Dear Margo: High Society

Margo Howard’s advice

High Society

Dear Margo: I have, as they say, “married up.” My in-laws are in the Social Register, which is all quite foreign to me. They’re lovely to me and aren’t snooty at all — but neither are they unaware of their standing in the communities where they summer and winter. Whenever I am to meet someone new from their circle of acquaintances, my m-i-l always tells me their background. Since I don’t want to ask her, I will ask you: if I ever have to refer to it, is someone’s background considered a provenance or a pedigree? — Muffy (Not Really)

Dear Muff: Well, I think a provenance has to do with origin and most often refers to prior ownership — mostly used when speaking of art. The word “pedigree,” I guess, can be and has been used regarding people, but to me a pedigree has to do with bloodlines of dogs. That said, I have long thought the Social Register to be the American Kennel Club for humans, so maybe “pedigree” is the right word.

If one must use a word for this, I would probably say “lineage.” And “summer” and “winter” as verbs, by the way, definitely came to us from the Social Register crowd, since most of us simply “live” in one place … summer and winter. Your question does remind me of a friend’s mother who was interested in where everyone fit in, and her wonderful question to anyone new was, “And who were you, dear?” — Margo, categorically

Talk Back

Dear Margo: I wanted to add something to the answer you gave to the woman whose cousin came out to her and she felt she fumbled the answer. As a gay man, I still remember vividly the very different reactions my parents had when I came out to them. I was 22 at the time, and my parents had gone through a very messy divorce a few years prior. I’d been “forced” to side with my mother and behaved in a hurtful way toward my father.

To say I was shocked at their different reactions is an understatement. I always thought I was close to my mother. But when she found out, she basically said the following: “You never gave women enough of a chance. Here’s a book on how to change. How could you do this to the family?” Her final comment was: “If this is the life you choose, I can’t have you around your younger brothers.” (They were 8 and 10 at the time.)

My father, on the other hand, was told over the phone, as we were just beginning a relationship again. His comment? “I hope you are safe, because I don’t want anything to happen to you, and I hope you find someone special to spend your life with, because I know it’s not easy to find that.” It’s a testament to how much of an impact their differing responses had, as I still remember all this 25 years later. Your advice was spot on, but I thought I’d share my experience. — Eric in San Diego

Dear Er: Interesting how you bet on the wrong horse. That whole sorry history is your mother’s loss. And so it goes. For the life of me, I cannot understand homophobic thinking. It is like wishing a right-handed child were left-handed. — Margo, normally

Dear Margo: Just a comment on the letter about what to say to someone who’s come out. When my brother told me he was gay (about 35 years ago), I said, “Great! Terrific!” — and then I added in genuine bewilderment, “So what?” His shoulders went down as he relaxed, and he said, “That’s it! Exactly! It should be ‘so what?'” My feeling was, well, he’s my brother and I love him. So what if he’s gay? I just said what I thought, and it was nice to know I got it right! — Vic

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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25 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Ariana says:

    LW#1: Since your husband grew up in that crowd, why didn’t you just ask him?

    LW#2: Unfort. even today there are people that will try to train lefties to be righties. I was on an airplane flight to England when the women across the aisle tried to feed her baby. The baby kept grabbing for the spoon with his left and she would take it out of his hand, put it in his right and say: “No, use your _good_ hand!” I was utterly speechless. I felt really bad for that baby’s future.

    • avatar boud says:

      If you notice, Margo’s comment was about right handed people whose parents wish they were left handed. I think you read the opposite. But yes, that sort of interference is a mistake.

      • avatar John Lee says:

        Being an athlete with high hope for my kids’ success in athletics, same with me…  I have to try to squelch my wish for my kids to be as left-handed as they can be.

        • avatar chuck alien says:

          the beauty of sport… at least baseball, hockey, golf… is that you can switch them around on purpose, and it often is a better option.

          the best combo a kid can be is throws left, hits right. that’s the big bucks right there.

          also, it’s perfect for golf… you get the advantages of hitting “wrong handed” (which are several) while still having access to a wide variety of cheap equipment.

  2. avatar Cindy M says:

    L #1: Beats me. I live in Working Girl World.

    L #2: Yeah, peoples’ reactions can be shocking. Of course it’s your parents referred to; so easy to make presumptions. You find out who your true friends are. But as it’s your mother…I hope she’s apologized and tried mending fences with you.

  3. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1) A MIL  need not be in High Society to brief her DIL on who she’ll be meeting. Be happy your MIL wants to clue you. Even so, there’s a big diff between “you’ll be meeting Myrtle, whose medical doctor son died in prison after an asthma attack, so try to steer clear of conversations about allergies” to comments like “the Emersons are strictly Mayflower, so don’t mention YOUR lineage, especially that your grandfather was a bootlegger.”  It’s attitude that counts. Just because you married up doesn’t mean you should become a snob in training. 

    LW2:) Your dad sounds like a beach, one we’d all like to have. 

    LW3:) Hurray!    

    • avatar hmna says:

      I actually have some ancestors – not quite sure which, other than they were on my mother’s side – that were bootleggers during Prohibition. There went my ticket into high society.

      • avatar Kriss says:

        hmna, that’s only because your bootlegging ancestors didn’t make a lot of money during Prohibition.  if they had then you’d be on that Social Registry along side the Kennedys (who also had bootlegging ancestors during Prohibition)

      • avatar nikkylee says:

        Several of my dad’s great uncles did time as former Purple Gang members. Apparently after release one of them spent a lot of days “looking for a man on a bus” who’d wronged him somehow.

