Differences Between Americans and Our Brothers Across the Puddle, Part I



It seems to me that the only time my “social class” makes any difference is on an airplane. Even in that situation, it refers more to my ability to cough up the extra money than to my birth. As far as I can gather, Americans have by and large done away with the concept of “social classes” since, I’d guess, around WWI. Excluding the extremely rich on one end and the extremely poor on the other end, most of us eat at MacDonald’s when we’re rushed, rent our movies at Blockbuster, and enroll our children in public schools; perhaps this cultural homogeny has tended to level the playing field, in a matter of speaking.

However, I’ve read various things that suggest that our brothers across the Puddle take social classes very seriously to this day.

Would anyone from the UK (or someone who has lived on both sides) tend to comment? What role does your social class play in your day-to-day life? Can you be excluded from certain business, clubs, etc. on the basis of your birth? Or does it all just depend on your ability to cough up the money, like a First Class seat on an airplane?

i lived in scotland for 6 months, and as a worker at a department store, was required to wear black and white exclusively, just like all other “shopgirls” and most restaurant staff. while riding the bus to and from work, that determined my social class to those who didn’t know the first thing about me. but i think there are just as many stratifications in the US, they’re just more subtle. the gap is still widening you know between rich and poor. how expensive do your shoes look? how straight are your teeth? do you have the right social mannerisms to be accepted at a management conference?

Paul Fussel, in his book Class argues that the class system in America is just as strong, but less open. It’s a funny and interesting read.

In my experience social class is just as much of an issue in the US and Germany, for instance, as it is in the UK; only most countries don’t have a class system as formal as England’s any more, with titles and public shcools and the like,that it is harder to label as such and therefor not so obvious. However, we don’t go around doffing our top hats to the Quality anymore either you know. :slight_smile:

It only hurts when I laugh.

As far as the US classes go, Cecil had a column on the Social Register. It was pretty funny. We do make fun of the rich. But the rest of us are mostly one class. Perhaps there is a bit of a class barrier between thos e that went to college and those that didn’t.

Right off the bat, I’d have to point out the royal family as an extreme example of class stratification.

Perhaps some clarification is in order:

Let’s say we line up all Americans, with the poorest on the left and working our way up to the richest on the right. On the extreme left, we’d have those few (less than 2%?) people who are so wretchedly poor that the $5 required for an Extra Value Meal at McD’s would be a huge investment. On the right are the snooty hoity-doities of the Social Register, who have never eaten a meal that wasn’t served to them on a silver platter. The rest of us are pretty much the same in our day-to-day lives. We all have essentially the same opportunities REGARDLESS OF OUR PERCEIVED “SOCIAL CLASS.” It all depends on our ability to pay.

My theory is that if a working-class Brit suddenly got rich (lottery win?), he’d still have great difficulty getting “in” to certain businesses, clubs, etc. because of the ingrained class differences (think of the treatment Molly Brown received on the Titanic). If I (a working-class stiff on the west side of the Puddle) won the lottery and signed up at the local country club, no one would look any further than my bank account: I cough up the money, I’m in.

One last thought: I understand that British actors are denied certain roles because of class. Example: an actor from the working classes (however rich he may be now) would never be assigned a role where he played nobility. Conversely, no director would dream of handing an upper-class actor a role as a street urchin, so to speak.

Again, any thoughts?

I don’t disagree that the social class distinctions are stronger in the UK than in the US, nor do I disagree that the vast “middle” class in the US covers a very wide range. However I think the notion that in the US it’s all about money is an oversimplification. Yes, money has to do with it – but let’s use rasta’s country club example.

  • Someone wins the lottery, has millions of dollars, and joins the country club and is at a party. They don’t know which fork to use, nor how to eat the caviar appetizer; they look over the menu and don’t understand the French; their conversation is highly ungrammatical, perhaps accented (imagine an inner city accent, for instance). Do you really think that person doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb?

