I grew up in England, but have lived in the US for the past 12 years. I have a question for you that I wonder if you might ponder. I've noticed that in the US "middle class" is used very differently than in the UK. Here it seems that middle class refers to what would be often be called "working class" in the UK. I do hear "blue collar" to describe someone who has a non-office job, but it seems that you could be blue collar and middle class, whereas in England, somebody like a mechanic would never be called middle class.It's taken me a long time to get to this because it's a big, hairy topic. But to make it small and simple: in America everyone believes they're middle class. In Britain, among people my age, at least, it's almost a badge of shame to be middle class:
To be a middle class student just 20 years ago carried such social stigma that many graduates in their 40s recall faking a proletarian accent for their entire university education. --Decca Aitkenhead, "Class Rules", The Guardian, 20 Oct 2007But I'll try to give it a little of the complexity it deserves, starting with the American side. Here's a bit from the book American Cultural Patterns (rev. ed., 1991) by Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett [p. 89]:
Although sociologists speak of class structure and status obligation in American society, most Americans see themselves as members of an egalitarian middle class. There are variations in parts of New England and in the Southeast [...]; but, generally, in American society, social background, money, or power bestow perhaps fewer advantages than in any other major society. Lacking obligations to class and social position, Americans move easily from one group to another as they shift position or residence; consequently, their social life lacks both permanence and depth (C. Kluckhorn 1954a, 96*).It's lines like that last one that made this book so much fun to use as a textbook at my last university. Tell a group of privileged 19-year-old Americans that their social lives lack permanence and depth and watch the discussion GO! (It was a course in cross-cultural communication, which you might expect would involve learning about communication in other cultures, but the biggest step in understanding why your communication with others fails is to understand the unspoken, subconsciously-held values that underlie your own communication.) Move to another culture, and you start to understand what "lacks both permanence and depth" means. Americans are relatively good at making new friends in new situations because we need to on a regular basis (and because our identity depends on the appreciation of [many] others--but more on that in a post on compliments). Move into a culture with greater geographical and status stability, and you find it can be hard to make new friends. This is because no one else expects to have new friends--they have a complete social support system made up of their families and friends they've had since forever, and you're just not going to fit very easily into their lives. (I'm not particularly talking about my experience in the UK now--I was lucky enough to fall into some very welcoming social circles here. My situation in South Africa was different. But I've heard other American expats in the UK claiming to have had a less easy time of it.) But I'm getting away from social class...or am I?
The self-proclaimed middle class in the US is HUGE because being middle class = being average, normal, the same as everyone else, and Americans aren't comfortable with the feeling that any one of them (I mean, us) is much better or worse than themselves. I grew up in a small town that/which, once upon that time, was home to the international headquarters of a couple of companies. Everyone considered themselves middle class--from the people working in the factories all the way up to the CEOs. And we had to consider everyone that way in order to keep up the American egalitarian myth. Here's Stewart and Bennett again:
Running through American social relationships is the theme of equality. Each person is ascribed an irreducible value because of his or her humanness: "We're all human after all." Interpersonal relations are typically horizontal, conducted between presumed equals. When a personal confrontation is required between two persons of different hierarchical levels, there is an implicit tendency to establish an atmosphere of equality. [...] [A] compliment is often made regarding people who are much richer or higher in position or status: "He's a regular guy--doesn't lord it over you." [p. 91]It's a myth, of course, because Americans are not all equal in status, and we know it. But socially it's the "right thing to do" to act as if everyone is.
As Carolyn observed, Americans often use 'collar' descriptions of job types as a code for discussing class. AmE blue collar refers to jobs that one wouldn't wear 'business clothes' to, but to which one might wear blue (AmE) coveralls (BrE = overalls).** White collar jobs are those to which (traditionally) one would wear a suit--but of course these days more and more such jobs have casual 'uniforms'. Newer, analogous collar terms have sprung up, such as pink collar for (usually low-paid) jobs that have traditionally been held by women (e.g. waitress, receptionist, secretary, hairdresser, nurse) and less commonly green collar (environmental/agricultural jobs) and grey (or gray) collar (usually for jobs that are between blue and white collar--e.g. non-doctors working in health care). The term working class is not as common in the US as it is in the UK--low(er) income is often heard in its stead, for example in low-income neighborhood. Phrasing class-talk in terms of job types or income sits well with the American discomfort with class-differentiation. Putting people into classes seems like it's defining who they are, whereas defining them in terms of job describes what they do and defining them in terms of income is by what they are getting. Doing and getting are activities, and activities are changeable. Being is a state, and more time-stable (a term from linguist Talmy Givón), and therefore perceived as less inherently changeable. If you're uncomfortable with describing someone as being something, a solution is to describe them as doing something or having something done to them. This fits with the American notion of equality of opportunity. We know we're not all equal--and identifying people by their job or income acknowledges this. But by identifying people by what they get and do, there's an implicit suggestion that they could have taken other opportunities and had better jobs with better pay. Or that they didn't have the skills or talents [or connections] necessary to make the most of the opportunities presented to them--but in a culture in which we tell children that "anyone can grow up to be President"***, we tend to gloss over the things that make 'equality of opportunity' an unachievable myth.
Class is a more prominent issue in British life, although in a lot of ways its relevance has been reducing since, oh, the war. (One says 'the war' in the UK to mean World War II. It doesn't matter how many other wars there have been.) Class is marked in many ways, including where you live, how you speak, what you eat, what recreational activities you take part in, how you decorate your house, et cetera, et cetera. I recommend Kate Fox's book Watching the English if you'd like some details on particular class markers. Or, for a brief primer, here's an International Herald Tribune article on the subject. But for the classic explanation, see John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett on Frost over England.
The UK is experiencing some changes in how class is perceived
I discuss class-based linguistic distinctions (e.g. whether you say napkin or [BrE] serviette) here as they come up--and these are generally much more common in BrE. To find old discussions, hit the 'U/Non-U' and 'class' tags at the bottom of this post. Reader Andrew R has also pointed out this discussion on the Guardian site. Evidence that these things are still relevant comes from the news item last year in which it was alleged that Prince William and Kate Middleton broke up because of Kate's mother's déclassé language use. (I didn't discuss this much last year because everyone else was already blogging about it.)
* "American Culture -- A General Description." In R. H. Williams (Ed.), Human factors in military operations. Chevy Chase, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univer., Operations Res. Office, 1954.
** Sidenote: BrE overalls are equivalent to AmE coverall or boilersuit--i.e. a kind of jumpsuit worn as work clothes (usually in messy jobs). AmE (bib) overalls are what the British call dungarees. In AmE dungaree is an old-fashioned word for blue jeans.
*** For the class of expatriates' children, this is really a myth, since according to the Constitution, only those born on American soil can become President. So, already a lost job opportunity for dual-citizen Grover. It's America's loss.