(Illustration: Jack Richardson)

What the Men Who Love My Boyfriend Taught Me About Social Hierarchy

Living in a remote mountain town made him irresistible to curious dudes—and got me wondering why we assign so much importance to where people are from

Jack Richardson

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The Alberta chair at Wolf Creek ski area is not a high-speed lift, and it moves particularly slowly when you are sandwiched between two men who are talking over your face. I know this, unfortunately, because I found myself in this very position on what was otherwise a glorious 19-inch powder day this past February.

It started innocently enough, when a trim, stubbly, 40-something man got on the lift with us. “Where you guys from?” he asked.  

“I live in Golden,” I said.

“I live in Silverton,” said Dan, the guy I’d recently begun dating.

Our companion’s eyes lit up with sudden interest, like those of a dog that’s been dozing off and catches a flash of squirrelly movement. “Silverton!” he exclaimed, obviously recognizing the name of the remote town a few hours away in the San Juan Mountains. Home to Colorado’s famous experts-only, heli- and lift-served ski area, the town of Silverton is synonymous with steep skiing, mountaineering, and some of the deadliest avalanche conditions in the U.S.

Dudes love this, I guess. What followed was a string of questions in rapid-fire succession: What brought you to Silverton? (“The skiing.”) But what do you do for work? (“I’m a journalist.”) Who do you write for? (“Right now I’m working on a story for Outside.”) Do you ski the mountain every day?” (“No, I mostly ski backcountry.”) 

However unintentional, each response only had the effect of making the guy more googly-eyed. Dan made sincere attempts to shoehorn me back into the conversation—“Gloria’s a journalist too! She’s an editor for Outside”—but I was as good as invisible. Our friend leaned halfway out of his seat to more effectively talk over me. Eventually I settled in, staring off in a dissociative state as he peppered Dan with questions about skiing, avalanches, and … I’m not sure. I stopped listening. 

Some version of this interaction repeated itself numerous times throughout the day, and over the course of the next several weeks as Dan and I got to know one another in various new settings: on the trail while we were riding mountain bikes, around a campfire at a friend’s birthday. One time, after a long exchange on a ridge while we were backcountry skiing, a guy from Boulder even asked Dan for his phone number, so they could stay in touch. 

So men love my boyfriend, which I find equal parts amusing and bemusing because, no offense to Dan, he isn’t exactly man-crush material. I fell for him because he brought me coffee in bed and wrote perfect, whimsical sentences. But these traits appeal to a very specific audience. Otherwise, he’s five-foot-seven, he walks around carrying a New Yorker tote, and his favorite jacket is a dingy yellow puffy he found in a box of free stuff. As soon as he tells people he lives in Silverton, though, he’s cast in an irresistible halo of secondhand mystique. 

I’ve often joked that in mountain communities, your social standing roughly correlates with the elevation you live at. In Colorado, for example, people who live in Silverton (elevation: 9,318 feet) look down on people who live in neighboring Durango (6,522 feet). They call them “Durangutans.” The Durangutans look down on the city slickers in Denver (5,280 feet). And all Coloradans, even those on the lowly, wannabe Front Range, look down on flatlanders, especially Texans and Californians. (I’m from California, so I’m not being mean here, just stating facts.) When Dan moved from Massachusetts to Vermont for college, the lifelong Vermonters also called him a flatlander, he says, “because, my state was, I dunno, 500 feet lower.” 

I thought this was a mountain thing. But Joe Magee, professor of organizational behavior at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says it’s probably just a human thing. “I’m from a wealthy suburb of Detroit,” he says. “Growing up, when we were traveling I’d hear my parents say we were from Detroit, which wasn’t true, but they were trying to claim some credibility and standing with an area that people were more intrigued by than this suburb. My wife just found out a guy she works with who always says he’s from Queens, isn’t from Queens. He’s from an outer suburb of Long Island.” 

