On Snobbery and Simplicity

I have a theory about snobbery that I often share with my students. It's pretty simple. Here it is:

Everyone is a snob about something.
In the dictionary snob has two different definitions:

1. One who tends to patronize, rebuff, or ignore people regarded as social inferiors and imitate, admire, or seek association with people regarded as social superiors.

2. One who affects an offensive air of self-satisfied superiority in matters of taste or intellect.
My theory speaks to the second definition. It is my belief that everyone has some place in their life where they experience a "self-satisfied superiority in matters of taste or intellect."

Maybe you're a snob about music, coffee, beer, worship styles, theology, computer platforms, clothing, home decor, blogging platforms (!) or certain lifestyle choices. You can be a snob with just about anything. And it's my contention that everyone has some snob in them. Maybe we're not a generalized snob, but there are areas where it comes out.

Which areas? Well, it's likely to be found in those areas where we've been heavily invested or have some expertise, training, skill or knowledge. In this, being a snob is close to being a critic. That is, when we adopt a critical stance toward something (perhaps for good and legitimate reasons) we are on the threshold of snob. The difference, in my mind, is that snobbery is an emotional delight, mainly smugness, in the act of criticism. That is, your criticism is largely about you and your own self-esteem project. Being a snob is being critical to make yourself feel better. And this is why we're snobby about things we're good at. This talent, skill and knowledge we possess is what makes us special and unique. Which means that the things that confer self-esteem are the very locations where I can act as critic, "insider," and expert. For it is with the stuff we're good at where we'll feel superior, prideful, smug, and snobby.

More, snobbery can affect the simplicity of my life. Generally, I'm a person of modest tastes. I drink Folgers coffee in the morning. I work comfortably between Macs and PCs. I own just three pairs of jeans, one pair of "dress" shoes and no dress pants at all (it's 100% jeans). I buy used cars. To be clear, I'm not frugal. But for the most part I don't worry about brand names or quality. In the language of psychology, when it comes to consumption I'm a satisfier rather than a maximizer. I'm a "good enough" kind of guy.

And yet, in a corollary to my Rule of Snob I have a related rule in regards to consumptive snobbery. Here it is:
Everyone demands unjustified quality in some area of their consumer existence.
Here's an example. I have a friend who demands quality in sunglass wear. So he'll spend $200 on Oakley sunglasses. I can't remotely imagine spending that kind of money on sunglasses. I buy my sunglasses from WalMart and gas stations. My current sunglasses (which look fantastic on me) were $10. In short, I'm not a sunglasses snob. Cheap, functional sunglasses are just fine for me.

I have other friends who will not drink coffee unless it is very high, Starbucks-level quality. The Folgers coffee I drink in the morning just won't do for them. So I'm not a coffee snob.

But according to my rule, there must be some, fairly arbitrary, places in my life where I demand unjustified quality. I have to be a snob about something, right?

True enough, here is a list of things I'm snobby about:




Ice cream
Some commentary given the randomness of my list:
I grew up playing basketball. And it was an annual ritual to buy new, leather basketball shoes at the start of the season. It was like going to church. And I loved the smell of new leather and the look of new Converse or Nike shoes. Ever since, I've been spoiled. All my sneakers are brand name. I'll buy my sunglasses at WalMart, but not my sneakers. I go to athletic stores for that. I'm a sneaker snob.

For some reason, I demand a good pen. I write a lot so I care about the flow of the pen and the size of the line it makes. So I don't buy bulk packs of Bic pens. No, I go to Office Depot and stand there forever trying out all these expensive pens. I'm a pen snob.

I'm a very casual dresser. Even in formal situations I dress down. Sometimes too much so. To help offset this I tend to wear an expensive watch. It's not crazy expensive, but I'll spend $100 on a watch. I think I do this because, per Thorstein Veblen's theory, it functions as a sign of my conspicuous consumption. That is, although I wore shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops to my meeting at the university today, I had my watch on. It's a sign, I guess, that I'm "consciously" dressing down (to be, what, a rebel?) and that I'm not a hobo. The watch, no matter what I'm wearing, anchors me to my socioeconomic class. So I'm a watch snob.

