Psychologists agree: Snobbery is not a question of tastes—no matter how old-fashioned or expensive. What makes someone a snob is the tendency to look down on others and treat them with condescension, says Leon Seltzer, a clinical psychologist in Del Mar, California.
Snobbery comes from the inside out; it’s about how you view other people. It’s one thing to spend your Saturdays at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, quite another to look down on the people at the multiplex around the corner.
At its most extreme, snobbery can be a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, a condition marked by grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a preoccupation with power and prestige. But unlike the garden-variety snob, narcissists have impaired relationships because they’re unable to enter anyone else’s world.
“People who hold important positions in society are commonly labelled “somebodies,” and their inverse “nobodies”-both of which are, of course, nonsensical descriptors, for we are all, by necessity, individuals with distinct identities and comparable claims on existence. Such words are nevertheless an apt vehicle for conveying the disparate treatment accorded to different groups.” – Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety
What drives someone to treat others as inferior? Conventional wisdom holds that overtly snobbish behaviour is born of insecurity. But research shows that snobs have no doubts about themselves; they genuinely believe they’re better than others, says John Mayer, a psychologist at the University of New Hampshire. Far from being insecure, they have higher self-esteem than others—though they’re unusually sensitive to criticism and rejection.
Snobbery may also be tied to valuing hierarchy and a drive to belong to the better group, which is distinguished from hoi polloi. People who behave snobbishly, says Ilan Shrira, a psychologist at the University of Florida, may exhibit “high social dominance orientation”—a belief that some groups of people are innately superior to others and should therefore hold more power in society. Snobs are more likely to prefer a stratified class system to an egalitarian one that allows for greater social mobility, explains Shrira. People who are snobby do not like to rub elbows with those they believe are their inferiors, he says.
Hyacinth: (to the postman) “I hope that’s a first-class stamp. I object to having second-class stamps thrust through my letterbox. I should have thought postmen would be trained to recognise first-class stamp houses.” – Clarke. R. (1993) Keeping Up Appearances
To tell if a superior demeanour indicates a more serious underlying problem, look out for all the characteristics listed below that make up a Hyacinth Bucket-like (pronounced “Bouquet”) personality:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance and the need to be recognized by others as superior;
- A belief that one should associate oneself only with other special or high-status people or institutions;
- A lack of empathy.
Taken too far, snobbery can be isolating and lead to what Ilan Shrira calls the Seinfeld effect, referring to the television character’s tendency to latch on to any possible reason to break up with someone. “The problem arises when you’re unable to form satisfying relationships or achieve other goals,” he says. Someone who’s unable to relate to people unless they share identical taste in books, film, music, wine, and art may have a hard time finding a partner who meets their exacting qualifications.