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“Oh, Near Boston…”

July 20th, 2006 · 11 Comments

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.

Tags: Sociology



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amber // Jul 20, 2006 at 4:03 pm

    But some people expect you to solicitously agonize over how to avoid awing and cowing them!

  • 2 Bill Newman // Jul 20, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    Perhaps sometimes it could also be “I’m not in the mood to be pigeonholed as having gone to Harvard.” I’ve heard people complain about being pigeonholed based on their sex, their profession, their appearance, and other things that don’t announce “I have a huge ego investment in this thing,” and sometimes it seems pretty sincere; and sometimes people report it to be an interesting experience to interact online where many face-to-face pigeonhole cues don’t apply.

    (But I didn’t go to school in Boston, so who knows?)

  • 3 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Jul 20, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    Ah, you see the lumpenproletariat such as myself can’t counter-signal. We’ve got to send out bogus signals. When folks as where I went I say, “Columbia,” and let them assume I mean the ivy instead of the Chicago open-admissions arts school.

  • 4 Sandy // Jul 21, 2006 at 6:50 am

    Once you meet a few people who’ve been to Ivy League schools, the intimidation factor goes away. Sure, they’re going to on average be brighter than your average community college attendee, but they come in a range of abilities just like the rest of us. Some are really bright and hard working, and others are George W. Bush.

    But their post-school networking is far superior to the other schools, and I’ve seen that elevate some of the GWBs to positions they would otherwise never have achieved. Still, that’s just one way to get promoted beyond your abilities among many. There are lots of semi-irrelevant factors going into judging talent: the proportion of women in orchestras skyrocketed after they began using blinds in auditions, so the appearance of the person was not a factor.

    So while I don’t doubt there are a few situation As, there are a number of situation Bs: Amber may underestimate the thin-skinnedness of Ivy League grads to comments about their choice of education. Note it was another Ivy Leaguer who complained in her example. That complaint is clearly situation B.

  • 5 Amber // Jul 21, 2006 at 9:26 am

    The person who complained was not an Ivy Leaguer, although she did go to a highly ranked law school. She was seconded by at least one other non-Ivy Leaguer.

  • 6 Jimmy96923 // Jul 21, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    Just to add my $.02. I went to a state undergrad and Harvard Law. I’ve confronted this issue and at first I was apt to answer “in Boston” when asked where I was attending law school. I’ve since dropped that nonsense.

    I can’t speak for Wilkinson but my own discomfort came from an aversion to bragging, I don’t like it in other people and try to avoid any tendencies I have for that crap. I stopped giving the Boston answer because it quickly became apparent that it was far worse than just giving a matter-of-fact, straight forward response. It encourages the person to ask where in Boston so now you have a buildup that makes it sound like a bigger deal when you finally tell them.

    I think this phenomenon is the reason a lot of people enjoy giving the Boston answer, its a license to brag while making it seem like the other person dragged it out of them. Now, if I am in a situation with someone who didn’t go to college and appears kind of insecure after telling him/her I am a lawyer, then I will usually lie and say I went to a state law school. I’ve run into this kind of thing getting my hair cut or talking to someone at a poker table. This doesn’t happen often but sometimes it really is easier to lie.

    Harvard is a loaded term and carriers a lot of baggage with it (the vast majority of that baggage is good). However, there is no reason in the world to give the Boston answer. Either tell them where you went and get the conversation past it or lie but saying “in Boston” instead of a school is the most offensive and chickenshit option.

  • 7 Stuart Buck // Jul 21, 2006 at 6:38 pm

    I’m not sure what the overall point is here: You say that 1) I’m right, but that 2) it’s more obnoxious for “that reason” (what reason?), but that 3) not mentioning Harvard can be “false modesty,” or that 4) it can be a way to avoid being “mistaken” for someone who drops the H-bomb (and that this is a “fair” point, although it was precisely MY point — which leads me to ask, is it obnoxious or not to try avoid being mistaken for a snob?).

    Anyway, I admit that my point is context-dependent. In many settings, it would indeed be obnoxious to assume that everyone is in awe of a Harvard education. But I was thinking of the people that I have come across — many of whom are quite intelligent and who, given different life circumstances, could have ended up at a place like Harvard — who really do seem to treat you differently if you identify as a Harvard graduate. They seem to have this mythical view wherein Harvard students are either WASPy snobs, or else geniuses (a la Good Will Hunting). All of a sudden, they say, “Hahvahhhd — wow, you must be pretty smart.” Or, “Hey, you’re the Harvard guy, you should know the answer to this [question about whatever].” (Both are true examples.) Letting on that you went to Harvard really can be a conversation killer.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Jul 23, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    It’s obnoxious when used (1) in reply to a direct question about where you went to school–such that H-bombing is not an issue–asked by (2) people it’s insulting to expect to be reduced to gee-golly incoherence by mention of Harvard.

  • 9 Stuart Buck // Jul 24, 2006 at 10:27 am

    Fair enough; I agree with that.

  • 10 Jacob T. Levy // Jul 25, 2006 at 8:46 am

    Ah, an old favorite topic. (See the comments section to
    http://crookedtimber.org/2006/04/12/distinction/ starting here.)

    I’m with Julian; to [pretend to] dodge when directly asked where you went to school is tiresome– and often seems like a desperate attempt to make someone ask again, “Oh, what school?” so as to give the H-bomb greater force.

  • 11 matt // Jan 8, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    What do you do if you have a harvard brain but a middle of nowhere college degree?