Status Mobility

the front cover of the book "Watching the English" by Kate Fox

For my last book club meeting, we read Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox. We then had an absolutely brilliant conversation about all sorts of different matters, and I’ve continued to ruminate on it since.

One thing Kate Fox talks a lot about is class (in the socioeconomic sense, rather than the “she’s a classy lady” sense), because it pervades every aspect of English culture. Thus, we talked about class at our meeting, and I ruminated over what was said, as well as what I’ve gathered already from 7 years of living here in Dampland.

For decades, the message has been put out there repeatedly (via media, ministers, storylines in popular shows, etc) to the rank and file English citizen that class is no longer such a consideration, such a thing as it once was. This … could be true, I suppose. Many times, the message has been carried to the extreme of saying that class doesn’t matter at all: this is blatantly false. However, if you repeat something often enough, people tend to believe it.

Kate Fox points out that class has nothing at all to do with occupation or income, unlike pretty much anywhere else in the world. My understanding of class in the US, when I arrived here, was that income alone pretty much determined class, so this was a total brain fuck to comprehend. My understanding of the US system has become a bit more nuanced since then, but occupation and income play a HUGE part of class in the US, regardless.

Contrast that to here in the UK, Kate Fox tells a story of an upper crust person being identified despite living in a council housing apartment [projects], etc. Class here is a host of nuances of things like which words you choose, how you say them (including at what volume), how you decorate your home, how you maintain your car, how you hold your fork and knife, how you eat peas, how you entertain yourself, what sorts of things are appropriate to buy in what sorts of shops, how you roll your sleeves up, and so on. It’s sometimes very subtle, and hard to explain (though Kate Fox has made a great start), but an upper crust person can be discerned from the opposite end a mile away because of these things – even if they live as neighbors in a tower block of apartments.

Historically, in the UK, class was passed generationally, and you could never rise too far in class yourself. You could pull your children up some, and they could pull their children up a bit more, but it took generations. Famously, in the US, we love our rags-to-riches stories – and the accompanying lower-class-to-upper-class transitions that goes with them. In the modern world, we would all love to believe these transitions, this pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, are possible for anyone if they work hard enough (and have lots and lots and LOTS of luck), and certainly that idea has creeped into England as a thing they’d like to think of as true: that class mobility is a thing that can happen, and isn’t that hard, and doesn’t have to rely on generations to pass for it to transpire. After all, this idea appeals to their sense of fair play, which is a HUGE part of English culture.

However, as nice as it’d be, I don’t think it’s true. I think class is too much about nuanced habit that you pick up from your parents for it to be something you can shed so easily. You can train yourself on new habits, and take elocution (speech) lessons for the verbal part, but you will lapse sometimes, and your lower-class roots will show. What a way to live.

However, to say that occupation and income don’t have anything to do with class … just doesn’t feel quite right, or it didn’t to me on book club night. So I mulled over this, and I realized: occupation, particularly, gives status. We like to think there’s class mobility mostly because we want to think of people being able to have a higher status than what they were born to, if they desire. But people do have status mobility, which is entirely separate from class and class mobility.

Imagine: on a construction site, you could have a foreman, and his son swinging a hammer at whichever nails he’s told to. Both of them are working class, but the foreman clearly has a higher-status job than the hammerer. However, the hammerer could be a 20-year-old doing this on his summer breaks from school (uni) where he’s becoming a doctor (MD). Once he completes that and becomes a doctor, a GP, etc, he’ll have a higher status than his dad the foreman. But under the English class system, he won’t really have a higher class, I reckon. The polite, politically correct brigade will probably come try to “correct” me on this and tell me he will, but he’ll still have most of those same mannerisms he had when he was being raised by his working class parents, or at least some of them. He won’t be conscious of all of them, in order to train himself out of all of them. Those nuances will be picked up, I reckon subconsciously, by others around him, who will peg him with their class radar as working class, despite being a doctor. His children will pick up more of his affected mannerisms, and less of his working class root mannerisms, and thus be gradually lifted up along the class lines, just as in the olden days.

Not that any of it matters, mind. The thing I instantly concluded upon re-reading this book was that class is a construct, like the UK (which is four separate nations under one flag, but not really a unified country), and that none of it really matters, in the end.

Tribalism; Improving the Natives’ World

Ah, tribalism. Where would we be without it?

It’s tribalism, of course, that makes us socialize ourselves and others to live according to certain accepted values. It’s so we can tell who’s US and who’s THEM.

These things are usually so engrained, so deep down, that we don’t notice them consciously. We generally notice them when we have reason to fight against them. For example, I’m told that serial killers don’t generally believe that they’re bad people; they believe that they’re doing a good thing, in whatever way. They tell themselves whatever story they need to, in order to have that be their reality, rather than the one we see, because they had to fight against the norms our tribe imposed upon them, and they could only go so far with that. They generally can’t accept “I’m a bad person” – but they can accept a twisted version of what they’re doing.

To accomplish this socializing of THEM and US, however, society relies on mores that get engrained in us without question, and turn into things we can elicit shame with.

When we don’t live up to these mores, we then feel inadequate – the whole of consumerism, naturally, preys upon this: “You aren’t happy enough with life? Buy this thing, and you will be!” Because it’s so convenient for companies trying to sell us things to use this tactic, we constantly get conflicting messages about what we should do to be happy – we should be thin, we should have a bit of meat on our bones, we shouldn’t care about size; we should be married, we should be single; we should have children, we should not have children; and so on. We can’t win, no matter what we do, so we end up feeling constantly inadequate if we don’t armor ourselves from this onslaught.

Photo by DttSP

Photo by DttSP

All of that is well known, and not really what I’m here to write about. We went to see Michael Palin recently – he’s a famous world traveler, as well as a comedy writer and actor. He did a little Q&A from the audience, and someone asked him if he keeps in touch with the people he’s met on his travels.

This question almost always pops up when someone talks about their travels, no matter how large or small the audience, in my limited experience. Nevermind that Michael Palin has traveled extensively and so keeping up with the people he met along the way would be several full time jobs on its own. I’m always boggled and annoyed by this question, and as I let it roll around my head over the next few days, I realized what I think is going on more deeply.

Leftover from Imperialism, there is an expectation of going abroad and improving the lot of the natives. There’s definitely the knowledge that Imperialism was filled with nasty effects and side effects, so this isn’t at all obvious, but I think what’s happened is that the attitude has shifted from the government going out to improve the world to individuals and charities improving the world.

We have one man in town who spends his days taking supplies to Bosnia – he comes home to Glossop, gathers clothes, medicine, all sorts, and drives his Land Rover over to war-torn Bosnia to deliver it. He sleeps sitting up in his vehicle to cut down on expenses. We have another couple who, I think single-handedly, is supporting a school in Kenya – including paper, pencils, food, money to pay the teachers, uniforms for the kids, etc. And there’s the Winnie Mabaso Foundation, which was started by Winnie Mabaso in South Africa (though not as a foundation), and took off from the work of one Glossop woman, mostly (now there are more people involved). Certainly improving life abroad by individuals and charities is a much-lauded, often-done thing in this society.

So, I think the expectation that the traveler improve the lot of the people they’re visiting became one of those deeply entrenched expectations — so deep as to be unconscious. One way to be seen to do this is to keep in touch with them, so as to try to do something (send them supplies, perhaps) once home in Britain.

I challenge my British readers to not dismiss this out of hand – think about it. I could be wrong, but if I’m right, it’s something so unconscious you won’t necessarily see it at first. That is the way with many tribal things. Not all are as obvious as “Thou shalt not kill.”

Photo by DttSP

Photo by DttSP