Privilege Blog

Writing The Book On High WASPs, As It Were

The book I didn’t write was to be about High WASPs. As I spend far less time writing in the voice of my ancestors these days, and I know some of you liked it, it occurred to me I could post the rough book outline. And then, perhaps, over time, the actual chapters.

Or not. We’ll see. A look at the outline, however, will take all of 3 minutes, and serve as a nod to time past and confession.

TITLE: The Secrets Of America’s High WASPs, or, Life in the Subjunctive

Alternative Title: A High WASPs Guide To Life, If I Can Be So Bold

Chapter List

1. What IS a High WASP?

  1. A WASP is any White Anglo Saxon Protestant. A High WASP is a human being whose family has been in the United States long enough to make a fortune, lose a fortune, and spend an ungodly amount of time in well-known universities while so doing.
  2. In general, our families (for yes, I am one) came to the US in the Colonial Period. They farmed, they bought land, they bought more land. They moved to the cities, where they participated in the first great swell of American wealth.
  3. A High WASP is not, necessarily, a preppy. Tad Friend says so.
    1. We might say, Preppy is optional, High WASP irrevocable.
    2. Preppy is about the gear, the schooling. High WASP is about the family, the aesthetic, the code of conduct, and that little voice that says, “You have not done a good enough job.”

2. High WASPs: Do I Care At All?

  1. Why might you care? Maybe you like to see how the mighty have fallen. No shame in that. Mighty people are often quite dreadful.
  2. You find navy blue seductive.
  3. You believe in America, and yet you think the flag belongs to everyone.
  4. You wonder, sometimes, what happened to the social contract, to delayed gratification, to showing up on time. You wonder, what about good taste?
  5. However, you don’t miss wearing white gloves to the city. That was truly unnecessary.

3. High WASP Men And Women: Do They Differ?

  1. High WASP men often have very square jaws.
  2. High WASP women are neither sexy nor powerful. Why?
  3. Related: What is a lady?

4. How Do High WASPs Live? Does Everyone Own a Mansion in Connecticut?

  1. Our houses, then and now.
  2. Our clothing brands and quirks.
    1. Why my father loathes Ralph Lauren but I find him admirable.
    2. Didn’t everyone have a personal shopper named Mrs. Bailey at Saks, for back-to-school?
    3. How to use the unspoken High WASP dress code to your advantage.
  3. Our diet.
  4. Family traditions and rituals.

5. How to Speak High WASP, Or, Joy In The Subjunctive, Terror In Nouns, Safety In Punctuation

  1. Any time you talk about anything emotional, do so in the 3rd person. Use the term, “One,” meaning, “I.”
  2. Never direct, only suggest. “You might want to think about a haircut?”
  3. Danger lurks inside common nouns, especially house and clothing terms. For example, High WASPs say “curtains,” not “drapes.” The new generations don’t care, but the older ones still do. Oh, you might, if you push the limits say, “That woman has real class,” but you’d never call anyone, “Classy.”
  4. High WASPs need their own emoticons.
  5. Learn to love a semi-colon, insist on using a period at the end of numbered list phrases. Like so.

6. The High WASP Code of Conduct And Its Application In Various Undertakings

  1. Law
  2. Business
  3. Retail Therapy
  4. Child-Rearing (No, the French didn’t invent delayed gratification.)

7. The Meaning Of Manners

  1. Protocol vs. Courtesy
  2. Intra-Cultural and Inter-Cultural – Is There A Universal Set Of Manners?
  3. Snobbery, And Why It’s Always Bad Manners

8. How To Get Your Child Into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. OK Fine, Stanford Or Dartmouth, But Please Shower Often If You Must Grow A Beard

