social classes

Reader Carolyn in Washington, DC wrote in September to ask about social classes:

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 2007
But 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 The Frost Report.

The UK is experiencing some changes in how class is perceived experiencing more social mobility than probably ever before, and Tony Blair (whose leadership was marked by affinity for things, including wars, American) famously claimed "We're all middle class now". Even before Tony, John Major spoke of a "classless society" in Britain. But for all this egalitarian show, there's still a deep-seated sense of class identity. A survey by The Guardian, discussed in Aitkenhead's article [link above], finds that class-consciousness is still very important in the UK, but it is getting more and more confusing. One means of trying to objectively measure class status is the UK marketing industry's letter-based divisions based on occupation. Category A = doctors, company directors, barristers [AmE lawyers] etc.; B = teachers, police officers, etc.; C1 = clerical staff; C2 = tradespeople like plumbers, electricians, etc.; D = manual labo(u)rers; E = casual workers, pensioners, etc. A third of the so-called AB professionals polled claimed to be working class. The C2s are "the best at correctly identifying their own class" (76% identify as working class). Aitkenhead writes, "So we have a curious situation where the vast majority of us -- 89% -- believe we are judged on our social class, yet fewer and fewer of us can either tell or admit what it is." In particular, people often identify according to their parents' class, unless, of course, it's middle class.

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.


  1. It's easy, really. Working-class people don't use umbrellas.

  2. Better Half says the main difference is that working class people won't take a taxi, even if they have the money for one and it would be really convenient to do so. He (claiming his working class roots, rather than his middle class present) says he'd rather walk five miles than take a taxi.

    This is a source of low-level conflict in our otherwise low-conflict marriage.

  3. Lynne,

    This is a fascinating post.

    I'm reminded of something a junior high teacher told us back in Illinois YEARS ago. She said that the difference between blue collar and middle class families in the US was that that the blue collar families went bowling, while middle class people didn't.



  4. This is fascinating. I always have considered income to be the defining feature of class (in America): Middle class=middle income, etc. Ergo, union jobs at factories used to pay well and pushed 'working class' people into the Middle Class. That's certainly what happened in my husband's family.

    Oddly, when I was first married, I thought I'd "married down" even though both our families were Middle Class. My reasoning was that my family was into music and culture while my inlaws weren't (aren't). Then I found out that my inlaws are wealthier than my parents, which was VERY confusing for a long time.

    Anyway. Good post. Something to chew on today while I do mindless work. Thanks.

  5. Actually, the Constitution doesn't define what "natural-born citizen" means, and many people believe that it includes people born to US citizens outside the country. So don't rule out Grover's presidential ambitions yet! :)

  6. The Wikipedia article on "upper class" used to have a big picture of Donald Trump at the start. To a Brit, that would be inaccurate bordering on vandalism. Not sure Americans would disagree?

  7. Anon--I think Trump is upper crass. Most Americans would just call him 'rich' not 'upper class'. We don't talk about the 'upper class' much.

    Dan, thanks for clarifying the confusion about Grover's presidential hopes.

  8. I was actually going to write in with a question about why there was occasionally a focus on the “Upper Class/Lower Class” language use on your posts…

    It is true that financial status delineates American “classes” and very little else...(at least from a “middle class” perspective, some people of “old money” might disagree.) I can’t really think of a time when language would be broken up this way. For example, there may be a guy who works in Ohio digging ditches for a living who uses very “proper” grammar, while there is a Texas oil tycoon who speaks and acts just like that guy on The Simpsons, yet the former would be “Lower” or “Working” class, where the latter would be “Upper” class. (Of course we don’t use the class description very much, but if we were forced to put people into classes, Trump and the Oil Guy would be put into Upper by most people.)

    So therefore, in the US, if someone suddenly came in to millions of dollars, they would automatically be shot up in the Class system. They would probably move to a better neighborhood, go to fancier places, meet different people, etc. My question is what happens in the UK? Let’s say that a Lower class person came into a lot of money, would they be expected to stay where they were? Or would they move, but then never really be “part” of where they moved? Would they stay Lower class, but just be able to buy more stuff?

    On a related note about the word Class, it seems that in the US it is used differently, more to classify personality and actions than to indicate social standing. Someone making little money in the US could read classical poetry and decorate in a formal (if not lavish) manner, and study music and art and would be considered by many to be a “High Class” individual. Whereas a millionaire could decorate their 180 room mansion in nothing but neon taffeta and watch videos of people getting hit in the head all day, laughing like a donkey and they would be considered “Low Class.” Nothing to do with social standing, but in how one acts.(this may also be true in the UK, but it seems that over here it seems to be the primary use.)