I ride a bike to work most days. Given all my time on my bikes (see, I have more than one) I've come to demand quality in them as well. I own brand name bikes, a Trek hybrid and an Electra Amsterdam. So I'm a bike snob.

Ice Cream:
My favorite food in the whole world is ice cream. I eat an astonishing amount of ice cream. It's the food that soothes me and makes me feel childlike. Given this consumption, I've acquired a taste for high quality ice cream. I can't eat cheap ice cream. So I'm an ice cream snob.
So there it is, a bit of confession. I bring it all up to note how this random demand for quality creates yet another occasion for snobbery. More, this consumptive snobbery complicates my desire to live a life of simplicity. My failures with simplicity have less to do with acquisitiveness than this demand for quality in particular areas.

So what about you? And snob confessions?

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49 thoughts on “On Snobbery and Simplicity”

  1. I'm a snob about scotch & theology and probably other things I'm not aware of.

    That being said I think your article speaks to people with a significant amount of privilege. Perhaps this is broadly true of everyone who has the means, but there are certainly millions of people who simply do not have the luxury to be snobby about anything. They are concerned with clean drinking water not thread-counts in their linens.

    I think there is possibly also a class of people who usually get derided as "hicks" or "rednecks" that probably don't exhibit the kind of snobbery you describe even if they have the means, though maybe they do in a different way.

  2. I'm not sure "simplest" is always synonymous with "cheapest".

    Oddly enough, I'm a pen, sneaker and bike snob too. I'm also a theodicy snob. And a preaching snob. And a worship-leading snob. But I'm getting better. =P

  3. Oh, I agree. Although intended to be lighthearted, the post is trying to get to a place of self-evaluation.

  4. I'm getting better as well.

    Regarding theodicy, it's not so much that I fuss over the quality of the answers as much as I get frustrated with the lack of passion about the problem. It's the lack of empathy that frustrates me. People don't need a sophisticated theodicy, but I do think caring people will admit to feeling shattered from time to time in the face of suffering. That is, if you can't come up with anything to say on the subject then just opt for silence. That silence, feeling like conversation about God just has to stop for a minute, is a form of paying respect. To both victims and God.

  5. Snobbery is a form of cultural conditioning, just as you pointed out about growing up and having the best sneakers. The importance of the sport justified being a snob.

    I grew up in the South, which values nice decorated homes, nice clothes, and nice manners. I used to "diss" these values because of my own insecurity, at one point in my life, buying my clothes at K-Mart, and wondering why others didn't find thier clothes in such a place. And I couldn't wait to get out of the South, so I could find "broader" boundaries. I have since learned to appreciate my cultural background.

    Snobbery is not wrong, it is a human way of living in the world. And yes, some do not have the means or cultural background to be snobs. So? Perhaps, they should seek to develop their "snob" "fetish", so they can find their talent and use their gift!

    Others criticize another's lifestyle becaue of their own insecurities, or their envy. Marxists like to play on "class envy" so that they can "revolutionize" a culture.

    Humans congregate within their social groups, which are usually identified with one or another "snob" "fetish"...One could even call Christians snobs, because they think they have the 'real" thing, when it comes to religion, thinking that they must conform everyone to their "culture". And yet, which "Christian culture" is "right"? Confessional, Piestic, Holiness, Orthodox, Catholic, Mystic, Charismatic, etc.?

    "Simplicity" itself is a "snob" label, as it must be defined and others judged by it. But, which area is to be "transformed"?

  6. > there are certainly millions of people who simply do not have the luxury to be snobby about anything.

    I dunno, if you can be snobby about ideas ... like theology ... or cultural and ethnic things, then -- hooray! -- something like snobbery is accessible to everyone!