  1. Go back in time and tell your father and grandfathers to get themselves over to the Ivy League. Then get yourself there.
  2. Once you graduate, give small sums of money every year. The institutions prize loyalty, it’s harder to find these days than cash.
  3. Never mention the words “find your passion” to a 14-year old — however, if they actually do, scoff not. Keep lesson quantities low, free time high.
  4. Send your children outside to play, when they complain of boredom tell them they can go clean up their rooms if they need amusement, limit screen time, read them stories every night, encourage them to make up “shows” and watch said “shows” at least 3 times in a row before pleading the need to do something, anything else.
  5. Do not let anyone, including yourself, make a single editing mark on your child’s college essay. Discuss, but do not correct on the page. If reading essays by 17-year olds gets tough, just imagine reading essays by parents pretending to be 17-year olds.
  6. Always remember, it’s just 4 years. Better to arrive at a good school intact, than at a fabled one stunned or frayed by over-training

9. When High WASPs Travel, Or, Please Don’t Make Me Eat Anything Too Ranchero

  1. Two distinct types.
    1. Uncle Fred Carnochan lived with the Snake People
    2. Second Cousin Once Removed Walter – He of the Ranchero Comment
  2. The history of the Grand Tour.
  3. We prefer squalor to bad carpet.

10. How To Avoid Wedding Gaffes


  1. Hang ye no crystals.
  2. Color-coordinate ye no humans with the decor.
  3. Scroll ye no invitation fonts.
  4. Confuse ye no people with weird dress codes.
  5. Play ye no Pachelbel.
  6. Invite all your family.
  7. If you’re a guest, give presents, not “gifts.”
  8. Keep your shoes on until you can put your feet under a table.

11. Inheritances

  1. How to give money to your children without destroying them.
  2. What to do with an inheritance without destroying yourself.
  3. What to do while waiting for one which may or may not ever arrive.

12. A Brief History Of The Golden Age And Will Its Like Ever Come Again?

  1. Social life in New York at the end of the 19th century, AKA the making of the High WASPs.
  2. How did the Age of Innocence compare to other periods of wealth?
  3. What groups, if any, might wealth create now?

13. The Wistful Future Of The High WASP

  1. Removing the veil, and the myth in popular literature. What we are, what we are not.
  2. Moving beyond the acronym to the values.
  3. Politics, education, style.

And there you have it. If you’re new to the blog, I’m glad you will have read some of my Saturday posts before this – sets the right context, I think. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll notice that I’ve already written some of these chapters as posts, or maybe you’ll remind me of some topics you might have expected to see. In any case, it feels like a good resting place for the thoughts.

82 Responses

  1. I want the book to be written so that I can read it. At least post chapters here if you decide not to publish the book after writing it. And, I really enjoyed the outline.

    1. @Susan, I’m pretty much sure that I won’t write an entire book unless a literary agent finds me and tells me it’s a really good idea. But I am likely to write the chapters here on the blog, especially if you enjoyed the outline.

  2. The book needs to be written….but why presents and not gifts. Please explain. I bring hostess gifts when invited to someone’s home never a hostess present. Is it an American thing vs. Canadian/English tradition? Just curious.

    1. @Bungalow Hostess, It’s just a cultural thing for High WASP. How we came to decide that present was the word, I don’t know, perhaps because we didn’t want to be accused of having taken the easy way out and bought something at the Gift Shoppe.

  3. Why do you associate theses values that you hold up as being specific to High WASPs? Aside from lineage, how can these things not apply to African Americans? Second-generation immigrants? Those from long-established families who are NOT European? Or are you implying that other cultures have appropriated these from High WASPs, and not that they are capable of holding similar values?

    1. @Wait a Sec, Oh gosh none of the above. The original final sentence of the outline of the above outline, under The Wistful Future Of The High WASP, was, 4. President Obama may be one. But I deleted it to avoid politics. The Venn Diagram goes like this: Here is the the circle of true High WASP behaviors and values, here are multiple circles of other cultures’ values, look at all the intersections. Now look at this circle over here, a different one, that is All The Values We Thought High WASPs Held But They Don’t.

      Many cultures are far, far older than ours, I am sure we are the ones more guilty of appropriation.

  4. “You find navy blue seductive”

    Yes, oh yes!

