It’s easier than it seems and it definitely pays off.
Growing up, I always thought there was something different and, I assumed, better about rich people. For context, one side of my family is poor and one side of my family is squarely middle class. To be clear, when I say “poor,” I don’t mean that some people in my family don’t have savings accounts; I mean that some of them don’t have homes. The other half of my family is more financially stable but they have to work for it, and the luxuries they enjoy are of the bath bomb variety rather than the yacht.
Despite our supposedly progressive society, I don’t think anyone in America gets past kindergarten without developing an awareness of wealth. We see rich people on TV and in movies, and their lives appear to be a fever dream of fancy cars, well-fitting clothes, and Michelin-star Tuesday evening dinners.
So it’s really no surprise that even though I’ve been a devout anti-capitalist since my teen years, I was always curious about the wealthy. What was it like to not worry about money and focus on the finer things in life?
In my 20s, I worked at VIP nightclubs in South Beach (imagine the velvet ropes and magnums of Moet that you’ve seen in music videos). The clubs I worked for were quietly owned by members of the mafia, but the more visible co-owners were wealthy socialites. Being inside the actual rich kids’ club all hours of the day and night gave me behind-the-scenes access to the lives of the obscenely wealthy.
To be fair, it’s irresponsible to generalize — even rich people are subtle, complex creatures — but I learned a lot about the wealthy after observing them in their natural habitat. Cue soft instrumental music and imagine me pointing out, in a charming British whisper (a la David Attenborough), that not all rich people are the same and that they are usually only dangerous if you provoke them.
The first thing I learned about the wealthy is that they mostly assume that everyone they come into contact with is rich, too. Theoretically, they know that poor people exist but it mostly doesn’t occur to them that they could be sharing a room with them. They have probably never knowingly conversed with anyone outside their tax bracket who didn’t clean up after them, so it is actually quite easy to let rich people think that you’re one of them. And, I found, it’s the quickest way to learn to pass.
“Passing” in any context is a fraught concept. But history has taught us that faking it til you make it can be a means for surviving — and sometimes, thriving. Why would I want to pass if I’m so anti-capitalist?
Honestly, I just want to move through the world with more comfort and ease, and want to help my loved ones do the same. I want access to the “good” education and the elite jobs that rich people just get as a natural matter. And of course, I want to be able to exist in rich-people spaces without standing out as some kind of tokenized poverty mascot. I also want to destroy the systems that allow exorbitant wealth to exist, starting my sting operation from the inside. But that’s a topic for another day.
The secret to passing as rich is that there is no secret. Rich people are, more often than not, messy as hell. When the house lights flash on at 4 am, everyone looks the same: desperate, drunk, and every kind of pathetic. Everyone wants their next fix of fun, sex, or blow and they don’t want to go home alone.
Rich people often get what they want by following social rules that the rest of us either aren’t privy to or simply reject. We’re justified in rejecting these rules, by the way. After all, they are based on white supremacy, the heteropatriarchy, and the idea that people who have more material resources are more valuable than those who do not.
I do think it’s worthwhile, however, to learn the rules and follow them just enough that you can pass and dismantle the whole mess — and enrich your own life and provide opportunities for yourself and your community while you’re doing it.
Rule #1: Don’t talk about money
The first rule of the rich is, yes, you guessed it: Don’t talk about being rich. Rich people only talk about money when it belongs to someone else. They don’t tell you how much they have, but they are quick to affiliate themselves with other rich people. It’s as if people are trying to map out the terrain of each other’s net worth by name dropping. Because everyone loves to talk about themselves, you can get around this by asking questions.
You don’t actually have to pretend you’re on a first-name basis with celebrities; you just need to allude that you should be. You can ask things like, “Oh, do you know Apple?” If they do, in fact, know the firstborn child of Goop, they will tell you. If they don’t, they will feel shitty for how not famous they are and you can capitalize this by murmuring sadly, “That’s too bad. I was so hoping to meet her.” If you’re feeling salty, you can add, “Or do they use they, now?” to further emphasize how much more intimate with celebrity and woke you are than your poor rich friend while simultaneously normalizing gender nonconformity.
Rule #2: Be vague
The second rule is to be totally vague about places. If you spend time near a body of water, for example, never name the actual body of water. A lake is always, “THE lake,” whether it’s Lake Erie or Lake Cuomo. The same rule applies to places of education. Never, ever name your college. Everyone knows that if you went to college in the city, it’s Columbia; if it’s “near Boston,” then Harvard. There are only 20 schools that count to rich people and they often don’t know that any others exist, so all you have to do is not explain.
Rule #3: Make assumptions
The third rule is to make massive and ridiculous assumptions about what rich people know about. Unlike when you’re talking to regular people, you can assume that rich people have read the whole of Proust and at least most of Plato. Same goes for art and travel. So if you happen to know about these things, you can talk about them. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they’ll just assume you’re better educated than they are and that’s a win. But if you can’t actually quote Kant, don’t try, though, because rich people are more likely than most to have had the substantial leisure time it requires to speak conversantly about 18th century moral philosophy.
Rule #4: Forget about brand names
Most people who want to hobnob think that their appearance matters more than anything else. In some ways, this is true, but not in the way that you might assume. The truly elite don’t care about brands because literally everything they own is expensive. Seriously, they have no idea how much things cost. Ostentatious logos are for the nouveau riche and, sometimes, the very young. What actually matters is how your clothes fit and whether you look like you take good care of yourself or have people who do it for you. Sure, many rich kids have a slovenly phase, but you can’t cover up glossy hair, good teeth, or a fresh private island tan with a little grime.
Look, I have no actual interest in the trappings of wealth, but I do think that understanding how rich people operate helps me survive capitalism with dignity. Plus, part of my job is being able to talk to people who are at the top of their fields in science and health. As you might imagine, those people often have a fat 401k. They are also busy and I have very little time to waste buttering them up, so I need to be able to signal to them basically immediately that they can trust me. And they can, because unlike most people they talk to, all I want from them is conversation. Oh, and the inevitable demise of capitalism.