  7. Nod. Though I think there are also plenty of theodicies that fail to empathize. Like, most of them.

  8. "I have other friends who will not drink coffee unless it is very high, Starbucks-level quality."

    My reaction to this was, "Huh? Isn't that an oxymoron?"

    So, I guess that would be my snob confession!

  9. My guess is that snobbery in a part of human nature. The contents of snobbery might vary from class to class and culture to culture, but being snobby about material possessions, skills, knowledge, aesthetics, etc. is a cultural universal.

  10. I think that your list of things you are snobby about have more to do with your personal preferences than being a snob. You justified everything you think you are snobby about. You have legitimate reasons for all of those perceived snobisms, and I don't think you are judging anybody else for not having those things. It is not snobby to have preferences for high quality items or for something that provides comfort. I think being a snob comes in when one chooses to condemn another person because they do not have the same quality items or the beliefs. One is also a snob when he or she requires high quality things rather than just prefers them.

  11. I'm a snob about books, coffee, and hair styling products (which I spend way more on than my wife does).

  12. I am definitely a coffee snob. I buy green coffee from all over the world and roast it myself at home. As I was reading your post and you mentioned Starbucks as being a high-level coffee I cringed (they do have some nice varieties) because I think they burn their beans. By saying that, I completely agree with your post. I think that it is a very interesting subject and that you can tell a lot about a person by what they are snobbish about.

  13. Snobism requireth the haughty attitude, not merely the lofty preference, as Kelly W sez below. On that account, you fail as a snob, at least in those consumerist areas you laid out.

    qb loves craft beer and seldom drinks anything else. By itself, that's not snobism. Snobism, in that context, is paradigmatically associated with Michael Frost of _Exiles_ fame...because he conflates brewski preferences with patterns of holiness.

  14. I'm a real snob, now, when it comes to camera equipment. I started off with entry-level bodies and lenses, but now, if it's not the top of the line in that range, I won't buy it.

  15. "Snobbery is not wrong, it is a human way of living in the world. "

    Is the second part of this sentence connected to the first part, Angie? That is, do you think the fact that snobbery is a human way of living in the world is the reason why it is not wrong?

  16. I'm a technology snob. This doesn't mean I always have to have the best (I'm way too poor for that) but that I won't buy anything technological without doing a ludicrous amount of research first. I have to understand all the terms and enter into the world of those people who are 'enthusiasts' of whatever it is I'm buying. So when I wanted new headphones I learnt all about impedance, IEMs, drivers, bass response, and EQ, virtually from scratch, because I wanted to know that the headphones I was getting were best for me.

    As for reasons, partially I think this is just a good and rational way of purchasing things, but it probably also functions as a way to demonstrate how in-the-loop I am about stuff. It's also a good way to trick myself into thinking that I'm not a 'conspicuous' consumer.

  17. Apparently the ladies in my office don't think I smile enough, so they gave me this creep-tastic "Smile on a Stick." I'm supposed to use it whenever some student comes in with some sad story about his or her thesis. I'm not sure it will have the effect that they desired :)

  18. Andrew,
    thanks for the question... Yes, the way one choosed to live their life within a particular "snob" niche, is not wrong, as it is an indvidual preference. Preferences are allowed in free countries. But to those that are not in that niche and therefore have not developed a taste or appreciation for a particular niche, can be considered a "snob".

    Part of appreciating and enjoying life is developing the "taste" for one's interest.

    The question psychologists would be interested in; Is the snob behavior addictive, destructive or a defense mechanism for an undeveloped "self"?

  19. While Richard does give explanations for his areas of snobbery, I wouldn't say that he justifies each type. His explanation of his watch snobbery, while not self-flagellating, does imply a classism that I would assume runs contrary to his ideals as a Christian (Hats off to you Richard for risking that transparency).