How many movies have you seen where a person’s social class is immediately identifiable by their accent, voice, body mannerisms? – the older man in tuxedo comes into the room with a beautiful woman, gorgeously dressed, who is chewing gum and talks with a strong Brooklyn accent, for instance – don’t you immediately classify her as a type (“social climber” or “hooker” latched onto a sugar daddy)? Bill Gates, for all his money, is clearly NOT upper class.

  • Now let’s go the other direction. Imagine a Kennedy or Rockerfeller relative who had no money. Would you for one minute think that person was “middle class”? Not a chance – that person is still invited to all the high society functions that you or I only read about in the papers.

Again, it is easier in the US to move from class to class than in the UK, but let’s not pretend that the class system doesn’t exist, nor that money is the only criterion.

Social class is very much alive in the US and it has to do with much more than money.

Where I went to high school (the suburbs south of Alexandria Va) was a funny place because there were three major strata. Those who east of US Rt. 1 where close to the Potomac river, and were relatively rich (not multi-millionaires mind you, they all lived west of DC.) Doctors kid’s, Lawyer’s kids, the occasional Senator’s kids (one used her dad’s left over campaign posters to run for class office). Rt 1 itself was lined with low income apartments and some of the last trailer parks within a half hour drive from the city. West of Rt 1 were cookie cutter suburban houses filled with civil servants and mid ranking military officers.

When you walked down the hall, you knew who lived where. You generally only made frends with those people who were like you in dress and music choice who almost invariably lived on the same side of rt. 1 as you.

People in the US pretend not to notice class. But they know when they are out of place. Ever seen a rich person on a bus?

Grab US News’ College rankings. Go to each campus. Look at the kids. Talk with them.

Imagine you threw a bunch of random people in a room. Within seconds they will separate themselves out by class. Guaranteed.

You’ve forgotten the most glaring, obvious example of class in America; something you’re born into, is instantly noted by everyone, and no amount of money can ever truly get you out of it:

I’m referring of course, to Americans of African ancestry.

You’ve forgotten the most glaring, obvious example of class in America; something you’re born into, is instantly noted by everyone, and no amount of money can ever truly get you out of it: I’m referring of course, to Americans of European/Mexican/S.American/Indian/Asian/Indigenous American/Eskimo/Martian ancestry…

Dext, if you even bother to apply to any of the country clubs I’m familiar with, they’ll figure out your Lotto money instantly. I wouldn’t blackball you, but I know some people that would.

Not to muddy the waters or anything, because it was clearly stated that we’re talking about generalizations here, but…

How much of class distinction is fairly empty social distinction, and how much limits people in what they can be?

F’rinstance, in the Paul Fussell example, he dissects class and defines those above class: closely resembling (TA-DAH) himself!. In the US thelub bit is an insular system of pecking order snobs, old money vs new money and most of them, Old South most definitely included, aspiring to the British model. Look at the Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley craze.

So…the ruling ethic is to blend in with (TA-DAH!) the same Brit aristocracy, most of whom, excepting trendy socialists, would thrust one hand in the front pocket to extract the wallet and hold their nose with the other hand.

We laugh at it, usually, except for putzes who take it seriously. It’s a source of rich derision.

BUT I wonder if we “puddle brothers” aren’t guilty of sterotyping Brits. We allow ourselves to be seduced by all those novels and interminable Masterpiece Theater productions. Britain ain’t dead, and it ain’t just a quaint, costumed theme park.

So…sorry, I get wordy–how much of the perceived class consciousness is stereotype and how much actually LIMITS what people can achieve?

In the US—objectively–not much. The country clubbers don’t have all that damned much power. (Except the power of imagination, to co-opt the “noveau riche”.) I don’t know how much actual sway it still holds in Britain.

Huge apologies. This got really wordy. But there’s purely social distinctions, and then there are social distinctions that are firmly rooted in power. The first can be humiliating; the second can be crippling.