    I exclaim this as I sit here 1) wearing a navy blue Breton that is ancient but beloved and 2) having just had a conversation with my husband about our older daughter’s upcoming admissions interview at our alma mater, during which I insist that he wear the Standard Alumnus Uniform of navy blazer, school tie, etc.

  5. 10. Wedding Gaffes
    9. No drinking beer from the bottle in your wedding dress, per my mother.

    I miss wearing my white gloves to the city! But, I’m 3/4 WASC.

    1. @Patsy, Mother knows best:). And, if my city were Boston instead of San Francisco I might feel a little differently…

    2. @Patsy, I wore them (with little pearl buttons)on the train to the bright lights of the Big Apple. Couldn’t go into The City without them.

      1. Ah, I didn’t meet Manhattan until 1975. I can only imagine her in her white glove heyday.

  6. Lisa, I love it! The outline alone is so entertaining. I know some of the posts. First title, please!

    My pet peeve: “gift” as a verb. Fits under presents, not gifts?

    Sorry for the brevity. I’m about to board a train.

  7. What a marvelous post, and a marvelous outline as well. I do hope you will, in time, if you are so inclined, flesh this out even without a book. I like the idea of taking one’s time and expanding slowly. This is one of the benefits of a blog it seems, the ability to spark a conversation.

    As to presents and gifts, it seems to me that to give someone a present requires thought and consideration — like presenting something of value. A gift is too often tied to obligation, is more casual and less personal. I know this is not how the words are used today, and would never judge someone on those definitions, but this seems to be the meaning embedded somewhere so deep in my thought processes that I cannot quite uncover its origin. The giving of presents, and the entire ritual and thought process and consideration that went into it is something I learned from my grandparents, and treasure to this day.

    1. @Mardel, Thank you. And I do believe you are right, in terms of present v. gift. Thank you for parsing what I myself could not.

  8. I’ve found this interesting , having no knowledge of your wasp culture . I do wonder if some of your nouns followed you from the old country . In the UK it is always curtains & presents . Do wasps go on holiday carrying brollies ?
    Wendy in York

    1. @Wendy, I am pretty much sure some of the nouns followed from the UK. However, we go on vacation and we try to leave our umbrellas behind;). I find myself picking up more great British expressions these days, in the online global world

  9. I hope you will post chapters on the blog, if not publish as a book. I would suggest the addition (you have already written many of the posts) of High WASP social events and hints for the rest of us on how to dress and what to expect.
    Also, how to decode your High WASP boss. I had a colleague who didn’t understand that “you might wan’t to publish a few more articles” meant “I can’t recommend you for tenure unless you publish a few more articles”. When we discussed this, it was too late. She complained, “He never said I HAD to publish!”

    1. @DocP, I feel for your colleague;). And a post on social events in general, and work in particular, I could do that I think. Thanks for the idea.

  10. Oh, do please write this book, or at least consider publishing some chapters on your blog. As a Brit, I find this all rather fascinating stuff. From glancing down your list, it appears that a lot of these tribal traits appear in many families I know from around the world so shall look forward to reading what makes a Wasp so uniquely American.

    1. @Chronica Domus, That’s a good question – because I’ve been thinking all along more about what makes us unique among Americans, which is of course a different question. Yours is very valid.

  11. Hi Lisa – Great post on the world of the High WASP! If you have read the email I sent to “skyepeale” a few days ago, you’ll know of my particular interest in certain aspects of High WASP culture, which you might think about addressing in a later post. Your fans certainly want more!

    Also, on the subject of using your vintage hot pink sari to cover a bench in your bedroom, let me remind you of Diana Vreeland’s comment: “Pink is the navy blue of India.”

    Keep up your good work!

  12. The thing that hit me was the use of gift vs present/ I have lived all around and yes, it is usually a memorable moment when I tell someoneetc.. that I have brought them a present….I was very interested in this. Seeing as how I am from the Miss. Delta, maybe the connection here is just old english??And we were deinately not well off or upper crust, as they say. We chopped cotton……..and most of my elders barely finished grade school Would love to see your book on this!!