    While I agree with your general thrust, I would suggest that snobbery can enter our hearts long before we condemn others, or become high maintenance (require expensive things). I would argue that it begins when we begin to view individuals as "other" in a derogatory sense. I think that a big part of human nature is that we can get to that point rather easily. I think that is what Richard is trying to say.

  20. Too funny. You know, I could use this to help motivate my thesis students:

    "You need to make some better progress on your thesis, because if you don't I'll have to send you to see Greg and his Smile on a Stick. And we don't want that to happen, do we?"

  21. This post made me think back to college when I described myself as a "liturgical snob." I could tear apart low-church, contemporary services piece by piece and back it up with pretty good theology. I'm trying to be better about it, but I find myself biting my tounge and praying for humility A LOT when I visit other churches.

  22. Like Greg KB, I was a snob about camera gear too and that snobbery caused me to give up photography. You see, I was a perfectionist when I came to my images and often times I could not make the photo I wanted because I was limited by the mid-level gear I had. But, I also could not justify spending thousands of dollars on new lens for the sake of a hobby. So I chose to just give it up for now and focus my spare time on other interests.

    So my question to you, Richard is: is what we are labeling as snobbery actually just perfectionism getting the best of us in certain areas?

  23. I'm definitely a tea snob - the way some of your friends are about coffee, Richard. I'm also a pen snob, and an ice cream snob, and a grammar snob. (That last may have something to do with my being an English major and then an English professor...)

    Fascinating post. I think it's OK to have strong preferences for things, as long as we don't end up belittling others who have different preferences. And yes, a person's snobberies can tell you a lot about them.

  24. Can't snobbery be a good thing though? I mean, we should invest time and effort into getting superior quality everything. That doesn't mean tearing apart a waitress when your coffee is three degrees too cold, but it does mean seeing the things you do and buy as expressions of yourself and demanding the most of yourself through it.

    I'm a snob about...
    video games
    using your mind instead of parking it in deep storage
    just about everything else

    I think the most important part is to avoid hypocrisy and to demand even more from yourself than you demand from others.

  25. Your high standards won't let you focus on others, as you are compelled by what drives your interests. Problem is; those that don't have those intense drives might judge those drives as overly obesessive. But, how else does one excel at a particular interest?

  26. Regarding some of ya'll's comments on the virtues of snobbery.

    First, I think a demand for excellence or quality is a good thing. High standards are important. Otherwise, we just reduce everything to the functional and mediocre.

    So the issue, it seems to me, is twofold. First, I think there is a private vs. public issue. Demanding quality in my own life is a good thing. And to reach that goal I need to make discriminative judgments about the quality of things around me. I need to see "better" and "worse." The problem comes when we start expecting this quality from others. That can be tricky and context is important. If this is a situation where the person I'm evaluating is in relationship with me and I know they have the same desire for quality and improvement then, of course, hand them criticism. It might hurt, but they want and need it.

    And this brings me to my second point. Who is the snobbery for? If your call for quality is about your own self-esteem project then it's snobbery. But if your goal is to help the person, if your intent is altruistic, then you're not a snob. Importantly, to help people you need to have pre-existing respect and trust. Which means that criticizing strangers is almost always a case of snobbery. Yes, you'll note high versus low quality in the world, but your judgments won't personalize. You might notice bad writing, let's say, or something kitschy hanging on their walls or the quality of the beer they have in the fridge but your feelings about the person remain warm and respectful. As they say, there's no accounting for taste and your choices are often just as arbitrary as theirs. Plus, there's some snob judging you as well. It's best to just step out this rat race.

    In short, demand quality for yourself, offer constructive criticism to those who ask, and refrain from evaluating yourself in a way that makes your feel superior to others. The way I see it, life is short, the grave awaits, so who the hell cares what kind of coffee I drink or computer I use or music I listen to? We have a choice between joy or smugness. I choose joy.

  27. When I was a "good Christian" I was always trying to save other
    people. But you know what? I totally give up on other people. We can't save anybody. All we can do is focus on ourselves continually and set a good example. Anybody might talk a good game about God, but the truth is that we are each the center of our own, individual universe.