  9. For what it's worth, I'm sure I've heard 'dungarees' used in the UK sense in the US sitcom Nikki. So presumably there's regional variation.

  10. With regard to Grover becoming president, John McCain was born in Panama and nobody seems to think that disqualifies him.

  11. OK, found this courtesy of the Washington Post site:
    'But the First Congress, on March 26, 1790, approved an act that declared, "The children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond sea, or outside the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural-born citizens of the United States."'

    I am a victim of my own gullibility, I guess. I believed an American colleague with South African-born children when he told me they couldn't be president.

    Sili, I believe that dungaree in the US can include overalls if they are denim--so not necessarily the BrE sense, but a more vague AmE sense. But it's not a part of my active vocabulary (really strikes me as an old-fashioned 'hick' word), so I could be wrong.

  12. Lynne,

    Back around 1980, I remember a colleague newly arrived in Houston from Philly used the term "dungarees"...much to the amusement of his Texan colleagues, as you might guess. He was quite a well-educated guy, too, so I always assumed that was an American regional difference. Maybe another reader of your blog can comment further.

    And I'm glad to hear that Grover's future politial aspirations won't rule out her becoming the xxth female President!


  13. I was surprised you didn't mention the "Upper Middle Class" distinction in the US. It seems to be a growing distinction, as I now regularly see an abbreviation for it - UMC. I would say from your description that UMC roughly equals what the British would call Middle Class. These are relatively wealthy professionals who have tastes which distinguish them from regular middle class folks - they patronize the arts more, talk about literature, and shop at Whole Foods or gourmet food stores.

  14. One can make 'upper middle' and 'lower middle' distinctions in BrE too. (Kate Fox distinguishes them from the middle-middle.)

  15. This "natural-born citizen" issue isn't completely academic. John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone.

  16. has already been mentioned!

  17. Bill asked: "My question is what happens in the UK? Let’s say that a Lower class person came into a lot of money, would they be expected to stay where they were? Or would they move, but then never really be “part” of where they moved? Would they stay Lower class, but just be able to buy more stuff?"

    Nothing would happen instantly. i.e. they would remain working class (the term "lower class" is very rarely used as it is often deemed to be rude), but able to 'buy more stuff'. Other questions:
    "would they be expected to stay where they were?" you mean socially? The answer may well be 'And just what would be wrong with staying where I am socially? Are you saying that just because I am working class, I am somehow inferior to you? How dare you! What do you think I am? Some kind of snob who would ditch everything I've grown up with just because I have money now?'.

    Bill said: "Or would they move, but then never really be “part” of where they moved" You would need to define 'part of', and where you think they are trying to 'move' to. In the UK your perceived class will be a combination of your wealth, upbringing, parents' class, education, accent, social outlook, etc. A politician named Tony Benn was,in the 1950s, a Lord. He gave up his peerage because he was a socialist. I'm sure he'd love to be working class, but he's never gonna make it. He's just too posh.

    But usually, people are the class they they define themselves as.

  18. Another point is that 'class' is linked to 'breeding'. The meanings of these words have gone in circles, as we have seen - where a person can be described as 'classy', and 'breeding' refers to good manners or etiquette... but when society was much less mobile, class was the order to which one was born, and breeding was how one arrived. Surely the phrase 'born and bred' (Shakespeare?) reverses the order of events: we use it as if 'bred' referred to upbringing, instead of to the pedigree of our parents - which ultimately was the definition of class.
    As a middle-class Brit, I found Julian Fellowes' novel 'Snobs' very informative. It does explain how the 'upper class' behave and how they remain distinct from the merely rich. Of course, one can be relatively poor and still be 'upper class'....

  19. Obviously we must cent(re/er) the campaign on Ohio...

  20. One thing nobody's mentioned is how class is mixed in with race in America. There are at least two common terms in America that specifically mean "low class white person": redneck and white trash.

  21. "Or would they move, but then never really be “part” of where they moved? Would they stay Lower class, but just be able to buy more stuff?""

    Generally speaking, the latter (and bear in mind these are all generalisations and stereotypes). The point is that working class people who come into money move to the places where working class people who come into money move to, not the places where people who were born rich/posh live. An inner London working class kid made good moves to Essex, say. Whereas the upper middle class would live in Surrey or Kensington in the first place.

