A couple days ago over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen asked for examples of “counter-signalling,” in which some social signal is imbued with the oppostite of its usual meaning. The classic example is the head of a big company coming to the office in jeans and sneakers, in effect saying: “I’m so high status, I no longer need to prove it by dressing fancy. I’m so rich I can afford to dress like a bum.”
Will Wilkinson offered up an example I think many of us recognize:
Harvard graduates who, when asked where they went to school, say “Up in Boston.”
You may also have heard the slightly-less popular “In New Jersey,” though the other Ivies seem to lack an equivalent. In any event, commenter Stuart Buck replies:
I’ve done it myself, but I don’t think it was “counter-signaling.” Rather, it was because of the fact that in some situations, if you announce that you went to Harvard, other people give signs of intimidation that can be quite uncomfortable and awkward (“wow, you must be really smart, I just went to the community college myself”). Easier just to sidestep the whole issue.
On the one hand, I think he’s right that this is sometimes what’s going on when people use the phrase. On the other, it’s always struck me as a thousand times more obnoxious for exactly that reason. In the “countersignalling” case (though maybe it’s more like “tangential signalling”) it’s either just a variant of false modesty or, depending on the context, a way of talking about school (especially with people you’ve just met) without risking being mistaken for one of those folks who drops the H-bomb into every conversation. Fair enough.
The message in the second case is: “Naturally, not having gone to Harvard, you will have an inferiority complex in my presence, so I’ll do my best to try to spare you this inevitable intimidation.” I suppose if you’re talking to someone with very little formal education who seems insecure about it, that might be right—apparently Stuart has encountered such cases, and fine. In most contexts, though, it seems to me that you have to be a bit of a prick to walk around solicitously agonizing over how you can avoid awing and cowing people too much.