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5 Ways to Handle a Snob

... and how to address to your own snobbery.

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Whether it’s through wearing brand-name labels, pouring drinks from the most prized wine bottles, or just putting on the presumed airs of the upper class, people who engage in snobbery can make us doubt our own self-worth.

Snobbishness doesn’t have an exact psychological definition, which is surprising given how common it is to encounter people who display this behavior. However, we can assume it represents at least some degree of entitled narcissism in which people think they’re better than everyone else. Social class and socialization undoubtedly play roles as well: People born into families with qualities that society values, whether it’s education, wealth, or status, may grow up with a sense of privilege because they’re just used to getting special treatment.

Snobbishness may have its origins very early in life, when schoolchildren form friendships and cliques inevitably form around certain groups. There’s a natural tendency to see people from outside our own group (the “outgroup”) as inferior to people within our group (the “ingroup”), even if the divisions between the groups are arbitrary. People on your street may live in houses very similar to those on my street, but because they’re from your street, I see them as inferior. Even though there’s no rational reason, people seem to be very ready to develop a tribe mentality that's hard to shake.

This ingroup-outgroup bias means that the direction of snobbishness isn’t necessarily from the haves to the have-nots. People with lower status, education, and income who show reverse snobbishness sneer at people who have what they don’t. We only have to think back to former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s famous remark about “effete intellectual snobs,” an ironic insult that represents a case of reverse snobbery. The them-vs.-you mentality in this type of behavior helps reinforce barriers that keep people from seeing their similarities rather than their differences.

Snobs find it important to distinguish themselves from other people. For their snobbery to work, though, they need their target to self-identify as inferior: You can’t be a snob in a vacuum. There always has to be another group of people who feel that it’s justified for someone else to define them as inferior. Snobs who feed their desire to feel superior by engaging in conspicuous consumption need to have an admiring audience, or they wouldn’t bother spending so much more than necessary on the stuff of everyday life.

With this background, let’s explore what you can do to fend off snobbish behavior, and the accompanying bad feelings:

  1. Don’t buy into it. For a person’s snobbery to work, you have to agree that you are inferior. The antidote isn't reverse snobbery; that only reinforces the notion that one of you must be better than the other. Instead, just use the behavioral method of extinction in which you just don’t respond to a snob’s attempts to impress you. This includes, for example, not staring jealously at the person’s expensive purse, car, or phone, or even sneaking a peek at it out of the corner of your eye. Learn to be blind to status symbols, and the snob will take less pleasure in flaunting them.
  2. Recognize where the need to be a snob comes from. If you can assume that, as with at least some narcissists, snobs harbor feelings of insecurity, then you can take such people's self-aggrandizing comments with a huge grain of salt. Let’s say your sister-in-law can’t stop talking about her own family in glowing terms, while putting yours down for lacking in manners and refinement. People who genuinely felt their families were great might not feel the need to criticize others. Your sister-in-law may have real reservations about how great her family is, and it’s only by making you feel that something is wrong with yours that she can allay those concerns.
  3. Avoid acting on the inferiority impulses that the snobbery triggers within you. The flashy-brand snob can set you down a path of spending too much in order to keep up. There’s no need for you to try to emulate a wealthier friend’s preppy or high-fashion big-budget style. It’s possible that this person isn’t trying to be a snob, but that you’re projecting your own feelings of inadequacy onto him or her. If you start making sacrifices in order to keep up, you’ll only put yourself deeper into emotional (and financial) debt.
  4. Take pride in the characteristics that make you unique. As you’ve probably figured out by now, one reason snobbery works is that it triggers feelings of envy within you. If you take pride in the qualities that within yourself as an individual, you’ll be less likely to feel envious of what others have that you don’t. In an analysis of workplace envy, University of Connecticut business professor John Veiga and his co-authors (2014) proposed that we become envious when we believe our social standing is being threatened. If you don’t allow yourself to draw that conclusion, you won’t feel threatened and that envy will never materialize.
  5. Separate the past from the present. Veiga and his colleagues also make the fascinating point that we often project our own past insecurities onto our present circumstances. A co-worker who seems to be putting you down for having less education may mean nothing of the sort. However, the situation reminds you of past experiences in which you were made to feel inferior, maybe even back in childhood. The envy you experience is a carryover from those earlier days and doesn't accurately reflect the present moment. With no reason to feel inferior now, there’s also no reason to feel envious. The person you thought was a snob had no intention of putting you down, and you can focus on other, more pleasant features of your experiences together.

Snobbery is a two-way street. Most of what I’ve focused on here is from the point of view of the person at the receiving end. Recognizing you’re the victim of a snob is a much easier process than admitting that you’re the perpetrator. To decide whether in fact you are the snob you wish you weren’t, consider your behavior and answer these questions:

  • Do you care more about the label of your clothes than their functionality?
  • Do you stay away from people who you think are “beneath” you?
  • Have you become more fixated on the outward trappings of success than feelings of inner contentment?
  • How conspicuous a consumer are you?

By confronting snobbishness in yourself, by refusing to let yourself be the victim of someone else’s snobbishness, and by avoiding ingroup-outgroup bias, you will be able to take pride not in feeling better than someone else, but in overcoming this all-too-common human frailty.

Success that comes from inside is, after all, the best source of true long-term fulfillment.

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Veiga, J. F., Baldridge, D. C., & Markóczy, L. (2014). Toward greater understanding of the pernicious effects of workplace envy. The International Journal Of Human Resource Management, 25(17), 2364-2381. doi:10.1080/09585192.2013.87705