    The key factor for class flexibility in the UK, these days anyway, is edcuation. A university education is a strong class indicator, both because people who go to university tend to be middle class and because once a working class person goes to university, the class associations of higher education rub off on them and they lose some of their working class status. Now that's not to say you don't get university educated people who still strongly self-identify as working class, but their mates who didn't go are likely to consider them at least partly middle class. And once their children go to university, the class shift is more or less complete.

  22. An interesting thing about redneck is that in South Africa it's a disparaging term for the English South Africans--though it's more often said as rooinek, since it's Afrikaners who use the term.

    Race is an issue in Britain too--where chav is a term for white working or under-class. I wrote about this, comparing it a bit to redneck and trash back here.

  23. So how are expat's dealt with class-wise? Would Donald Trump and our friend Lynne be lumped into the same class in England, as they would both be from the US? Or would there be some sort of class difference due to their financial status? Or would there be some sort of caveat to their class division?

    (Forgive me Lynne for making wild assumptions in regards to your finances...if you are indeed in the same tax bracket as the Donald, please accept my sincerest apologies.)

  24. Bill, be careful not to get tripped up by the concern with how much money people have-- as Kate Fox writes, "class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation". (She goes on to say that "Speech is all-important".)

    As an immigrant (I should really get out of the habit of calling myself an ex-pat now that I'm a citizen), my class status is rarely of interest to the English, since I can't easily be judged on many of the key indicators, such as accent (people definitely have opinions on mine, but they're not class-based) or where I went to school/university (since the English don't tend to know the reputations of any US universities other than Harvard and Yale).

    Kate Fox also writes, "Our [English] culture is not a meritocracy. [...] And whatever you do accomplish, your class position will always be identifiable through your speech." Unless, of course, like Margaret Thatcher, you work very hard to rid your speech of 'undesirable' class/regional markers.

    So, while Donald Trump may be considered 'upper class' in the US, he would not necessarily be considered thus in the UK, even if he were British. The nouveau-riche are generally not considered to be 'upper class', but are often considered to be 'classless' in the derogatory sense of the term. It's unseemly to show that you have money in traditional Britain. That said, those who work in the City (the British equivalent of working 'on Wall Street') are a law/class unto themselves.

    I read somewhere that academics are basically considered their own class (not that people consider us that often). I thought it was in Kate Fox's book, but there's no 'academic' in the index. Wish I could find where it was...

  25. What Lynne said. US immigrants are more or less classless in the UK, because the whole point about class in modern Britain is that it connotes a set of attitudes and experiences, on the basis of certain signifiers. While US immigrants may share the signifiers of a certain class in the UK, the same connotations aren't there.

  26. Yesterday's Chicago Tribune had several articles about the "middle class." It profiled several households who consider themselves middle class, ranging from a family of five who live on $30,000 per year to a couple who earn $350,000. (Neither fits the official definition, which is 75-150% of the average income for a family of three.)

    There was no discussion of any markers of class other than income, beyond one man's brief comment that his university education hadn't brought him the income and lifestyle he had expected.

    (I haven't linked, because the online version of the article is only available to subscribers.)

  27. I assume that what would happen if a working class person in Britain came into millions of dollars is roughly the same thing that would happen in the US: they'd buy an enormous tacky house, eight expensive automobiles, and spend the next six months pissing all the rest away on drink.

    It drives me crazy hearing Americans denying that we have a class system. This usually comes up discussing poverty, because most Americans strenuously believe that they have pulled themselves by their bootstraps and got where they are today by the virtue of hard work etc. etc., and certainly didn't enjoy any inherent advantages in their schooling, stable households, etc. etc.

    It also comes up in the subject of taxes; EVERY American is woefully overtaxed, as if he or she were rich, when in fact we're all middle class. It is extremely common in my experience to hear this kind of moaning accompanied by "$200,000 isn't rich, it's middle class". Which is a lie.

    My favorite book on class in America is by Paul Fussell, Class: a Guide Through the American Class System. Class in the US is a mutable thing, and often is described not in terms of income (plumbers earn far more than teachers) but in personal style. Think about the implications of driving a pickup truck with oversized tires, versus a flashy Audi, or boring maroon Buick sedan. Or the crowd at your average opera vs. your average NASCAR race.

