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A sense of class

Several years ago, a Chinese colleague asked me how he could tell what social class someone British belonged to. I opened my mouth, hesitated, and said, 'Ummm' a lot. Because in that moment, I realised that I simply did not have a straightforward answer to that question. I could, reliably, assess the social class of pretty much every Briton I met. I'd learnt to do that from my earliest days. But I didn't know a shortcut. I think in the end I suggested he look at food choices, knowing at the time that that was probably of little help, as being able to make that assessment itself depended on knowing nuances that he might not recognise. I can define class, assign class, recognise class within my culture, but except in the broadest way, I cannot easily explain how I do it. It's made up of numerous little things, expressed in dress and speech and posture, food and expectations, politics and cars and television programmes. I am first generation lower middle class. The marquis is solid upper middle class, and rooted in it for at least 4 generations. My friend A is middle middle class, as is friend B, but there are substantive differences between them based on region. My friend C, on the other hand, is a classic class traitor (ahem), born into the working class but deliberately assimilated into the upper middle class. My current next door neighbours are way posher than me and I'm a bit scared of them, but beyond them is an upper working class family who I really like and find easy to chat to. To the best of my knowledge I don't know any members of the British Upper class, let alone the aristocracy, though I do know several people who are definitely much, much higher up the social ladder than me (and who as a result are sometimes almost incomprehensible to me in certain ways). From time to time, friend D (who comes from a very similar background to mine) and I get together and shake our heads over the class-based weirdness of some of those we know. I like all these people, but how I react to them, my comfort level in talking to them, and the degree to which I and they experience moments of dissonance varies considerably according to class.

Or, at least, it does for me. It's a peculiarity of people like me -- first generation left-wing lower middle class -- that we tend to be class-conscious. Some of that is about training. The UK, like it or not, is a hierarchical culture and people react to you according to where you sit in that. The lower middle are a bit too posh for the working class, but rather suspect to the middle and upper middle (don't ask me about the upper class. They're outside my experience). It's a curse of the lower middle that we are hyper-aware of this, and always rather anxious about it, partly from embarrassment, partly from fear, and as a result we are also rather annoying. Tell me I have a class-based chip on my shoulder, and I have to hold up my hands in acknowledgement. I have known, as long as I can remember, that there are places where I don't belong and wherein I have to be extra good. I've been taught from birth to notice where I don't fit and to feel obliged to try not to make others uncomfortable about that. (Well, except about politics. My socialist beliefs go as deep as my class consciousness, and are central to who I am and to my definition of correct, ethical behaviour.)

A number of my upper middle class friends find this awareness of mine very irritating (and I don't blame them). They don't have this sense and they don't see the need for it. I find this interesting, too. They're higher up the tree than me: they don't need to notice as much as I do. As in any hierarchy, the better your position, the more relaxed you can be. None of them are bad people, not in the least. They're just different to me. But class shapes everything in this country, and we cannot, however we try, get away from it. There's a healthy dollop of class snobbery in the broadsheet dismissal of reality television, for instance and the perpetual gas-lighting of certain food choices as simply 'bad' without allowing for factors about price and access and cooking facilities. Sometimes this is easy to see: tabloid sneering at those receiving state benefits, the very different treatment meted out by gossip columnists to pop stars from working class and middle class backgrounds; stereotypes of public schoolboys and chinless wonders. Sometimes it's all but invisible: the ins and outs of how public funding ends up being used and assigned, the places that are written off without any apparent notice, the people who are deemed to be, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, "the undeserving poor". The current Tory project to clear the deficit entirely through cuts is rooted in one understanding of class rights and privileges. The call, in the late 1970s, by Labour Chancellor Dennis Healey to 'tax the rich until they squeak' is rooted in another. (Anyone who's known me for more than about 20 minutes can guess, I suspect, which of those positions I'm more comfortable with.)

And it stacks. Like everything else in our uneven, unfair, hierarchical culture, class intersects with gender and race and sexuality and ableism in ways that can be deeply, deeply damaging and toxic and cruel (and that's one reason why denials of the effect of class are themselves so suspect, as they discount things which can really harm).

