Who’s sophisticated, anyway?

Barbara Moon April 20 1963

Who’s sophisticated, anyway?

Barbara Moon April 20 1963

Who’s sophisticated, anyway?

Anyone who uses the word “sophisticated” — which is nearly everyone these days — has his own meaning. But surely there are some rides for knowing what’s In and what’s Out this year. Here’s one writer’s attempt to find them

Barbara Moon

NOT LONG AGO a Frenchwoman remarked to me that, though both her countrymen and the British thought “sophisticate” was a verb, Canadians seemed to use it as a noun. Furthermore, the word and its derivatives seemed to have a special New World meaning which she didn’t precisely understand except that it had to do with a behavioral scale. The speaker, whoever he was, apparently placed himself on this mysterious scale and then used “unsophisticated” to refer to whatever was below' him and “sophisticated” to refer to whatever was above.. Fie might also use “unsophisticated” to describe what he used to be. though she had never heard anyone claim he w'as going to become, or was. “sophisticated.” At the top of the scale, she gathered, was “the sophisticate” or. more often, “the true sophisticate." but she had never met one or indeed met anyone who said he knew' one. Perhaps, she suggested. he didn’t exist. Perhaps The Sophisticate was a ritual name, like God: a special North American idea of the unattainable.

I’ve been mulling this over ever since and I’m beginning to suspect she’s right. For a start, she’s right about the

special North American sense of the word. The English dictionary 1 consulted gives six meanings for the verb “sophisticate,” starting with “mislead” and working up through “make artificial." to “adulterate.” This, applied to some specific examples of local use I’ve collected. would make Marlene Dietrich the misled grandmother, Montrealers artificial theatregoers and Labatt’s Extra Stock the adulterated ale. Well, Em cheating a bit: the dictionary also gives “disillusioned” as the meaning of the past participle, but this is clearly not much more appropriate.

People who like these things aren’t sophisticated. Right?...

... But are you sophisticated if you like or have things ?

It also seems true that the word, as used hereabouts, is more often linked with dining, drink, multilingualism, tabletalk, the arts, the aristocracy, etiquette and the finer, more gracious-type living, which are not North American long suits, than with big industry, technology, TV, social work, Calvinism, community projects and the middle class, which are. I have uncovered no reference anywhere to sophisticated little PTA meetings. This — and a frequency of wistful occurrence in conversation and print that is startling once you’re alerted to it — suggests that to North Americans sophistication is a pretty exotic, even alien, commodity, if not completely out of this world.

But it is my French friend’s idea of a scale that most interests me. According to Webster's, which is a fairly hip New World dictionary, when we use “sophisticated'' of persons, we mean “made wise, esp. worldly-wise through experience, culti" a’ion, disillusionment, detachment from popular or traditional conceptions, or the like.” Just knocking around and getting older would seem to me to take care of a lot of this, which would make the scale no more mysterious than the nearest calendar. And indeed it strikes me that I've never heard anyone use the term of anyone who was younger than himself. (Or at least anyone of the same sex.) On the other hand I’ve never heard anvone claim that those nonagenarian Boer War survivors who turn up in the newspapers from time to time had any particular corner on sophistication, either.

No, there’s obviously more to it than that and I’ve been trying to find out what.

Specifically, I’ve been trying to find out what kinds of things besides age we mark people on to get their sophistication rating. I have proceeded by reading, by asking around and also by consulting myself quite a lot since that seemed to save time. Frankly, whenever I asked someone who or what he thought was sophisticated, he wculd flash back, “What do you mean by sophisticated?” Then I would say that’s what I was trying to find out, what did he think it meant, and the whole thing would degenerate into semantics for half an hour.

F.ventually I found I could shorten the process by making my first question, “Who do you think is sophisticated looking?” Apparently this required less commitment, because most people would hazard an answer. Then, taking advantage of the open-door principle of crossexamination. I could ask them why and they would find it was too late to take cover in definitions. Some of them seemed to find it easier to think of people who were not sophisticated-looking and in these cases, instead of asking why, I asked why not.