  28. Some more: it seems to me that there is a new class that is growing in both the US and the UK, as well as elsewhere: the "sophisticate class". Open to all, as both upper and working classes have advantages and drawbacks. This would be the world-traveling, web-designer, blogger, wine-and-cheese-savvy class, up on the latest trends in techno and indie rock, drives a hybrid, constantly texting or emailing via cell phone, can discourse freely on the merits of hundreds or thousands of consumer products, collects vintage something-or-others.

  29. Oh, I could go on forever! It seems to me that in post-Jamie Oliver Britain, EVERYBODY (in the South) speaks with a more-or-less fake Mockney accent. Sounding "upper" is a terrible handicap, it seems, and is even mocked as such, a la Jonathan Ross.

  30. Thanks for the thorough response!! I wonder if part of the use of middle class in England is that anything beyond middle class is verging on aristocratic.

    Also, I am just getting back to you now because I have been busy with house guests from London who have three young girls. I can't believe how much American English they use: "I'm done" vs. "I've finished" and "stand in line" instead of "queue." I thought it was slightly affected until I saw the Wombles American TV attack-ad on the BBC website today:

    As the oldest of the three commented: "Why is America just like England?" !!

    Washington, DC

  31. There's a matrix (or a three-dimensional Venn diagram) of British "classes". Money is one aspect (and within it, there's a difference between income and capital wealth, and within that how it's acquired - inherited land or invested income?); education/culture/tastes/speech another - one with very complicated and fluid distinctions, and loads of sub-groups all busy marking themselves off from whatever people are Not Quite Like Us. Obviously, it's possible for people to be rich and retain the tastes and speech of their working (or more likely lower-middle) class origins, and be thought utterly vulgar by people who've inherited (or acquired) high-culture or aristocratic tastes and don't have a bean.

    The interesting thing about the American concept of "middle class" is - what is it in the "middle" of? What's above it is clear. What's below it? This could be the distinction between what, in Britain, used to be called the "respectable" and "rough" working classes (though the "respectables" would now consider themselves middle class since the decline of the old industrial working-class culture). It could also be - dare I say it - race? But that's another issue.

  32. That reminds me of something from Simon Hoggart's column last week in which he says:

    "A wise American reporter based in London once told me that every British news story is, deep down, about class. Every American story, he said, is about race. There's enough truth in that to be worth considering."

    Indeed, there is. Below the middle class is people who are chronically (BrE) on benefits. Of course, they can be of any race, but the proportions are certainly not typical of the population at large. "Trailer trash" is another group that most middle-classers would not consider to be middle class--they are white, but the origin of "white trash" is the judgement that they don't act white, but black. (Haven't got a reference for that at the moment--must run, but it's easily referenceable.)

    Notably, people in the US talk about the 'black middle class' with the unspoken assumption that the middle class is a minority among the African-American population.

    Welcome to the fray, autolycus.

  33. Incidentally, Hoggart has more comments on class and American English in that column:

    "All British visitors know the perils of American English, especially the faux friends, the words that are the same but have different meanings. "Autos - drive on the pavement" means "keep off the pavement", or sidewalk. A "joint" has nothing to do with Sunday lunch. At the meetings addressed by Hillary and Barack, there were signs up saying: "Rebuild the middle class with the unions," which is not a sign you'd be likely to see at home, where "middle-class" means "comfortably off"; in the States it means "not comfortably off"."

    Or, at least, middle class in the US is perceived as meaning 'those with the most to lose if a recession comes'.

    I always like it when Hoggart comments on American things. He's one commentator who doesn't go for the easy stereotypes and seems to see some of the complexities.

  34. Thanks for the Simon Hoggarth tip; he's good.

    On the subject of Donald Trump, the 80s New York satirical magazine Spy always referred to him not by his name but as "the short-fingered vulgarian". Everyone knew whom they meant.

  35. Let us not forget the UHBs (urban haute bourgeoisie) of Whit Stillman's Metropolitan.

  36. Carolyn, Washington DC15 April, 2008 20:15

    Also, I have never hear the expression "working class" bandied about in the U.S. as much as I have the past week with the Obama "bitter" scandal. Perhaps another elment of being working class in the U.S. is being from a small town....

  37. Well, being from a small town is somehow (on a subconscious level, at least) equated with virtuousness in America. The cities tend to be associated with the rich and the underclass, not 'good working people'. At least, that's the view from where I grew up (small town!).

