On class

There have been a few recent articles in the BBC magazine about class, this was the latest one and this was last month’s version. I just finished re-reading Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” (an excellent book) and so I was probably more sensitive to the whole class thing than I would have been had I not just re-read it…

One who has read the Kate Fox book is supposed to be able to identify class differences by word choice, accent, clothes, choice of flower in the garden, the method by which one eats peas, and any number of other things. So far it’s completely escaped me. I have to confess, I don’t really get it. I’ve never been at a dinner where peas were served to see if I could identify clear differences, usually people are only eating mange tout. I never hear words like “serviette” and it seems like everyone I’ve met says “lounge” for living room.

I don’t know that you could make these sorts of “class” distinctions in the US. Or at least I never noticed them. I went to high school with people from a wide range of socio-economic groups, but I never thought of people as being from different classes. Unless you meant the Algebra versus Calculus type of class. My wealthy relatives live in the south and love Nascar. They sound southern because they live in the south, and that sounds different from, say, Boston but it indicates geography, not class. I drove a clunker because my white-collar family was thrifty; my best friend whose father was a butcher had a brand new sports car because she had an inheritance. We went to junior high and high school together and then went off to the same University and same graduate school. There is a wonderful neutralizing effect of state schools and universities in the US; perhaps there’s a bigger difference on the East Coast, but in the midwest (where there is no Ivy League) it all seemed about the same.

At the end of the day, does any of this distinction claimed for the difference between upper-working and lower-middle class in the UK mean anything? Where is the boundary? Kate Fox claims that current monetary status and class in the UK do not go together, and that unlike the US there is no real upward mobility within class. I find the whole concept confusing. And really, unnecessary. Does it not just reinforce these unimportant boundaries to detail them in modern books? Isn’t it time to drop the artificial distinctions and stop worrying about “class”?

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8 responses to “On class

  1. I’ve always called it a serviette which can be pretty odd as no one knows what I’m talking about and I have to end up asking for a napkin. Come to think about it, I don’t know where I got that from.

  2. The whole class thing confuses me as well. I guess American’s don’t really have class, just different levels of wealth. Of course I have always said as well, it doesn’t matter how much money you have you can still act like you are from a trailer park. I am sure you remember my story about the girl from the University I first attended.

  3. > One who has read the Kate Fox book is supposed to be able to identify class differences by word choice, accent, clothes, choice of flower in the garden, the method by which one eats peas, and any number of other things. So far it’s completely escaped me

    I don’t think so. A reader of Kate’s book will be made aware of the fact that there are people who can recognize class-cultural differences, but not become an expert in the matter simply by reading about it. So I wouldn’t worry too much about its ‘escaping’ you. Most Brits of my acquaintance don’t care two figs about class anyway. My opinion is that Kate goes on too much about it, and perpetuates stereotypes which may have a little credence fifty years ago, but not now.

  4. I always thought one of the beautiful things about being an expat in Britain is that the British can’t classify us other than ‘loud’ or ‘subtle’. They don’t know if we’re from a professional family or a trailer-park-done-good family and so they treat us based on our merit, rather than their prejudices.

    I already sense the fingers twitching out there ready to argue with me so I should add that I am referring to the British who still care about class and of course I am drawing purely on my own experiences!

    Nice blog!

  5. I disagree with Howard, I think these things are out there in culture more than just in Kate Fox’s book (although I probably agree that she goes on too much about them).

    Michelle, I agree, we’re somewhat lucky as expats to escape the system of automatic judgement. Although my colleagues here seem to assume that since I’m an engineer I must have gone to MIT, as though this was the Oxbridge of the USA and no one intelligent would have gone anywhere else. The high rankings of Big 10 Universities in my field seems to have escaped them. And sometimes I’m too tired to fight it and admit that “I spent time at MIT” (as a visitor, not a student)

  6. > I disagree with Howard

    Point of clarification, Mdm. Chair ( 🙂 ) : which of my three propositions do you disagree with?

    > The high rankings of Big 10 Universities in my field seems to have escaped them.

    Ah! another kind of class-consciousness/snobbery, then?

  7. I think the Northeast US, from Boston down to DC, is incredibly class-conscious. I was at a wedding in Boston once where there was joke about how nobody there knew anyone who didn’t go to an Ivy League school – and it was supposed to be funny because it was true. I was the only one in the room who didn’t. So help me, I love some of my friends from out there, but they live in a different world.

  8. Pingback: Health and Safety and School Uniforms « Not From Around Here

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