The results of this part of my research are as follows: (1) Red hair is not sophisticated. (2) Dimples arc not sophisticated. (3) Pug noses are not sophisticated. (4) Dandruff and pimples are definitely not sophisticated (5) Baldness and/or freckles are almost never sophisticated but there are exceptions, as (from one respondent): “Brigadier James Roberts, deputy minister of trade and commerce, is all bald in the most sophisticated way and makes men with hair look simian.” (6) Sophisticatedlooking women must be at least ten pounds under chart weight, as (from another respondent): “Think of Dietrich forty pounds heavier and you’ll see what I mean.” (7) Sophisticated-looking men must be at least ten pounds under chart weight or else enormously over it, in the G. K. Chesterton and Gilbert Harding tradition. (8) It is hard to seem sophisticated if you have a spouse in evidence and almost impossible if you have highly visible children. (I don’t understand this but a significant number of respondents mentioned it.) (9) Age limits at the upper end are not fixed but the youngest person described to me as sophisticated-looking was a high school senior of seventeen, named by a thirteenyear-old. Below thirteen the word did not seem to provoke a response.

A great many other physical requirements or anti-requirements were mentioned by various people but they struck me as specialized and in any case got only one vote apiece.

It all depends on where you fit into the Sophistication Scale

In the meantime I had been checking use of the various forms of the word in conversation and print and had established at least the general areas of behavior to which it was applied. They were overwhelmingly social or cultural. As I indicated earlier I found sophisticated used in connection with such things as food, drink, languages, conversation, manners and the arts. Also travel, fashion and the intellect.

In the case of the intellect, though, sophistication seemed to represent a collateral line leading to wit and subtlety rather than the great main stream rolling on towards brilliance, genius and the 165 IQ. After making some inquiries I concluded that 101 to 120 IQ would do for the “wise, esp. worldly-wise” component.

All right then, this was to be a cultural-social or “culsoc” scale. All this time I had been casting about for some method of gathering examples of sophisticated behavior and taste so I could start grading them and marking them in on the scale. For a while I thought it was hopeless. People simply would not specify. They would say things like. “Well. I suppose you’d have to know a lot about art,” but when I pressed them for the name of even one artist it would be sophisticated to like they would go off into speeches about how Rita Retendre was In right now but Jack Reppen, though a success with dealers and art galleries, was hopelessly Out. On the one occasion when I pushed this farther, asking. “Does that mean it would be more sophisticated to like Letendre than Reppen?” the respondent muttered darkly, “Some people seem to think so,” and walked off. This is when I started interviewing myself.

After a while I came up with a technique that seemed to be useful. If I let my mind go limp and then presented it with a roll call of people 1 knew. I could surprise it into a quick automatic judgment: Sophisticated or Not Sophisticated. Then if I went back and worried at it I'd usually uncover something they'd done or said that had tipped the scale. A few examples will give you the idea: Radio pioneer Andrew Allan is sophisticated because he collects rare books and was torpedoed in the Athenia with actress Judith Evelyn. Pierre Berton isn’t sophisticated because when he was invited to a book shower for TV producer Ross McLean before McLean's recent marriage he gave his own book. McLean is more sophisticated because he’s politer, but he hugs his wife in public. Newspaperman and TV moderator Charles Templeton isn’t sophisticated because he bounces on the diving board until everyone's looking before he goes into the pool. Nathan Cohen isn't sophisticated because he misses no chance to repeat in his own column what people say about him elsewhere. Actress Toby Robins isn't sophisticated because she has dimples and is often photographed with her children. (These points have already been referred to.) Montreal man-abouttown John Turner is pretty sophisticated because he wants to make a career out of politics instead of out of the fact that he danced with Princess Margaret. Norman Robertson, the external affairs undersecretary, seems sophisticated partly because all diplomats seem sophisticated and partly because he wears a cloak and one of those felt hats that are twenty years old and turned down all the way round. Alan Jarvis looks very sophisticated but he sprays his throat in the TV studio just before he goes on camera.