Magee has spent a lot of time researching the psychology of hierarchies and social status within groups, and he says that when we do this, we’re trying to claim a status that’s associated with a place. “All status is,” he explains, “is people showing you some respect and deference because you possess some trait or attribute that has value to the person you’re interacting with.” Almost every interaction we have, he says, includes micro- or macro- deferences that establish some sort of hierarchy between the individuals. My joke about social standing and elevation within mountain communities is interesting, he muses, “because hierarchies are vertical and mountains are vertical.” 

Of course, Magee can’t say for sure what’s happening during these interactions, but he has a guess. “The local culture is going to get very precise about what is valued,” he says. “I think there’s this narrative of rugged individualism that’s been spun forever about the mountain states.” He says it’s really not surprising, then, that the quality of toughness, as demonstrated by the ability to survive in a harsher environment, has social currency out here. 

Perhaps it’s also not surprising that, in communities with such strong connections to the natural environment, we define who we are by where we live or where we’re from. There’s actually a term for this: place identity. It was coined in the 1970s by environmental psychologists who argued that “the subjective sense of self is defined and expressed not simply by one’s relationship to other people, but also by one’s relationships to the various physical settings that define and structure day-to-day life.” Research around place identity even supports my theory about elevation. In a 2011 study conducted in West Virginia, researchers found that the higher in elevation a subject lived, the more likely they were to identify as Appalachian. Environment and geography shape our view of ourselves, as well as the groups we believe we belong to. This is known as social identity. Being someone who lives in Silverton is a social identity. Being someone who lives in Golden is a social identity, too—just not as good.

Of course, identifying as part of a group can also have the consequence, often unintended, of creating an “us versus them” mentality, says Dolly Chugh, a psychologist and associate professor at NYU, who authored the book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. “We want to create this in-group, the group I’m part of; and the out-group, the group I’m not part of,” she says. 

You can see playful examples of this in the form of mountain-town rivalries. In certain businesses in downtown Golden, bumper stickers read: DON’T BOULDER MY GOLDEN. If you live in Aspen, VAIL SUCKS. And one of my favorites, spotted in Jackson Hole: BET YOU WERE COOL IN COLORADO.

These stickers mostly make me chuckle. But we do have another word for making snap judgements about people based on a single piece of information: stereotyping. And while stereotypes can work in your favor, such as in Dan’s case, they also have toxic side-effects: Bias. Tribalism. Othering. I remember an evening several years ago, when I was sitting in a passenger van on a work trip in front of a female coworker who was talking to a male pro athlete. She and I did not get along. The athlete lived in Park City. He asked her where she was from, and she told him Boulder, where she knew I too had lived from 2011 to 2014. “I grew up there, though,” she added, “while it was still cool. Before all the Californians moved in.” They laughed, and I pretended not to hear her even though she spoke directly to the back of my head, where a heat was now building. She spoke as if being born and raised in Boulder made her an inherently better person, as if it were something she had earned instead of something she had inherited. Her superficial distinction nonetheless wielded a substantive power: to cleave away someone else’s belonging with a single, easy incision. 

Things are going well with Dan. Over the next few months we took turns making the six-hour drive between Silverton and Golden, never spending even two weeks apart. There were many things we had in common, but one of the experiences we connected over early on was a shared love for this part of the country, a home we’d both adopted in adulthood, or perhaps a home we felt had adopted us. Dan had lived in Alaska and New Mexico in his twenties, working at newspapers before moving back East for what he thought might be a short break. I had moved to Colorado to ski, then moved to the East Coast for a job. We had both stayed away longer than we’d planned and wondered if we’d ever make it back. We’d both cried when we’d returned, tears of joy and relief. We talked about how every place you live shapes who you become, but some feel as if they were a part of you before you’d ever even been. These places are home, and that cannot be taken away—not by a stranger on a chairlift or a mean girl in a van.

So, maybe there’s some merit to this idea that where you live says something about who you are. But as far as Dan and I go, it doesn’t really matter anymore. In May, he packed all his things into his rattly Subaru Outback and moved in with me in Golden. Now he’s just another city slicker driving to the mountains from the Front Range. Maybe you’ll run into us on a chairlift on some glorious, knee-deep powder day. If you do, you probably won’t remember.

Lead Illustration: Jack Richardson