When I was touring through London while working with Prudential a few years back, I was invited out for dinner at a wine bar by the recently appointed Director of Security – Patricia – and the Chief Financial Officer who I cannot remember his name offhand.
Patricia was an expat – who had been born and raised in New York, and had an accent to match it.
The CFO was a local, born and raised in London.
We had all had an exhausting week, it was a Friday, and as we sat and relaxed and ate the hors d’oeuvres and took turns buying rounds of wine, I realized I was outpacing my coworkers and grabbed a glass of wine for myself as the other two had full glasses.
I knew I had made a social mistake of some kind as the CFO’s body language shifted a bit tensing up for some reason, but I did not let it bother me.
Now long after that, the CFO walked away, and Patricia, who I had worked extensively with and felt no qualms about being candid with me, leaned over and said “You just made a major faux-pas! You should have bought another round when you got your glass of wine!”
Having spent a great deal of time with friends and coworkers out in similar situations stateside, and having found myself outpacing a friend who wasn’t as much a drinker as I was, I was not phased.
“Patricia, I’m outpacing you two, and I will get the next round, I’ll be done with this glass at the same time you will be,” I responded
I took a sip of my wine as she responded “No you don’t understand, that’s a major thing here in London, you should apologize.”
I did not have time to respond to her, as the CFO returned, and as promised I finished the wine at the same time when Patricia glared at me, hoping that the look would inspire a response, but an apology never came.
There are two sides to every story.
To me, I am respecting their pocketbook and liver by not asking them to keep up with my drinking habits. Something that’s long since been established in the company I kept back in the States. And as they failed to inquire what motivated me to do what I did and automatically assumed the worst, I figured this is one of those cultural differences that is THEIR problem to get over, not mine.
Period end of story.
You see – to me – respect for culture with class isn’t just about adopting the norms of the area I am in.
It is also about feeling comfortable bringing your own culture with you.
Unashamed, in fact.
But always trying to demonstrate respect for the locals and ‘their ways’.
When I traveled, I considered myself an Ambassador for American values and ways.
So sure, while I make it a fact to spend a good deal of time fitting in with the ways of the places I go and visit, I also figure it is my responsibility to you – wherever I go – to demonstrate the individuality that my culture nurtures and cherishes.
I don’t always do what’s expected of me.
Most of the time I have perfectly valid reasons for doing what I do.
But sometimes I don’t. And chances are, I’ll apologize if i feel that’s the case.
But if you refuse to accept that apology for my mistake(s).
That’s your problem. Not mine.
And to me, that’s what class is.
Is respecting that you are entitled to your beliefs. You are entitled to feel offended. You are entitled to like me or not.
So what is this thing called Class, to me at least?
It’s fitting in at the same time you’re different and you set an example for those you’re fitting in with.
When I first met Rachel and went to her house, she was in her comfy clothes which were these ugly shoes called Crocs and these bell-bottom style sweat pants that were out of style 35 years ago. It’s the first hint I received that Rachel wasn’t the age she was claiming to be.
Yet. Somehow. She magically made the ensemble look good.
That’s when I learned that the clothes you wear don’t make you a class act. It’s how you feel wearing them that does.
I myself, to this day, don’t shop at KMart because they make me feel cheap. I don’t like getting clothes at Walmart for the same reason. Sometimes I make exceptions, I’ll always check out what they have for brands and ‘fits’ of clothes that fit my body style well.
So while I can buy a Tommy Bahama shirt for $110 dollars when I have a great deal of money, I can also buy that same shirt for $6 at the thrift store or find a friend who refers to me as the picky homeless man who’s husband has an extra one he doesn’t want anymore – a shirt which makes me feel like a million bucks. THAT is what matters.
While I was in Singapore, I had three custom shirts made for $70 USD, a fraction of the cost they run in the states.
And because they fit well and because I selected the material, hands down they were my favorite button up shirts I’d ever purchased.
I knew something was off from the custom suit I purchased in China because it, quite simply didn’t fit well and portray me like I preferred. This is indicative of the collective mindset influencing my individual purchasing decisions and ultimately made me dissatisfied with my expenditures there.
That same attitude and loss of individuality has infected my former friends.
A lack of respect for the choices I as an individual make.
Which brings with it the simple inability to forgive me for those choices that meander from their norm.
A punishing mindset, I might add, which guilts and shames the individual into conformance with the established norm.
Christina Monde, for instance, just recently despite the fact that she’s been a long term friend and lives locally has chosen to ostracize me because I won’t apologize for my suicide threats. She refuses to talk to me unless I apologize.
Class, to me, is understanding oneself and one’s individuality.
Class, to me, is being selectively apologetic for SOME poor choices we make as individuals, but when those poor choices reveal important things to ourselves, knowing how important it is to be delicate about NOT apologizing for those choices.
But most of all…
A great man who stood in front of a row of tanks at Tienanmen Square who most Americans don’t understand stopped a war, and another great man who said in front of millions telling the American Public that “I have a dream”.
These men didn’t just stand up for their beliefs.
They stood up for you.
Whether I choose to have that glass of wine ahead of you.
Or I choose to become a being of my own design based on this man named Q.
On that note.
Class is, to me, recognizing my own individual right to become and be anything I can imagine.
Even if you cannot.
And respecting our differences.
Even if you cannot.
And hopefully, one day, you will quit punishing me for being different than you by not talking to me.
You know who you are. And you know damn well how important conversation is to me.