Sunday, May 22, 2011

How Classy

Spring-boarding off a recent post on the American Resident about social climbing this week we take a look at the class system on both sides of the Pond.


With regard to my fellow humans, I honestly don’t care who you are (in terms of lineage) or how much you have. I have some very rich friends (we’re talking private plane wealthy) and friends on the breadline; I have friends born into “privilege” and some who were figuratively dragged up; they’re just my friends. Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to have this attitude in the USA.

See in the States, many people’s grandparents and great grand-parents came here with the clothes on their back, and the sole aim of bettering their lives. That betterment didn’t include climbing social ladders, it meant providing the basics for your family with perhaps an education thrown in. If you were able to do any better, it was celebrated; people were happy for you. There was no talk of “social climbing” or “getting above your station”, and to a large extent it’s still the same today. The term “nouveau riche” doesn’t exist.

Yes, this country does have “old money” and snobs (usually on the east coast and parts of the South); if anyone can trace their family line back more than a hundred and fifty years you’re going to hear about it. By the same token, if anyone reacts at all to a couple who have done well for themselves (like the in-laws of a certain British Prince), it’s usually to comment on their success or their nice house – and not in a jealous or patronizing way. In fact, people also pride themselves on having dirt ancestors, and if there’s a criminal or two, well, all the better.

It’s hard to talk about the USA in terms of class; it’s more about the money. Money can buy you a lot of things – from jumping the queue/line at a fancy restaurant (bribe the guy in charge) to by-passing local and national laws (support local or national politicians and you’ll find you can get a lot of things done). Unlike the UK, not much of it’s a secret either.

It may not be pretty, but it’s a lot easier for an expat to understand.


As for myself, I was born poor white trash; I think I’ve done okay, and I never recall anyone in the US implying that I was rising above my station. Except perhaps my dad, but that’s another story.

Were I to make that same rise in the UK, I don’t think I would have experienced any flak, either. I can’t speak from direct experience, but I know people here who have made similar shifts in their socio-economic status and not suffered for it. These social shifts, however, do not cut across guarded boundaries. The difficulties—as well as the thinly disguised indignation—begin, in my opinion, when a person moves into a social circle that is effectively closed to outsiders.

A self-made millionaire is de facto admitted to the wealthy class, but those in the club may shut them out, and look down on them for their common ways. But this can happen even in the US. The real difference in Britain is with the ruling class. Marrying the heir to the throne does not erase the fact that you are not “one of them.” Your ancestors did not curry favor from some king and end up a Lord, ergo, you do not belong in their club.

Class, from my vantage point, is less important than it used to be in the UK, but as long as people continue to refer to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge as “a commoner,” it will continue to enjoy a healthy life.

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  1. The class distinction is probably lying there bubbling below the surface in England.... but definitely not like it used to be when I was younger.
    The very fact that Kate has to be called Catherine speaks for itself really.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  2. Mike - while I respect your right to identify however you like, please take a moment to consider just what the qualifier on the phrase "white trash" says about who is just plain "trash."

  3. I was born and brought up on a council estate and have friends who live there still. My best friend is a taxi driver and my second best has a hereditary title. The class system was dealt a body-blow in the 60s and has never recovered. It is now taken seriously only by lazy journalists with pages to fill


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