The social hierarchy I learned from the men who love my boyfriend

The Alberta chair at Wolf Creek isn’t a fast lift, and it travels even slower when you’re trapped between two men who are talking over your shoulder. Unfortunately, I know this because, on what was otherwise a beautiful 19-inch snow day in February, I found myself in this very situation.

It all started innocently enough when a trim, stubbly 40-something man joined us in the elevator. He inquired, “Where are you people from?”

I answered, “I reside in Golden.”

Dan, the guy I’d just started dating, added, “I live in Silverton.”

Our companion’s eyes glowed with unexpected curiosity, like a dog waking up from a nap and catching a glimpse of squirrelly movement. “Silverton!” he cried, clearly remembering the name of the distant town in the San Juan Mountains a few hours away. The town of Silverton is known for steep skiing, mountaineering, and some of the deadliest avalanche conditions in the United States. It is home to Colorado’s famous experts-only, heli- and lift-served ski area.

I’m guessing this is popular among men. Then came a barrage of questions, one after the other, in rapid succession: What brought you to Silverton in the first place? (“It’s the skiing.”) However, what do you do for a living? (“I’m a reporter.”) For whom do you write? (“Right now, I’m working on an Outside storey.”) “Do you go up to the mountain every day to ski?” (“No, I like backcountry skiing.”)

Each reaction, however unintended, just served to make the guy more googly-eyed. Dan made serious efforts to reintroduce me into the discourse, saying, “Gloria’s a journalist, too!” She works as an editor for Outside,” yet I was practically invisible. To talk over me more efficiently, our guy leaned partly out of his seat. I eventually settled in, staring off into space in a dissociative condition as he interrogated Dan about skiing, avalanches, and… I’m not certain. I turned off the radio.

Some variation of this interaction occurred several times throughout the day and over the next few weeks as Dan and I grew to know one another in new settings: on the trail while mountain biking, around a campfire at a friend’s birthday party. After a lengthy conversation on a ridge while backcountry skiing, a Boulder resident even requested Dan for his phone number so they could keep in touch.

Men seem to like my partner, which I find both hilarious and perplexing because, no offence to Dan, he’s not exactly man-crush material. He piqued my interest by bringing me coffee in bed and writing wonderful, quirky words. However, these characteristics appeal to a very select group of people. He’s five-foot-seven, carries a New Yorker tote, and his favourite jacket is a faded yellow puffy that he found in a crate of free stuff. He’s enveloped in an alluring halo of secondhand mysticism as soon as he tells folks he lives in Silverton.

I’ve frequently joked that in mountain villages, your social status is roughly proportional to your elevation. People in Silverton, Colorado (elevation: 9,318 feet), for example, look down on those who live in Durango, Colorado (6,522 feet). They’re known as “Durangutans.” The Denver city slickers are looked down upon by the Durangutans (5,280 feet). Flatlanders, particularly Texans and Californians, are looked down upon by all Coloradans, even those on the humble, want tobe Front Range. (I’m from California, so I’m not trying to be cruel; I’m only reporting facts.) “Because, I dunno, 500 feet lower,” Dan says, when he relocated from Massachusetts to Vermont for college, lifelong Vermonters dubbed him a flatlander.

I was under the impression that this was a mountain-related issue. But, according to Joe Magee, an organisational behaviour professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, it’s most likely just a human thing. He explains, “I’m from a rich Detroit suburb.” “When I was a kid, I used to hear my parents pretend that we were from Detroit when we were on vacation, which wasn’t true, but they were attempting to establish some credibility and standing with a location that people were more interested in than this suburb. My wife recently discovered that a man she works with, who constantly claims to be from Queens, isn’t. He hails from a Long Island enclave.”

