours hunched over tiny mechanical repetitive parts lit by fluorescent light. The factory is a place I still have nightmares about, sometimes, where something goes wrong and I have to go back, like my old life there lies beneath my feet just waiting for a little earthquake to shake open the floor and drop me back in.
And here I was, walking through this living nightmare that was lit with beautiful laser lights and dancers and faint music pumping out of a joyous dance party outside, and I didn’t know how to tell anyone. I didn’t know how to tell the people I was with, or really anyone around me, who clearly had the freedom in their lives to be here. This place of celebration for them represented a trap for me, the thing that had motivated me to try sex work out of desperation. As far as I could tell, nobody else felt the slow, sad dread, it was just me, alone, staring at the concrete floors like a ghost. I felt hyper aware of the staff workers that night, working mostly in the shadows, like they were the mud from which I had crawled.
Before this last spat of fancy parties, most of my social group was something like bay-area rationalists, who were a bit similar to the elites, (lots of college education) but not fully. There were more outsiders there, which meant everyone was more familiar with people like me, and people didn’t talk with assumed knowledge quite so much. Or the fancy parties were crypto parties, full of people who’d gotten rich recently and didn’t have this shared language of the elite, and even though their lives were very different from mine, I still felt like were from the same world, kind of.
At this party, someone tells me I should publish my research in a journal. This sounds nice, but the ease of their suggestion makes me think they don’t understand my cultural background. I have no idea what it takes to publish research in a journal. You have to make a google doc and then type up stuff in formal, cold language that sounds like a study, right? I read studies sometimes - I can write something that sounds like an ‘abstract’ and a ‘methodology’ section. But then what? Do I google “science journal” and then find an email for someone and then email them my google doc and say “can you publish this please”? Do I have to pay them? Do they pay me? Are there any forms I have to fill out or approval processes? I don’t even know what a journal is exactly - it’s a group of people who run a website and they pick stuff people email them to publish? It’s as though a sports person casually told me I should just join their football team.
The person assures me no don’t worry, it’s super easy. I believe they think it’s easy, but I’m not sure they are properly modeling how little I know about this.
Many of the conversations involve funding, and this is another black box for me. I suspect there’s a lot of social norms around funding - it seems to be a motivation for people to invite other people to events? I’m curious how funding happens - like, do you invite someone over to dinner and then ask them if they’d give you money? People don’t talk about their funding directly, so I assume there’s some plausible deniability/subtle social dance around it. I personally got funded by sort of sighing loudly and saying “man, I’d like some funding” to my friends and then eventually someone walked up to me and said “hey would you like some funding?”
But it doesn’t seem like this is how funding usually happens. I don’t know how much funding incentives are influencing the shape of this party or the things people are careful to say. I don’t know how much these parties are about carefully evaluating and using other people for advantageous business decisions. I don’t mind if this is true, it’s just that I don’t know. When I try to ask people directly, the answers I get are usually vague denials.
Really, asking people directly here about anything is pretty frustrating. One of my most common questions is about the social norms of this group, but when I ask “what are the social norms” people say stuff like “I don’t know, they’re really nice here, pretty friendly, like to talk about their interests”. I don’t think they’re being deliberately evasive, I think they just don’t understand the shape of my curiosity, or aren’t aware of the possibility that someone might need to have to learn their norms from scratch. I try phrasing my questions a bunch of different ways, from vague to direct - Did everyone here go to college? How do people talk about money? What makes people prestigious? What kind of traits influence social standing? How familiar are people with evaluating quality of research? How private are we supposed to keep gossip? but to no avail. I feel desperate for concrete, no-games, direct answers, for someone to sit me down and tell me exactly what’s going on, but nobody familiar with the elite class does this, ever (with the exception of Samo, who hands me brutal, straightforward answers calibrated perfectly to my lower social class, thank u samo)
For all my confusion and sense of alienation, the people here are still really kind, and often very impressive humans with rare skill and talent. I am grateful that they accept me despite my bizarreness, online controversies, my sex work, my lack of concrete prestige symbols. This is a different world I don’t know how to pierce, but it’s still as welcoming as it can be, and many of the people here are eager to help, and generously offer their homes to stay in or food to eat, and engage with my weird questions in good faith.
Near the end, I meet a man who got dragged along by a friend. He didn’t go to college; he’s a successful drug dealer, very wealthy, dealing weed in a state where it’s not legal. I ask how he got into it, and he shrugs and said when he was a kid everyone was dealing drugs, it was just the thing to do. He’s facing a legal battle right now, might go to jail for drug possession, and has hired the best possible lawyer to defend him. As he talks I feel a deep relief spread over me. This is interesting - our lives were very different as a child - the world of drug dealing was about as familiar to me as the world of getting into finance - but he was clearly an outsider here, and I felt he was of my class. I imagined he felt the same alienation I did, and it made me comfortable around him.
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