When my 12 year-old self went into the lobby of a 5 star hotel just to look, along with my mother, she said to me beforehand that she hoped they wouldn't mind, and both of us looked around with the same reverence we would have accorded a church or museum. I didn't know why, I just knew she felt that we didn't belong there, and therefore had to be extra polite. When my 18 year-old self was made to feel she didn't really belong in her university, it took me a while to realise that that wasn't because these new people could read my mind and knew I wasn't good enough, it was that they heard my short vowels and regional phrases, assessed where I got my clothes, considered what I chose to ate and pegged me, precisely, as a lower middle class girl from the midlands, who wasn't *quite* one of them. I loved the place anyway, because it let me sit in the library all day and read and my favourite lecturer, though he teased me unmercifully about my vowels, encouraged me as a student, made me feel bright, and supported me every step of the way. But my social circle as an undergraduate, by and large, was made up of people who, like me, came from what might now be called non-traditional backgrounds and I knew better than to try and be part of the famous shiny things which were marked out as the territory of the established upper middle and upper classes. I knew they weren't for me, like that 5 star hotel. I've always known, and I reproduce that everyday. It trips my tongue about, for instance, self-promotion (not done by women of my class); it inhibits me about trying for things ('that's not for people like me'). It gets everywhere and effects everything in British daily life.

But I couldn't explain it to my Chinese friend, not without talking for hours and trying to explain what is, in some ways, inexplicable (seriously, some of my upper middle class friends swear that this is not so and are utterly baffled by me, and that's fair enough). I could, of course, have pointed him to the classic The Frost Report class sketch:

but it is itself embedded in knowledge of how the system works and what the signals are -- and it's dated, rather, and it's all about men. I could only in the end umm and ahh and talk about table manners, because that's how it works, that's how it replicates, by being everywhere and in everything and being so very, very hard to explain.

Skirt of the day: blue flags (not the flower, but the cut -- it has vertical layers and a jagged hem, as if banners have been sewn to it).



( 140 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 6th, 2015 06:29 pm (UTC)
Oh I so hear you on this!

I'm of working class origins as you know but bucked for promotion to the middle class via a decent education and a career.

Himself's more solidly middle class.

That doesn't mean I will ever forget where I come from and it doesn't mean I'm about to vote Tory! As fine a bunch of overprivileged Eton & Oxbridge chinless wonders and hooray Henrys as you'll find on a long Summer's day, although you can say the same about the Labour bunch these days.

And I still don't know where to find a forelock! :o)
Feb. 6th, 2015 06:56 pm (UTC)
The domination the upper middle has of politics worries me hugely -- and it's linked to Tory dismantling of unions and deliberate undermining of workers' rights and culture in the 80s.
I can find a forelock on a horse, but only because I wanted to be one when I was 8!
(no subject) - cmcmck - Feb. 7th, 2015 12:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2015 06:32 pm (UTC)
And then there's the American perception of the British class system, which goes something like this:

A Bit Of Rough (except Americans don't use that term)
Posh As Fuck

That's basically it, I'm pretty sure. :)
Feb. 6th, 2015 06:33 pm (UTC)
(or possibly:
Sean Bean
Cate Blanchett
Queen Elizabeth)
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Feb. 6th, 2015 06:34 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this. I love learning about the "tells" in different cultural intersections (not only as a writer, but simply as a student of human beings). I sometimes try to tease out what my own "tells" are, based on how other people treat me as in/out-group. As you say: complicated. I can recall a number of interactional failures due to assuming that one intersectional identity necessarily correlated with other unrelated factors.
Feb. 6th, 2015 06:56 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes! Those interactions are so subtle, but so very important.
Feb. 6th, 2015 06:44 pm (UTC)
Educated working class here. But that's a Scottish sub-division. An education doesn't automatically project you into the middle classes. As education is seen as something for itself, and not as a pathway.

So you have shepherds in plays going off to get a degree and coming back to be shepherds.

'Cos, education isn't class based, it's resource based.

I do know nobility like. Proper nobility. Real upper upper class people are very much more like working class people than the middle classes.

The middles classes are the odd one out.

Education _was_ pushed into me to allow me access to the upper classes: I was privately schooled and had elocution lessons. So I had the skills to speak the correct vowels. But that was far more to do with my being illegitimate, than my being working class. That was about making sure I could fit in anywhere and no one would 'suspect' the hidden bits of me.

So I've always been comfortable with all types. Grew up in the poorest of the poor bogey-man areas (I had impetigo as a child, from playing with the other street kids near the broken sewers) yet privately educated in tiny select convent.

As I said, education was resource based: it was about having the money to get you into better paying jobs, but this is not automatically seen as moving out of the working classes in my area.