    It's important to recognize and reward excellence in others. I just spent way more than I was intending on a pair of Ecco boots because the last pair I bought lasted almost a decade. But why buy cheap Chinese crap for half the price that only lasts a quarter as long?

    Now I know we're all constrained by budgets and a search of my apartment would definately turn up cheap Chinese crap. But I think discernment really is its own reward. The parable of the talents illustrates that good management of resources opens up in our lives the opportunity to receive more.

  28. When I was a teenager my Dad told me I was an anti-snob snob. In other words, I acted superior to the snobs because I wasn't a snob. Until I started acting superior to them, that is.

  29. I would rather you speak in "natural terms" and not in biblical ones. The "Bible" and those that acknowledge its authority cannot be allowed to "do unto another" what is repugnant in most any one else's eyes...so I do not adhere to practicing the Sermon on the Mount. And this is why I believe in the value of good government that protects the right of liberty within proper bounds.

  30. Matthew, in one sense you are right, as we have to live in society. But, in another way you are wrong, as we each understand things in a different way, have different values, and priorities, etc...we are individuals but we are also only parts of society. The individual and society has always been a tension in the social sciences...and now with new scientific understanding about biology and nuroscience, we know more about how our chemistry, and biology affects us as individuals...but we don't know everything yet!!!!

  31. I tend to think of snobbery more in terms of social politics, as in who's "in" and who never will be because, "dear, you're just not country club material," or the gratuitious convenience of "you're in marginally only as long as you serve my program" thing. Guess my snob confession is in terms of granting nicknames to such, as in Saint Prima Donna of Piousneer Drive. Or Saint Prego of Behemeth Baptist, or Lightening Lady (who wanted to see God strike "certain" people) of Wile. E. Baptist. The stories behind these are actually better than the nicknames ...

  32. Quote from Kierkegaard's WORKS OF LOVE.

    "There is nothing, nothing, which cannot be done or said in such a way that it becomes up-building...

    Building up is not at all, then, an exclusive superiority based on individual talents, such as brains, beauty, artistic talent and the like (such a world would be a loveless and contentious error!). Rather, it is just the opposite: every person would do this...[build up others]...if love were actually in him."

    K had just made the point that if a Christian neither uses her own inclinations as a guide to right action nor the praise of others, the only way to avoid ridicule is to live in a community where there is an acknowledged "debt to love one another."

    I have plenty of reasons to be humbled by this--and by this post. But I think K's point is that we can make this a happy humbling, what Augustine would mark off as the fruit of living by charity rather than cupidity.

  33. Hi Angie! From things you've shared, I'd bet you and I have a lot of the same kinds of snob stories from churchianity. I have family members who are perfect icons of it, which makes it inescapable for me.

  34. When are you going to start blogging again??
    I sure miss your writing and insights>

  35. "Upbuilding" seems to me to be "less than critical thinking" and analysis. Upbuilding may be based on love, but it also may not..it could also be that critical thinking or tearing down, is needed to upbuild.

    Upbuilding is focused on an "ideal", whereas, critical thinking is based in the real realities and complexities of life and how solutions can be worked out. But, none of us agree what or how ideals are to be proiritized.

    K's view is reasonless faith in the transcendent, isn't it? One must believe that one's transcendental view is the "right" and "only" one to make a "leap of faith" (or commitment)...don't you think?

    Humanists, whether Christian or not, would find this useless knowledge. Their interest in in the "brotherhood of man and Fatherhood of God" or the interdependence of life...so the urgent need of the realities of life are what matter.

    Then, the problem becomes how we proiritize or understand "life", liberty and the pursuit of happiness....

  36. In light of the following I really appreciate your kind words:
    Richard set up these comments to be kind of a confessional, and I took the opportunity to give a sermonette.