Most of my rulings seemed to be antisophistication guides or what I thought might be called Dead Giveaways. I listed them and penciled in, halfway up the scale, It is Unsophisticated To: (1) butter your bread in mid-air; (2) eat with your left arm on the table and your left hand upraised genteelly by your plate like a maestro calling for a pizzicato; (3) have nothing wearable in your wardrobe but clothes less than four years old (for women); (4) wear white shirts or shirts with French cuffs anil cuff links in the daytime, or appear in shirt sleeves with the sleeves left down and buttoned ( for men); (5) have a high voice (men anil women); (6) lie about your age; (7) have corns or bunions; (8) boast; (9) preen; (10) giggle; (II) cuddle in public; (12) wear Tabu. Perhaps I ought to make it plain that there are lots of other things I don’t like but these are the only ones I am perfectly sure a sophisticated person wouldn’t do. For example, I should automatically have added (13) wear clipon dress tics, except that 1 had recently met a very smooth Londoner who called any other kind “a bloody affectation” and “a waste of time” whereat I had decided to keep an open mind.

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Clip-on dress ties? ”1 recently met a smooth Londoner who called any other kind affected”

Working out and double-checking this short list had taken all my spare time for two weeks and it was clear that at this rate the job was going to take forever. The best I could manage. I now saw, was a crude pilot study — a few calibrations entered on the scale as a guide to later, more qualified, students of the subject.

Since then I have been interviewing myself like mad and also, using basically the same roll-call technique, anyone else who would hold still for it. I think I can now rough in one or two of the more important features.

First of all there’s the fact, which will undoubtedly continue to prove awkward to researchers, that sophistication is not so much a scale as a process — or rather two processes. One, as I glimpsed right at the outset, is involved with the simple passage of time. The other is harder to characterize but has something to do with style and what I believe the sociologists call Upward Mobility. Together they ensure — you'll see how complicated this can get — that one's idea of sophistication keeps becoming more sophisticated.

The aging-sophisticating process is relatively easy to illustrate as follows. At fourteen the only thing I myself ever explicitly thought of as sophisticated was smoking. Things like evening dresses with little boleros and puffed sleeves were corny. Things like Deanna Durbin singing Always in a trench coat under a prop street lamp were glamorous which, come to think of it. was about what I thought sophisticated meant.

By seventeen I had added the notion of travel, intrigue, suffering, mysterious adventures and iconoclasm to my idea of sophistication. 1 didn't think smoking was either sophisticated or unsophisticated. By now “sophisticated” had a bouquet as distinctive as champagne brut and I used it with utter assurance about the man across from me in Philosophy I-a who was at least twenty-three and an army veteran. He had suave, heavy-lidded eyes and a wolfish smile and he kept very much to himself. But he was rumored to be seeing a divorcée in another city and also to suffer mysterious bouts of pain, as a result of something that had happened to him in the war, which sometimes kept him away from lectures. 1 could never verify either report and certainly he gave no clue the one time he took me out, which was only to the campus coffee shop. As I remember it, his conversation consisted of lazy, courteous questions about myself. I answered as best I could, feeling hopelessly jejune. This was the first and only time I have ever believed myself to be in the presence of a true sophisticate.

There was a girl in my residence whom I also considered quite sophisticated. At eighteen she had already been through an unhappy love affair with a Polish Jew, had read all of Proust in French, had strange milky green eyes in a sullen face, wore Lu Nuit de Noël and shocked and delighted us with her witty disloyalty to all those values we held to be self-evident, such as fair play, chastity, tolerance, liberal humanism, Brahms and her parents, whom she called pupo and maman.

On the other hand I was quite clear in my mind that the stunning suntanned blonde who spent all her vacations in Latin America and had once dated Errol Flynn was not sophisticated. She was a wide-eyed knockout, but she w'as also just a sweet, rather dumb girl. She eventually ran away with a little Chilean maracas-player, 1 believe.