You can choose to move to the middle class houses: but you can also choose to stay in the 'scheme' (estate) and no one would think anything about it.

Lots of teachers in my area of birth lived in the same houses and streets as their working class pupils. Maybe a slightly posher end of the street, but they were not 'middle class' just as they were well educated.

Feb. 6th, 2015 07:02 pm (UTC)
That's interesting. Educated working class used to be a powerful Welsh identity, too, but it was one of the casualties of the Thatcher years and the deliberate de-skilling and dismantling of those communities. My parents both came from the very poor end of the working class (agricultural workers in my father's case; unemployed due to WW1 related ill-health in my mother's) but my mother's family had that powerful educational ethic, too, and she passed it on to me. (My father is his family's black sheep -- he wanted to study and he's left wing.) When I was a child we always lived on estates and there was the sort of social mix you describe. And I went to the local comprehensive, because my parents were both hotly anti private schools (and I refused to take the exam for the grant-maintained ex grammar school, because it was socially immoral. I was a very irritating 11 year-old, I suspect).
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Feb. 6th, 2015 07:02 pm (UTC)
I have recently been reading a lot of Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L Sayers who are incredibly class conscious. I think that the reason why the British class system is so confusing is that we're seeing the fraying remains of the pre war class system and none of us are sure whether it's still real.

I still remember a very charming former colleague who refused to drink champagne because she felt it was declassee. I was quite happy with the Pouilly Fuisse she insisted on buying for me though.

Feb. 6th, 2015 07:04 pm (UTC)
They are, aren't they? I'm reading Ngaio Marsh, who isn't,. or not as much, which may be down to her being a New Zealander. And yes, there's been a lot of social change, particularly since the 80s, though in a lot of ways it looks to me more like a swing back towards a 19th c. model, with a huge underclass.
I'm astonished at your colleague!
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Feb. 6th, 2015 07:10 pm (UTC)
American try to deny they're class conscious. That's one reason our understanding of social class is so muddled over here. It does exist, oh most definitely, but the transition from one class to the next is much easier than in the UK. Moving up takes money, mostly, and some sense of where to spend it. Not everyone defines class in the same way, too, which adds another layer of confusion.

I myself come from the working class, of course. Transitioning into the class I wanted to be was easy, because from the time I was 12 years old I knew I belonged to Bohemia, or Class X as some sociologists call it, riff-raff like artists and writers who don't "live like decent people." :-)
Feb. 6th, 2015 07:23 pm (UTC)
Come to think of it, Ngaio Marsh, as a theatre professional in her early days, must have been part of British Bohemia.
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Feb. 7th, 2015 10:39 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2015 07:29 pm (UTC)
I understand your difficulty in answering the question, no idea how I would approach it. I would say, though, there isn't a *British* answer. Class operates differently in Scotland and England. I have no idea whether that also applies to Wales, though I wouldn't be surprised. It did surprise me how different it felt in England when I first moved there, class seemed to be much more important there than it ever has done here.

Thanks for the link to the classic sketch, I was thinking of it the other day and intending to rummage around YouTube for it. :-)
Feb. 7th, 2015 10:40 am (UTC)
Oh, absolutely! Most of these upper middle class types I know are southern English, which adds to the weirdness. The Midlands and Wales do this differently. And Scotland definitely has it own ways.
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Feb. 6th, 2015 07:31 pm (UTC)
LJ is very weirdly swapping in the most recent previous video posted by someone else on my flist in place of the one you included, when I look at your post on my friends page, but not when I look at the post separately. I mention this on the off-chance they are messing up something of yours rather than something of mine.