Magee has spent a lot of time studying the psychology of social hierarchies and social status inside groups, and he believes that when we do this, we’re attempting to claim a status that’s tied to a location. “All status is people paying you some respect and deference because you have some quality or attribute that is valuable to the person you’re engaging with,” he continues. He claims that almost every encounter we have has micro- or macro-deferences that build a hierarchy between the persons. “Because hierarchies are vertical and mountains are vertical,” he thinks, “my joke about social standing and elevation within mountain cultures is interesting.”

Magee can’t say for sure what’s going on during these encounters, but he has an idea. “What is valued in the local culture will become quite precise,” he predicts. “I believe the mountain states have for a long time been associated with rugged individualism.” It’s not surprising, then, that toughness, as evidenced by the capacity to exist in a harsher environment, has social currency out here, according to him.

It’s maybe not strange, however, that in societies with such strong linkages to the natural world, we define ourselves by where we live or where we came from. There’s a phrase for this: location identity. Environmental psychologists coined the term in the 1970s, arguing that “the subjective sense of self is formed and expressed not just by one’s relationships with other people, but also by one’s relationships with the different physical settings that define and structure day-to-day life.” My theory regarding elevation is backed up by research on place identity. Researchers in West Virginia discovered that the higher a person resided in elevation, the more likely they were to identify as Appalachian. Our perceptions of ourselves, as well as the organisations we believe we belong to, are shaped by our surroundings and location. This is referred to as “social identity.” It is a social identity to be a Silverton resident. Being a Golden resident has its own social identity—just it’s not as good.

Of course, belonging to a group can have the unintended consequence of establishing a “us versus them” mentality, according to Dolly Chugh, a psychologist and associate professor at NYU who wrote The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. “We want to establish this in-group, which I am a part of, and this out-group, which I am not,” she explains.

Mountain-town rivalries provide amusing examples of this. DON’T BOULDER MY GOLDEN bumper stickers can be found in some downtown Golden shops. VAIL SUCKS if you live in Aspen. And, spotted in Jackson Hole, one of my favourites: BET YOU WERE COOL IN COLORADO.

The majority of these stickers made me laugh. However, making quick judgments about people based on a single piece of information is known as stereotyping. While preconceptions can work in your favour, as they did for Dan, they also have negative consequences: Bias. Tribalism. Othering. I recall sitting in a passenger vehicle on a work trip several years ago in front of a female coworker who was conversing with a male pro athlete. I didn’t get along with her. Park City was the athlete’s home. He inquired about her origins, and she informed him that she was from Boulder, where she knew I had also resided from 2011 to 2014. “However, I grew up there when it was still cool,” she continued. Prior to the arrival of all the Californians.” They laughed, and I feigned not to hear her, despite the fact that she was speaking straight to the back of my head, which was beginning to heat up. She spoke as if being born and raised in Boulder made her a better person by default, as if it was something she earned rather than inherited. Despite her superficial distinctiveness, she wielded a substantial power: the ability to slice away someone else’s belongings with a single, simple cut.

With Dan, things are going great. We took turns driving the six-hour distance between Silverton and Golden over the next four months, never spending more than two weeks apart. There were many things we shared, but one of the first things we talked about was our shared affection for this part of the country, a place we’d both adopted as adults, or perhaps a place we thought had adopted us. Dan had spent his twenties working at newspapers in Alaska and New Mexico before returning to the East for what he thought would be a brief respite. I’d gone to Colorado for skiing and later to the East Coast for work. We’d both gone longer than we’d anticipated and were beginning to wonder if we’d ever return. We’d both shed tears of delight as relief when we got home. We discussed how every location you live impacts who you become, yet certain places feel as though they were a part of you even before you were born. These places are home, and a stranger on a chairlift or a cruel girl in a van can’t take that away.

So, maybe this idea that where you live tells something about who you are has some merit. But, as far as Dan and I are concerned, it doesn’t really matter. He put his belongings into his squeaky Subaru Outback and moved in with me in Golden in May. He’s now just another city slicker driving up the Front Range to the mountains. Perhaps you’ll see us on a chairlift on one of those magnificent, knee-deep snow days. If you do, you’re unlikely to recall it.

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