What Makes Snobs Tick?

Who better to write about snobs than a snob himself?

Using that logic, self-proclaimed snob Joseph Epstein who drives a Jaguar S-Type, fathered a Stanford graduate and gets a thrill when he stays at the Plaza Hotel has penned a book on the subject.

Perhaps due to its touchy topic, Snobbery: The American Version, which hit stores this summer, has met with quite a bit of buzz.

"Epstein presents beautifully opinionated epigrams and judgments, sometimes off-base, mostly spot-on and consistently thoughtful and entertaining," proclaims one blurb from Kirkus Reviews. And Time calls the book "an engaging taxonomy of snobbery."

It's the first book dedicated to that very human condition since the 1848 publication of The Book of Snobs by William M. Thackeray.

But today's snobbery is quite different than it was in Thackeray's days, according to Epstein. The circumstances that used to be at the center of snobbery bloodline and lineage are no longer what people rely on to feel superior to one another.

"It was through one's family that one established social dominance. Today, that's the one sort of snobbery that doesn't work," Epstein said in a telephone interview. "A lot of this changed when the old WASP culture became greatly diminished in the late '60s and '70s."

Modern-day snobbery, Epstein argues, revolves around things like fine food and wine, celebrity, name-dropping, one's children's achievements, and being "with it."

"What passes for good taste is at the heart of today's snobbery," he said. "It's always shaky, because taste is a very changeable thing and so often in the eye of the beholder."

He also delves into the sticky question of whether the state of snobbishness is really just a fundamental aspect of being human.

"I think it is. I think we have to fight not being snobs," Epstein said. "Only very significant people are able to fight free of it."

Social psychologist Mark R. Leary, a professor at Wake Forest University, said there are several psychological components to snobbishness.

"A lot of this is an effort to be accepted, particularly by certain groups of people," he said. "It's a social influence tactic. 'I'm trying to show that I'm discerning, intelligent, educated, and refined I'm not just one of the masses.'"

When people convince themselves they are superior to others, it's a way to reduce the anxiety that comes with not feeling up-to-snuff, he added.

"People inflate their self-images in their own minds," Leary said. "It's an artificial way of reaping the emotional benefits of success without really having to be successful."

The other part of it, Leary said, is the human tendency to believe we are better than almost everyone else.

"It's a natural component of human egotism," he said. "Snobbery is just an exaggeration of that."

Insecurity is also behind many snobbish acts or thoughts, Epstein said.

"If we were perfectly comfortable in the world, why would we need to do this?" he wondered.

As for how the pithy book has been received, Snobbery has generated a lot of reader response, according to Epstein.

"It's been amusing and fun, with people telling stories of their own snobbish adventures," he said.

One older gentleman who lives in a Palm Springs condominium wrote to tell Epstein about his attempt to be posh by purchasing a certain car.

"He thought he'd be rather elegant and buy a Lexus, and then there were so many Lexuses in the parking lot that he couldn't find his own," he said. "So he traded it in for an Infiniti."

Epstein is fully aware of the risks associated with authoring a book about snobbery and unabashedly admitting his own haughty tendencies.

"I'm in very great jeopardy of being accused of snobbishness," Epstein said. "I call myself a 'snobographer,' a student of snobbery. I may need a makeover. I may need a mohawk hairdo and a number of tattoos."