How to deal with a one-upper


You buy a rowboat and your neighbor buys a yacht. Buy a scooter, he buys a Harley. Buy a string of pearls, she buys one of rubies. Your oldest gets into Northwestern, theirs has to apply to MIT.

Keeping up with one-uppers is a hopeless quest, unless you have the money to spend them into oblivion. However, there are some easy strategies to stay in the game without bankrupting your great-great-great-grandchildren. The key is a cognitive shift. Change the framing of the contest and watch the one-upper gasp for air like a tetra on the living room carpet.

1. Go green. This can turn the contest upside-down. Suddenly, the scooter beats the Harley like paper covers rock. Bottled water inspires scorn, and your choice to vacation at a nearby lake makes his Alpine adventure look criminal.

2. Go intellectual. Buy a tweed sweater, a pipe, strew the living room with Thomas Pynchon novels and Phillip Glass CDs. Buy a Volvo wagon, or, better yet, an ancient VW Vanagon. Style your hair with a leaf blower and wear patchouli oil. What would seem frumpy and discreditable in an ordinary person will be taken as confirmation of your acumen. The one-upper's clean, orderly existence, by contrast, will seem like the product of a little mind.

3. Go charitiholic. Adopt causes. Hold fund-raisers in your back yard, sign painting parties in your garage. Festoon your car with political stickers and religiously-ambiguous declarations. The austere property of the one-upper will cause them to appear callous and insular by comparison.

4. Go Brady Bunch. Open up your abode to your children's friends, encourage them to make it their second home. Create kid-buzz, and the one-uppers will watch with envy, wishing they could score a little chaos themselves.

5. Go reverse-snob. When the one-upper flaunts her new Prada bag, trump her with a used one you picked up at a tenth the price in a second-hand store. Counter a story about his haute cuisine discovery with a rant about the bodega you found in a part of town where you have to tip the gangs to watch your car. How could their sailboat cruise stack up against your working vacation on a local beet farm?

One-upping is all about framing the contest. That's the reason that Paris is so successful in selling clown costumes as high fashion. So, if you want to one-up the one-upper, don't buy into the frame; create a new one.