    • avatar avast2006 says:

      re: LW2 – Actually, Dad’s a “peach.” Mom sounds more like a “beach.”

  4. avatar mac13 says:

    LW1: Any idea how your MIL prepares her friends for meeting you? It’s all pretense and puffery, which is OK as long as know that’s what it is. They are no better than you because they are on some registry. It’s like the all the attention given the British royals, its all fun and nice, but they are no better than anyone else. It is what you do with your life now that needs to be remembered.

  5. LW#2: You never know for sure who will be kind and loving about this and who will CHOOSE not to be. Yes, the reaction of family & friends is a choice, but someone’s sexual orientation isn’t. Kudos to all family and friends, especially those who are surprised, who respond with love and kindness. And it isn’t just the LGBT situation. It may be interracial, it may be polyamory, it may be consanguineous… whatever the case, if someone you claim to care about shares who they really are or who they really love with you, be thankful that they want to be that close with you. And if they find love, even if you don’t understand the relationship or the attraction, be happy for them. Not only should you not lose them from your life, but there’s a good chance they may be raising children at some point in their life, whether those children are biologically theirs or not. Do you really want to miss out on your grandkids or your nieces and nephews?

  6. avatar redessa says:

    I’m left handed and I wish more of my children were too (only one is). I fail to see how this is an analogous to homophobia outside of the general idea that parents like seeing parts of themselves in their kids.

    • avatar John Lee says:

      That’s because you fail to see that there are genetic components to both and that those traits are innate.

      • avatar redessa says:

        What makes you think I don’t know genetics are involved? I didn’t try to force any of my kids into left-handedness. I just thought it would be kind of nice if they shared that relatively unique (genetic) trait with me.

        What I don’t “get” or maybe more correctly, like about Margo’s analogy is that she seems to be equating the idea of wanting a left-handed child to be something negative – as if it’s something no one could ever possibly want and is therefor a completely foreign concept. I was pointing out that that’s not the case.

        It would have made more sense to me if she’d stated it the other way around because people do, in fact, sometimes try to make their left-handed kids be right handed. My own grandmother thought my parents should do that with me. They did not because it wasn’t who I am. Trying to change a gay child into a straight child is, of course, equally absurd.

        • avatar bamabob says:

          I think you’re being oversensitive and misinterpreting Margo’s comment. My take on it was “homophobia is analogous to thinking your child chooses which hand will be his dominant hand, and that it can be changed by force of will.” which hand–left or right–is irrelevant to the analogy. I don’t see how saying a parent wanting a right handed child to be left handed is insulting to lefties anymore than saying a homophobic parent wanting a gay child to be straight is insulting to heterosexuals. one isn’t better or worse than the other, they’re just different.

        • avatar chuck alien says:

          she is not saying there is anything inherently wrong with being left handed.

          she saying it’s ridiculous to “want” your child to be something they have no control over. why would any parent care what their child’s dominant hand was?

          surely, even though you wanted your child to be lefty… you realize that you wanting that is ridiculously silly, and all about some hangup you have… and has nothing to do with the kid or reality. right?

  7. avatar shazzanorth says:

    redessa – Margo was saying that you are born with a certain “handedness” just as you are born with a sexual orientation.

  8. avatar Cora Leland says:

    I attend parties where I am one of the few heterosexual persons there.  I am often suprised by some of the odd things said by other persons in minority at these events.  They remind me of things that white folk used to say when they first started to attend majority Black events.  The comments aren’t usually offensive, just inappropriate and are often met with an eye roll or raised eyebrow from someone not in the commentor’s line of sight.  Hopefully when these situations become more mainstream for the straight community, things won’t be so awkward.  One can hope….

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to hear hurtful things from family members…well, considering some of my siblings, maybe I can.  You can chose your friends but not your relatives.  Sigh!  

  9. avatar Mjit RaindancerStahl says:

    I thought Margo was just trying to point out the ridiculous-ness of wishing your child was something he or she isn’t, by equating the importance of sexual orientation with hand dominance — it only matters when you’re planing the seating arrangement at your dinner party. The left-handed eater sits at the end of the table so he’s not knocking elbows with the righties, and don’t sit the gay man next to the man-hungry female cousin who can’t take a hint unless it’s wrapped around a clue-brick.

  10. avatar Brooke Schubert says:

    LW#1-This reminds me of a time I was on a business trip to Charleston, SC.  I was introduced to the opposing attorney who gave me his family history and then asked me in his haughtiest drawl, “And who are your people, Miss?”  I remember being stunned and finally said, “My people?  Well, I’m a farm kid from Iowa, but now I’m with the comany that’s making your client do the right thing for once.”  He shut up real fast.  Years later, I still get a giggle over that whole ‘who are your people?’ demand.

    LW#2-I had a friend tell me he was gay a bit nervously and I think I said something along the lines of, “great.  I’m straight, in case you were wondering.”  He laughed.  It’s just not a big deal in my book.

  11. avatar AOT says:

    LW1 – You MIL is treating you as if you, too, had been on the social register from birth. The socially prominent do watch each others’ backs and protect each other from social climbers. Also, the info can help you avoid social blunders. Your MIL sounds like a nice woman.

  12. avatar selket_shula says:

    LW#1: Re: “I have long thought the Social Register to be the American Kennel Club for humans,” THANK YOU Margo, for categorizing this bastion of social discrimination so succinctly! The AKC is not a measure of how good of a pet a dog is, just as the Social Register is not a measure of how good of a person a human is.