Edited at 2015-02-06 07:32 pm (UTC)
Feb. 7th, 2015 10:41 am (UTC)
I'm not seeing that. How odd.
Feb. 6th, 2015 07:57 pm (UTC)
This suggests an important aspect of cultural world-building -- all the nuances of speech (or dress, or movement) that convey so much.
Feb. 7th, 2015 10:41 am (UTC)
Oh, it does. I realised a while back that class gets everywhere in my writing, too.
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Feb. 6th, 2015 07:57 pm (UTC)
I would never claim Americans weren't class conscious, but I would claim we don't have the complex stratification that you're talking about. I also might be blinded by my own middle class upbringing. I can't look at someone and really know what variation of middle class they are, for instance, but I can tell when someone is working class or rich. Accent isn't a "tell." What they eat might be. Where they eat even more so. I've watched British friends mock someone for "slumming it" if they have a lover who is too different in class and I haven't been able to detect what they're hearing/seeing.
Feb. 7th, 2015 10:42 am (UTC)
The US is much, much bigger: I suspect that are immense regional variations.
(no subject) - aberwyn - Feb. 7th, 2015 07:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2015 08:15 pm (UTC)
I can tell what someone is from the moment they open their mouth. But if you're not from the same culture, I suspect it is impenetrable.
Feb. 7th, 2015 10:42 am (UTC)
Yes, so do I.
Feb. 6th, 2015 08:42 pm (UTC)
I've come across two articulations of class differences that really rang true for me, and were complex, nuanced, and respectful of their subjects: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, a popular anthropology book by Kate Fox, and artist Grayson Perry's short documentary series In the Best Possible Taste about the aesthetics of taste among different class groups.
Feb. 7th, 2015 09:04 am (UTC)
Kate Fox is very good - I never have a copy of her book as I'm always giving it to overseas visitors.
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Feb. 7th, 2015 10:42 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2015 08:52 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I'm from the US and I don't know why you Brits find our class structure so hard to comprehend. It's very much like the classes in in the UK except we don't have royalty (our royals are celebrities and uber-rich).

I was from a working class family. My brother is a car mechanic and while he may make more than some middle middle-class folks, they look down on him because he works with his hands and isn't well read, even though he isn't stupid by any stretch.

I moved into the lower middle class because of education and occupation. My ex's family was in the upper middle class, but downplayed their money. My ex was lazy, and while we could interact with those above us on the scale because of our education and the way he was raised, our income couldn't compete, so we didn't live in the right neighborhood and drive the right cars to fit in. My ex's mother's family had been in the upper class. She grew up with maids and a cook. Her father owned a dry-goods store, so I guess that would have made him merchant class, but he invested well and weathered the Great Depression coming out on top at the other side. But his daughters each married beneath their station as they say, and the family fortunes have dwindled greatly. Two generations down from all his money and the cousins are all decidedly working class in their salaries regardless of what jobs they have.

Of course some of this is because of the economy, and the whittling away of the middle class by the politicians on the right. The third generation down from this man who was able to employ hundreds, had two stores and 3 factories, and had a mansion and a summer home in the posh city by the sea that he employed servants in year round, are all scratching to get by working as store clerks even though they are college educated.

I heard of a study that researched family trees going back to the middle ages and they found that over the centuries, people's lot in life rarely changed from that of their ancestors. In recent history in the US, I don't see it. One poor decision, one 'bad' marriage, and people can drop into poverty regardless of the class they were born into.
Feb. 6th, 2015 10:48 pm (UTC)
Uh, I suggest this is where you haven't understood the differences between the UK class system and the US one; it's surprisingly little to do with income. Those people scratching to get by on very little income could still be cast-iron upper class in the UK, by all sorts of things that are nothing to do with how much money they have.
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Feb. 6th, 2015 10:44 pm (UTC)
Urgh, I have never known what I am. In the north-west of England I was clearly pretty upper-middle-class, as in we got sent to a private school with a stupid uniform, our family owned a substantial business and were among the very few local kids expected to go to university. But then no-one before our generation had, and when I went to Oxford for an interview I had people asking me to 'go on, say something, your accent is just *so quaint*' in tones I could barely understand. And then I went to Durham and met people that I totally couldn't understand, including a Senior Man of the JCR that had his own car with a private number plate, and it was made to clear to me that I was pretty much working-class scum because I ate crisps and didn't know what lacrosse was and had never rowed, and my dad had an expensive car, but a fast and showy expensive car, not a subtly luxurious expensive car. It was very confusing, given that I'd spent the last several years being teased and threatened on the basis of being unbearably posh, you know?

(Wow, I like living in another country where I'm just a plain old undifferentiated foreigner. I have no idea how I'd go about explaining all that to someone who has little idea what rugby is, let alone that there's two versions of it with wildly differing connotations.)
Feb. 7th, 2015 10:46 am (UTC)
Oh, so much this! The south of England is just so weird! (Midlands Welsh here.)
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Feb. 6th, 2015 11:19 pm (UTC)
Is not TW3 - is The Frost Report.
Feb. 7th, 2015 10:46 am (UTC)
Ah, okay, thanks.
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