By the time I was through university I had a fairly long and important list of things I believed to be unsophisticated. They included football games, costume parties, off-the-shoulder blouses, book clubs, Tchaikovsky, and being shocked at anything. I no longer thought divorcées, war wounds, Proust and La Nuit de Noël were Unimpeachable Hallmarks of sophistication. The only Unimpeachable Hallmark was poise, which people had who knew everything — or which you could pretend to by looking inscrutable, not letting on you’d never heard of Sheridan Le Fanu or Valpolicella, and bluffing your way through unfamiliar social situations.

I now' think it is unsophisticated to pretend. I also think the following things are not and cannot be sophisticated: suburban living. Hilton hotels, corsages, shrimp cocktail, Rotary, fabrics woven with Lurex thread. Pink Ladies, Baptists, 5BX and 10BX. the Prairies. Christmas cards containing family snapshots, canaries, indoor bowling, rhinestone buttons, budgets, sports cars, the use of middle initials, family outings, colored telephones, Niagara Falls, individual wooden salad bowls, professional interior decoration, all motorcar accessories, any form ot plastic slipcover or carpet guard, and leaving the cellophane on lampshades. Anything else, even Guy Lombardo, can be a quirk of personal taste but these things are unsophisticated of themselves. 1 will undoubtedly add to the list as time goes on.

1 see the aging-sophisticating process I have been trying to describe as the more or less slow compilation of a list of positive characteristics of. and accessories to, sophistication reaching a maximum length: at this point it is quite quickly discarded and a Dead Giveaway list made current: this list undergoes a steady turnover in content and a steady overall growth from then on. After checking with some people 1 know' 1 have assured myself that the timing may vary but I’ve got the process right. The personal lists of hallmarks and giveaways will, of course, vary.

This brings me to the second process which, as I understand it, proceeds from accidents of environment, temperament and innate competitiveness and is what dictates the individual sets of hallmarks and giveaways.

Perhaps the best way to explain it is this: There arc people who consider candlelight, checked tablecloths and wine sophisticated. There are others who consider them neither sophisticated nor unsophisticated. But the point is that there are still others who consider them Dead Giveaways. And others beyond them who consider thinking them Dead Giveaways another kind of Dead Giveaway.

This is where Upward Mobility comes in. I use Upward Mobility rather than Status-Seeking because the status-seeker is trying for a high degree of visibility; the upward-mobile sophisticate is crawling up a narrowing tunnel where only the people directly behind him know' he’s ahead.

If you are at all alert to sophistication, you will have noticed that it is very hard to avoid being an upward-mobile sophisticate since you will already have wondered (a) what you think about checked tablecloths; (b) what is the sophisticated thing to think about checked tablecloths; (c) what is the sophisticated thing to think about people who think checked tablecloths arc sophisticated, etc.: and (d) w'hat people will think of you for thinking what you think about checked tablecloths.

There are two ways to deal with this kind of spiral. One is to devote all your energies to proving that you're not trying to be sophisticated. Another name for this is Counter-InManship. I believe it requires a good deal of thought and research, a steady nerve, superb timing and. it goes without saying, an intimate and explicit knowledge of what is In. From inquiry among my friends 1 can tell you that at the time this was written a Counter-In-Man, or Upward-Mobile sophisticate, would rather die than be mistaken for the kind of man who went to Istanbul last summer: is currently buying art by Rita Letendre; has installed a sauna in his basement: knows what an Ogle is: has his own pool table: has subscriptions to any four of Vie des Arts. Daedalus. The Connoisseur. Antiques. Foreign Affairs. Scientific American. Partisan Review. or the airmail edition of Pravda. the Peking Review or the Manchester Guardian; says the old Joan Crawford movies are classics in their wav: is quietly dumping his library of jazz records and stocking up on the blues: refers casually to Big Bill Broonzy.

(A simple In-Man, currently, would rather die than admit to liking Canadian Art magazine: Florida: champagne; folk-singing; The New Yorker; Boursault cheese; mink; sweetened sherries: Nichols and May; Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools.)

The other thing you can do about the spiral, of course, is say the hell with sophistication and go mountain climbing.