    1. @susie, If an agent calls me, I’ll write the book. If not, I’ll post here. So, I’ll be posting :). And I am beginning to believe you guys are right, the language stuff is about the Old Country.

  13. So entertaining! I hope you write at least a few chapters, and publish on the blog, but if not – this was great fun reading.

  14. Some High Wasps kept their fortunes. Your outline reminded me of my first husband, who used his dividend cheques as bookmarks and would only occasionally remember to cash them before they were stale-dated.

    My own identifier of this subculture can be reduced to “Do not live (from education, to language, to decor, to handling money) in any other manner than one’s parents”. That creed led to some abjectly miserable High WASPS with whom I grew up, especially gay ones.

    The use of the impersonal pronoun “one” by a native-born American results in me taking a step way back.

    1. @Duchesse, Some clearly did not lose the fortunes. I have only met the ones who did – and now that I think of it, they are all either gay or very sensitive/intellectual souls, or both. So, they had to grow up some other way than their parents, or they’d have died.

      And surely one uses the pronoun “one” in order to to do exactly that, take a step back from oneself and those around us.

  15. My family goes back to early 17th century NEw England, and I had never heard the term “high WASP” until I started reading this blog. I don’t think our family ever had any fortunes.

    I grew up in SF Bay Area and we used to dress up to go to “the City”, including white gloves. Now we wear jeans.

    One way to not destroy your children with money is to not give them any until you die. And don’t die until you’re well into your 90s.

    1. @AK, Oh I totally made the term up. Then I checked online and saw one prior usage. During the course of Mad Men, someone once told Pete Campbell he was such a High WASP. I have no idea if they got the term from me, but I hope so, because, 15 seconds of glory…And, as for money, there’s some validity to what you say, but, often, the money that’s known about but not given creates anxiety and resentment. Artificial shortages, in other words, are felt as fake. It’s a really thorny problem.

    2. @AK,

      Ok, I mean spend money on education, but no allowances after college. I think that’s where people go wrong.

  16. Please write the blog posts, and really some publisher should sign you on for this book.

    I’d be particularly interested in reading more about the history of the Golden Age. My father’s family was WASP in Toronto so I have heard the tales of wealth and priviledge and seen some of the evening dresses that my grandmother wore in the twenties and thirties. It was a time that won’t be seen again.

    1. @Northmoon, Oh, my grandmother’s evening dresses! You too? Wonderful. My father gave them to me to wear in high school, when we were all hippies. The silver lame with a crystal starburst at the hip disintegrated. That, I wish I’d taken better care of and kept!

    1. I didn’t say I took credit for it. I said I made it up, which I did, in my mind, and then when I Googled it, I found the prior mention. I had not read the 1991 New York Magazine, because I was in the throes of having 2 children under the age of 3 and I lived in California. Come on, I’m blindingly amenable to being called on the carpet but in this case I think I’m clean.

  17. High Wasp? Of course!! I heard it all the time. A louisiana girl, being catholic, wasp is exactly how I described my friends who were not……one of “us”. Mon Chere.

    1. The High is the part I added to make sense of the peculiar specificity of my family. As has been noted, I was not the first or only person to use the term. But boy oh boy did I embrace it;).

  18. Sounds a bit like our aristocracy or “upper middle classes” as opposed to what we might call “new money”. It is not about money but way of life, education, general manners and “class”. Book sounds great.

    1. @chicatanyage, Yes, I think the parallels must be strong. This group is often descended from what would have been aristocracy had George Washington agreed to become king rather than president. But in America, we have no titles to endure past the fortune.

  19. I join the chorus of those wanting to read more. As a 3rd generation Irish American Catholic, I never heard the term WASP until I was in high school and, like another commenter, simply thought that accounted for a significant portion of the world who were not us, ie non-Catholics. I could see your world and had brushes with it but have had little knowledge about how it works, much less why. So write on, Lisa, write on.

    1. @M, Thank you very much. Every time someone tells me what it was like for them to grow up, i.e. in a world where Not Us meant non-Catholic, I learn a little bit more.