    I'm not sure that snob on this count does me justice... I have an unfair head start now, but perhaps Richard will award a foot in mouth or plank in eye award at the end of the year.

    That said, an apt quote from Kierkegaard is pretty much assured to be deeply insightful.

    Thanks again.

  37. I am a snob when it comes to parenting. I cringe at reactive (rather than pro-active) parents who do not think about the consequences of their parenting. The parent who will repeat the same instruction 15 times to a child... then be befuddled when the child ignores them.

  38. If we could disregard life's continually changing circumstances and the way in which they affect each unique person--one moment a person feels lonely; the next she remembers an appointment she's late for, and so on through limitless permutations--you'd be correct in your analysis. You say upbuilding is less than critical analysis. I say that it assumes it and goes beyond it by a commitment to enter into positive relationships with the people you meet. Without the commitment your analysis continually flirts with irrelevance and the hypostatization of your view at the expense of the people to whom you apply it.

    Kierkegaard's famous essay, "Truth is Subjectivity," makes the point with a delightful image: If we don't enter into relationships with the people we interact with, there's a sense in which we might as well be talking to a mop head.

    There are writers whose insights are so far beyond any that I would ever come up with that I feel as though a superior form of consciousness is communicating with me: If you ever read Kierkegaard you can be sure that you will no longer be impressed with "humanists" who disregard his ideas.

    I thought you would want to know...

  39. Tracy,
    Granted that subjectivity is necessary in understanding or knowing another and being able to act accordingly. But, relationships are gifts, not demands.
    I believe another has a right to deny relationship to anyone they do not care to engage. That is anyone's "snob" priviledge...But, more than snob priviledge, it acknowledges that there are times that others might not want to engage in a relationship to me and vice versa. And the ability to discern when a relationship is needful, needed or desired is an ability of wisdom, discretion and necessity. That is, if we appreciate the other as a separate entity in his/her own right with the right to have their own personal boundaries!

    Christians all too often do not acknowledge proper boundaries, b/c of being "perfected in love" and their enmeshment in "community". Community is a good thing, but it can be damning just as well...I'm sure those who've lost their lives, wealth, or sanity because of an unhealthy dose of submission to the proper authority, etc. wished that they'd chosen another path and understood themselves apart from such environments.

    I was speaking in my answer to you in an "objective way", or at least trying to...but, yes, I do value your response and what you shared.

  40. Well, Angie, I think that I speak for most of us who are fans of Richard's blog in noting that we appreciate being introduced to new ideas that expand our understanding. By critiquing ideas that you clearly have not taken the time to look into carefully, you do not seem to be a party to that spirit. If I do not respond in the future, it's just that we're not really in the same conversation. I wish that weren't so. I admire your tenacity. And I look forward to sharing comments with you when you change tactics.

    Best wishes!

  41. I'm a grammar snob. I think it's funny that I belong to a facebook group called "People who know the difference between its and it's". But seriously, the whole thing with snobbery kind of puts me in mind of the phenomenon of jargon. I am a scientist and it always bugs me that science folk love their lofty science verbiage. Religious groups love their religious jargon, kids love their kid jargon, military loves it jargon, and so forth. We all love to feel set apart, special, superior in some way. But really it just ends up separating us and putting up walls.

  42. My wife and I live in an area which has an element of antisocial behaviour. We really like our neighbours, and are totally happy living there. I am a teacher, and unfortunately fear my local school. We want to send our child out of the area to go to another school in a better area. Am I a snob because I don't want my son to mix with people who behave antisocially? If I am, then this means the moment you want to better yourself then you are a snob.
    I hate the word snob . . . It is not specific enough for me. It is a weak word that should be abolished from our language.

  43. In many ways I think you can replace your use of the word 'snob' for the word 'geek'. Whereby the definition of the word 'geek' is 'someone who cares more about a certain subject or thing than the average person'. Sometimes this presents as snobbery, but other times it presents as infectious enthusiasm or passion.

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