  38. Well, being from a small town is somehow (on a subconscious level, at least) equated with virtuousness in America. The cities tend to be associated with the rich and the underclass, not 'good working people'. At least, that's the view from where I grew up (small town!).
    Indeed. I just listened to a political podcast from WNYC in NYC, and they were amazed that Hillary Clinton was coming to NYC to give a speech on "the urban economy". The hosts remarked that this was the first time they'd heard the word "urban" in this presidential campaign. (Note that "urban" is often used in the US as a marketing synonym for "black".)

  39. Except Urban Outfitters?

    And as a young person (with linguistic training), I can assuredly say that not all of us speak "Mockney", however you define that. I am still able to tell young southerners' dialects apart, usually to within the county (this is the UK I'm talking about). And I certainly hope we aren't "post-Jamie Oliver"...

    One thing I learned at Sussex that has really stuck with me is the idea of social networks defining class. Granovetter's (1973; "The Strength of Weak Ties" Amer. J. of Sociology 78:6, pp.1360-80) classic study on social networks gave us a method to define class without reference to money (unreliable) or cultural values (status of job for example, the prestiges of which actually differ between social classes). The middle class is characterised by a large number of weak ties between individuals - you work different people than those who live in your neighbourhood and both those sets of people are different from those you play soccer with. In this way, the area you live in, and the type of job you have do have an input into this metric. The working class is defined by fewer stronger ties than the middle class. You work and drink at the pub with your neighbours. Of course, my examples are stereotypes - they don't exist in the real world. Having large numbers of weak ties gives you more access to information (and Granovetter documented this with reference to hearing about new job opportunities). A weak tie, Granovetter claims, passes more new information than a strong tie, largely because in a strong tie, you already know everything your pal knows. And knowledge is power.

    (p.s., I'm not spamming you Lynne, just it's been a while since I checked in on you!)

  40. Lovely to hear from you Peter...the Granovetter reference is great, thanks!

  41. A classic example of how "middle class" means very different things in the US, from a recent Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone:

    "The one obvious conclusion anyone making a demographic study of the Cornerstone Church population would come to would be that it's a solidly middle-class crowd. These are folks who are comfortable eating off paper plates and drinking out of gallon jugs of Country Time iced tea over noisy dinners with their kids."

  42. Social class analysis is a very bent academic fixation, deconstructing anything and everything in order to conquer some wooly niche or other. And why not? The NY Social Register Association's submission form has added yacht-ownership as another mark of America's upperclass pedigree. How else could one judge the depth and permanency of a family? Or, has the Registry replace the family?

  43. TheophileEscargot over at the Metafilter thread that links to this post makes an important point about teeth as a class marker in the US. This is something I think even lots of people from the US don’t realise consciously, but they still behave according to it—there are few markers of poverty more immediate there than being gap- or buck-toothed, and that’s less the case in the other countries I’ve lived in.

  44. There's a nice little mistake in the IHT article you link - "most people not to the manner born". So I'm guessing the author isn't an upperclass Brit, then.

  45. Replies
    1. The pun is in 'To the manor born'. The original is Shakespearean (or older).

    2. OK, someone further down the comments has answered this. Please delete both my earlier one and this comment, Lynne.

    3. HAMLET

      The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
      Keeps wassail, and the swaggering upspring reels.
      And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down
      The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
      The triumph of his pledge.


      .....................................Is it a custom?


      Ay, marry, is't.
      But to my mind, though I am native here
      And to the manner born, it is a custom
      More honoured in the breach than the observance.

  46. The (American) web comic Cat and Girl once posited the definition that class is determined by how much money one's grandparents had.

    As for "respectable/rough working class" in Britain, I got the impression that "working class" is generally respectable (unpretentious salt-of-the-Earth types), whereas the "rough" working class (characterised by things like teenage pregnancy, being on benefits, proneness to violence and a fondness for pit bulls) are referred to not as "working class" but"underclass"

  47. Fnarf, I've got another name for the "sophisticate" class which, given your obvious disdain for other elements of society, I'm sure you count yourself a member of. However, I don't want to clutter up this otherwise lovely blog by calling you out on your gauche manners.

    Suffice it to say that effete is not necessarily synonymous with class and, whatever your income level, someone failed to instill any true class within you.

    As someone already noted, "working class" has begun to creep into liberal US political discussions. There is already a backlash from the other end of the spectrum claiming that designating a specific group as working class implies that anyone outside of that group is not working. I guess most Americans will sympathize with the latter view and the term will continue to be rare in everyday discourse.

