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Everybody hates this anecdote from the new David Brooks column:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”
But this seems pretty reasonable to me.
Menus, in particular, have gotten much more intricate over the course of my lifetime. Dave Barry talks somewhere about how when he was a kid the typical fine dining menu consisted of:
Perhaps the disbelief about Brooks’ column is that Italian words are pretty easy for Americans to more or less pronounce, while the formerly dominant French cuisine words were more difficult.
In general, a lot of commercial design is specifically about making a target demographic feel welcome and making others feel uncomfortable. For example, when I first walked in a Chipotle a decade ago, it was instantly obvious that a lot of thought had gone into making middle-aged MBAs like myself feel right at home: the typeface of the menu behind the counter was familiar from upscale magazines, the unfinished industrial space looked like the state of the art remade warehouse that the marketing research firm where I worked had moved into in 1984 (it was so avant garde at the time that for the first few years visitors kept asking “So, uh, when is it going to be finished?”), and they were playing my favorite New Order song from 1981. The food … eh … but that’s not the point, the point was to make people like me feel comfortable, which involves making people not like me feel uncomfortable.
Personally, I’m generally comfortable at the high end of the social scale, especially if alcohol is available. I’m trying to think of a time when I wasn’t … OK, when former NSA director William Odom and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher got into a heated ten minute argument over German reunification about three feet from my dinner table. I felt like David Brooks’ lunch guest: uh-oh, I don’t understand this, I hope there’s not going to be a quiz, I am way out of my league.
I do get nervous in expensive situations. A few years ago I drove LA to Manhattan in 93 hours and wound up in a rooftop bar where I ordered three drinks. While waiting for them, frazzled by exhaustion, I became scared by how big the bill would be? $225? I became terrified that I had stumbled into a bar for celebrities. Granted, the aged guy and the fat guy at the next table didn’t look like celebrities, but then … I became convinced that they were Tim Allen and Kevin James.
Fortunately, the waitress arrived with the bill: $30! Tim Allen and Kevin James immediately dissolved into people who barely looked like them.
Anyway, restaurants are intended to appeal to some people and intimidate others.