    2. @M, Irish Catholicism is a social disposition as much as it is a religious conviction, so there is no separating the dancer from this dance. Each generation in my family pushed the boundaries further out, though. I went so far as to marry a a non-Irish, “non-Catholic.” However, I had to demand to attend a public university first in order to be able to meet him. ;)

      This is why I am so intrigued by the WASP construct: are there points of change or shift? Culturally, by what you describe, it seems to stay pretty well intact. (No pun intended.)

    3. @M, Some parts of the culture dissipates, some remains. For my family the big shift was moving to California. We are few and far between out here, that might be why it took so long for me to understand that I came from a culture, not just a single family and its ways.

  20. Lost it when i read, “play ye no Pachelbel”. ‘Thank you for my Saturday morning smile.

  21. OK, this explains so well so many things, not least of which my aversion to the word “classy”. My people are generations removed from inherited wealth, but much else remains — though I admit I don’t care for navy blue clothing, myself. I remember my grandmother scoffing at wedding reply cards (one always writes one’s own, in the third person, natch). Also, I think my kids are the only ones in our small rural CA farm town to wear whatever jewelry (and evening bags, wraps, etc) that the female relations can loan them to go with their formal attire for proms and other such events. Because why would you 1) waste your money buying something new at a store, when 2)your great-grandmother’s costume jewelry was so much nicer?

    Write the book or the blog posts, or whatever you can manage. I will look forward to it.

    1. @Kristina, I love the idea of your kids in great-grandmother’s costume jewelry. In the farm town. And if you don’t like navy, perhaps it doesn’t look good with your coloring, how do you feel about a dusty green;)?

  22. Add to chapter 8: Encourage your child to excel in a minor sport. It worked for our sons. (All I ask is that you give me “uncopyrighting” credit.)

    1. @MJ, Full credit. I have to say, I think that’s the chapter which would be the most controversial…

  23. The book on inheritance that I recommend till you write your chapter is “The Legacy of Inherited Wealth: Interviews with Heirs” by Barbara Blouin and Katherine Gibson, available through Amazon.

    1. @Duchesse, It’s probably too late for me to read the book – unless I write one of my own and need the research. In m life, what’s done is done. But, I thank you for the reference.

  24. Aw, man!
    So sorry, heavens!
    One is ever so disappointed that one cannot order this immediately! You might consider fleshing out that outline, perhaps into full prose form?

  25. I’m curious. You’re not going against an unspoken (but nevertheless understood) rule in the High WASP culture by writing this book?

  26. Lisa, you are hilarious! And I suspect that is NOT a High-WASP quality. Please, write the book.

    My family arrived in the U.S. in 1635, but I suspect we were more of the “household staff” variety that cared for your family. No inheritance, no legacy, but we did raise our girls according to those principles. I’ll let you know when/if my 17-yr old daughter gets into Columbia.

    1. @Mamavalveeta03, High WASP humor is another rule I break here, often. Mine is far too broad:). Good luck with your daughter’s admissions! And it’s very interesting, the question of household staff. I’ve looked at the census, all the staff are Scottish and Irish names.

  27. You can so do this; you owe it to the world. We’ll all support you better than Ali Wentworth.

  28. Lisa,
    I’ve been a lurker on your terrific blog for over a year. You capture the WASP thing so well. I guess I’m a low WASP (whose mother married a Chinese immigrant in the 50’s, gasp). My mom’s ancestors were Pilgrims, upon landing they went straight north from Boston, even without the coin and the privilege they have the ethics, the manners, the understated but quality aesthetics, the patriotism, the farmland, etc. High or low, there are wonderful mores that are part of the WASP-not preppy-culture.
    Good luck!

    1. @Stephanie, Farmland, I think, counts. But in the end, as far as I’m concerned of course anyone who wants to be one is one. ;). And your mother was brave, and showing one of the best principles of true High WASPdom – open-mindedness. And thank you for delurking and saying hello. I really appreciate it.

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