    Finally, I think coveralls is a regional term. I have never heard them referred to as anything but overalls.

  48. chg, since fnarf was not flattering to any particular class, I don't see that even implied flaming is called for here.

  49. Frans (1 May) mentioned the phrase 'to the manner born' as if it should have been 'to the manor born'. But the first version is the one used by Shakespeare to indicate - I think - natural talent: performing a task as if born to it. The latter version was a cute pun used as the title of a UK sitcom in which a member of the landed gentry was displaced from her ancestral home (the manor) by a nouveau riche businessman ... of course ultimately the posh lady and the rough diamond fell in love, married and lived together in the manor (to which she had been accustomed - another pun.)

  50. Lynne: there is an excellent book called Class by Paul Fussell that explains the subtle class system in America. Anyone who is interested in the topic should read it; it's both entertaining and dead-on accurate, and covers everything from language, dressing, habitation, and occupation.

  51. Speaking of UK class structure:

    Apart from upper-middle, middle-middle, and lower-middle, there's also the type I call the aspirational or striving middle class -- desperate to climb the social scale, and generally making asses of themselves in the process.

    Upper-class and working-class people tend to get along rather well, both being fairly forthright and down-to-earth. Both despise the middle class for its pretentiousness.

    Or, as the previous Duke of Buccleuch once grumbled on seeing life peers rising every time a woman entered the room, "Dem'd upstarts, bob-bob-bobbing up and down like a bloody jack-in-the-box."

  52. This is indeed a "big, hairy topic", but I get the impression it's much more straightforward in America. "Class" seems to be mainly about income, whereas in the UK it has nothing WHATSOEVER to do with income, it's about tastes, attitudes, lifestyle, education, accent, etc etc etc. Your average middle-class person might have a higher income than a working-class person but that's not what makes them middle-class, it's a reflection of their education or sense of entitlement or connections or whatever. There are of course some very rich working-class people and some very poor aristocrats. It's how they earn and spend the money that tells us about their social class. And incidentally, yes, it may be unusual but it is perfectly possible to be a middle-class plumber, say if you "downshifted" into it after leaving a job in the City, or came from a middle-class home but dropped out of school early. And occasionally people rise to exalted heights in the establishment without losing any of their working-class-ness, like the deputy Prime Minister of the last government.

    I'm sorry if the above seems obvious to Brits, but it can result in some strange transatlantic incongruities. I've heard of a car being described in AmE as middle-class. The BrE for this would be "mid-range", I think. It's hard to make sense of the phrase "middle-class car" in BrE, but it would have to be one that exuded middle-class attitudes in some way, whatever that meant in practice. Maybe a sensible Volvo estate rather than a souped-up mass-market sports car with a gigantic sund system? Someone at a car hire firm or dealership would never describe a car as middle-class, that would be (cheeky) sociological comment rather than a question about boot size or engine capacity. "Now sir, would you like a family-values model, a nice neo-con-veyance perhaps, or do you prefer something more anti-establishment?"

    Unfortunately, there is much incomprehension, suspicion and even emnity between classes in the UK. I don't know why in these infinitely socially freer times Britain is still so class-ridden compared to other places, but it's certainly not what the political theorists meant by class struggle.

    (The idea of Donald Trump as upper-class is hilarious!)

  53. In Britain, America, and everywhere else, there are two classes; Those who own the means of production and those who don't. That's it.

  54. Hi. I'm gonna respond to some really old comments here.

    I (American) think I see what Fnarf was getting at in his first comment. To use an extreme example, is Larry the Cable Guy upper class? I'm sure he's made more money than most of us ever will, but I'm also sure he'd be the first to admit he's not a classy guy. But for some reason, it feels weird to me to refer to that as a class system. It's just grouping people based on their personalities.

    So, is the British class system similar to what Fnarf described in his first comment? If so, I think I'm finally starting to understand it as an American. I always thought it was about money when I would read British books or watched British TV shows. Upper class British people are the people who could be said to have the most class of anyone or they could be called very classy. Right? Or am I wrong? Lower (or working) class British people would be more likely than higher class people to do dirty, smelly, physically demanding or dangerous jobs. But those jobs could very well pay better than the jobs that people from higher classes than them do. Right? Do a lot of people from higher classes in Britain think they're better or smarter than people from lower classes there? Is talking about social class maybe sometimes a PC way of talking about (perceived) intelligence differences in the UK? That's another thing I'm curious about. I don't really expect anyone to answer my questions, so I'm not sure why I asked them. I also apologize if any of the above seems incredibly obvious to Brits. Class really isn't something we think about or talk about much in America, so reading this blog post has been a huge eye-opener for me. Thank you.

    I grew up in a small town in the heartland of America. An aunt and an uncle (and their children) lived in the same town I did. Looking back, I honestly think my family thought we were better and smarter than they were in some ways. We still loved them though; don't get me wrong. But I don't think we thought we were better and smarter than them because of how much money my parents made. My dad was a teacher and my mom did a lot of different things, but nothing too lucrative. She was college-educated (unlike my aunt or uncle). She was an on and off substitute teacher when I got older. My uncle did house renovations, auto repair and later ironwork. That aunt and uncle might have made more money than my parents. As a kid it always seemed to me like they did. They always had flashy new cars, flashy new TVs, flashy new video game systems, flashy new trampolines, etc. They ate out at fast food restaurants all the time and seemed to go to the movies all the time. But I think my parents kind of prided themselves on being more frugal, more tasteful and less ostentatious than my aunt and uncle. So I guess some people might see that as a class difference between my family and my aunt and uncle's family. But I never thought it was possible to look at it that way until I read this post.

    Harry Campbell
    (The idea of Donald Trump as upper-class is hilarious!)

    Oh boy...I really wish I had a time machine right now...

    1. Mark, the difference you describe between your parents and your uncle and aunt is a clear parallel to one aspect of class-consciousness in Britain. Where I suspect we Brits differ is that we conflate one aspect of a class stereotype with the rest of the package.

      On the flimsy basis of knowing just a little of two families' educational histories and tastes in consumer goods, all too many of us would make assumptions about the kind of work the husband does, the part of town they live in, whether or not they own their home, their ambitions for their children and the sort of school the children attend, the sort of newspaper they read, the television programmes they prefer, the radio channel they listen to, the sort of holidays they go on and so on. Of course when challenged we don't maintain that every family conforms in each and every one of these choices to a middle class or working class stereotype. Nevertheless, the stereotypes affect our lazier thinking much of the time.

      Of interest to this blog, if we recognise (rightly or wrongly) stereotypical class taste, we assume that the people will speak in a class-defined way. Conversely, when we think we recognise certain features of speech, we assume that we know the class of the speaker.

      Accent is a common marker — although not as powerful as when Shaw wrote 'it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman despise or hate him him'. Britain has a huge variety of regional accents — much greater than America, despite being geographically so much tinier. But the more a speaker climbs the social ladder, the more they eliminate the narrowly local features of their pronunciation. The target accent was given the name Received Pronunciation because it was acceptable in high-class society. When I was a boy, people aimed to actually reach the target. If you went to university, for example, you changed changed your accent to RP (assuming that you hadn't done so already). Actually, this was already beginning to change, and it changed an awful lot more after the sixties. But still there's a target: a sort of near-RP retaining a few features of your regional accent. So there's still a clear distinction between the very local accents retained by working-class speakers and the watered-down or 'posh' accents of the middle class.

      What was the point of your 'time machine' comment? The idea of Trump being 'upper class' by British standards is just as ridiculous as it alway was.

    2. I don't deserve that long of a response. You're too kind. Forget about the time machine comment :)

  55. On the flimsy basis of knowing just a little of two families' educational histories and tastes in consumer goods, all too many of us would make assumptions about the kind of work the husband does, the part of town they live in, whether or not they own their home, their ambitions for their children and the sort of school the children attend, the sort of newspaper they read, the television programmes they prefer, the radio channel they listen to, the sort of holidays they go on and so on.

    Hmm...interesting. I think my aunt and uncle's family probably does differ from my family in some of those other ways too now that you mention it. However, I don't know if I would assume that a new person I met who had different spending habits than me also would differ from me in those other ways.

    Britain has a huge variety of regional accents — much greater than America, despite being geographically so much tinier.

    Yes, I've noticed that. Even England by itself has many different accents in an area smaller than my home state. It's hard for us to believe that all of those accents come from the same country, because to our ears they're too different from each other for that to be possible. We do have some regional and ethnic accents here in Anglophone North America too though. However, all of them have some basic things in common with each other, so you can tell they all belong to the same family. The differences between some of them are subtle and hard for outsiders (and even many insiders) to hear.


Follow by email

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)