Getting to know your British 21st century class system as an American (you have learned it, right?)

Posted on September 11, 2009 by peacefulyorkshire

yahooavatar15Hey, don’t think that I am ‘rising above my station‘, but I want to share with you a little something that mystifies my American self (and is starting to scare me) about after living in Britain for 5 years. Wait, ‘mystifies’ is a polite word. I should say that my own self is starting to annoy the hell out of me. I am getting my own goat. I am ticking. my.own. self. off.  Help! As a member of the ‘upper-to middle-middle-class bordering on spiralist-meritocracy’ echelon, I am starting to become class-conscious. Has it happened to you yet? Be warned!

I am becoming a person that like other Brits, can “identify” class ranking like a stinky fish in a garbage can. I wanna say that I don’t care about class and all that hoopla but yet here I am thinking about it more frequently then I ever did living in America. Its infilatrating my brain! Got a Cath Kidston diaper bag and Molton Brown in your bathroom ? Oh, I detect a Yummy Mummy! Got a gold earring, have shaved stripes in your eyebrows and are wearing white Ted Perry trainers? Oh, that could be bordering on chav territory. Got a posh neutral accent and wear a cravat? Mon dieu, he MUST be a public school boy! Drive a white va…. ok you get the idea… and I can’t help myself. Have I been subliminally trained ? How in the world did I learn all this??

Something I just cant get used to here in Britain is the class-system ruckus. Words like working class, middle working class, the underclass, the middle middle class, the working blue collar, the noveau riche, the Old Boy’s network, wag, public school,  state-schooler, Mondeo men, Chavs, Neds, scallies, the rah, the essex man… ahhhh… god there are a lot to learn! Enough to make my head spin trying to keep it all straight. God save me before its too late!!

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  1. hoyden August 16, 2010 at 11:50 am

    You know what? Everywhere I go in Japan, I see upper middle class women carrying Harrods bags. There’s no Harrods in Japan! And certainly not all of these women traveled to London just for the bag because I could buy a Harrods bag at any girls’ boutique in Nagoya if I wanted to. But I think that’s cheating.

    I see Cath Kidston bags everywhere here too. It’s definitely a status symbol. If you have anything Harrods, Cath Kidston, or Burberry, you’re fashionable in Japan. Most of them are knock-offs, though.

    • peacefulyorkshire August 17, 2010 at 11:23 pm

      Hi Hoyden
      That is hilarious, loved your story about bags in Japan.. here in the UK I notice some women carry around those brownish Bloomingdales NYC bags that say ‘Medium Bag’…. surely they are knock offs! Kind of like Burberry scarves too…
      here I am in S America whilst I am here for the moment and I don’t dare carry my bright flowered Cath Kidson bag, it screams ROB ME —I am a tourist. ;)

  2. Mary July 13, 2010 at 6:36 am

    simhedges >> BUT also, upper class is not *better* than middle class, and middle class is not *better* than working class (or the other ways around) they are just different.

    That means the notion of class-conscious is still rooted in people’s mind in the UK, isn’t it?

    The line between classes doesn’t really exist and I never thought it is obviously divided or different in my country, because anybody has a chance to go up and down depending on how they live their life.
    In Canada, what you can do and how you behave as an individual is important than what you wear and people don’t really care other’s social class. Even English isn’t so important to live and launch bussiness there.
    Also, anybody can go to university without getting any prejudices by ages or races if they have enough money and abilities to enter. People don’t really judge people by their appearances there, because Canada is a multicultural country made by immigrants from everywhere and the society is open-minded for a diversity, so there are various values.
    Some wealthy people also wear decent clothes in daily life on streets unless it’s not a day of party or a formal situation. You actually can find various kinds of people sharing a coffee shop together. It’s usual and funny.

  3. Sarah June 9, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    As an American that has been living in the south of England for almost 2 years now, I can completely agree with this!! I miss the days of walking into a bar and not being concerned with what everyone in the room was wearing/carrying/driving….or for that matter what I was wearing/carrying/driving and what it said about me to everyone else. In the US you could be sitting next to a multi millionare…or a homeless person…and not know the difference, and more importantly not CARE about the difference. I find over here its more about what you have than who you are, which is so discouraging. Sure there are exception in both countries, but for the most part I find the class system much more obviouse over here.

    Steve- I do see your points and agree with them in some ways. But its more about peoples attitudes and perceptions and judgements than thier actual jobs. Im interested to know, have you ever lived in the US??

  4. Parakeet May 4, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Ha ha! This is spot-on. I also began to figure out who belongs where in the UK “class system” after several years of living there as an American. It freaks out my US family when I tell them you can tell due to certain cues. I recently identified someone as a “public school boy” and my family was mystified. Ah, the things you learn…

  5. simhedges February 20, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Steve writes “I feel in the UK we define class as catergorising people in terms of their jobs, that’s it really” – I don’t agree – there’s much more to it than that. My sister and I have a vicar as a father – Vicars are middle class. My sister has been an unemployed single mother on benefits. But she was still middle class because of her values, attitudes, and how she was perceived and how she felt. She (and I ) will never be anything else. We could be living on the streets or married to the aristocracy, and it would never change. Your class is what you feel it is – which is why some Labour MPs (objectively middle class, of course) think of themselves as working class: their kids will be middle class, though.

    So in the UK there are 2 kinds of class: socio-economic groupings, based on how much you earn and what you do for a living, and the class you feel you are. You can be an aristocrat in a council house or a working class £100m lottery winner.

    BUT also, upper class is not *better* than middle class, and middle class is not *better* than working class (or the other ways around) they are just different.

  6. Steve Shawcross October 14, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Interesting to hear about how the ‘class system’ works in the USA, I’d agree you can “hide it better” over in the USA.

    I think in the UK its becoming the same, as traditional working-class jobs have disappearead– also class distinctions are becoming more blurred too– this has accelerated during the recession.

    There are tales of former bankers accepting jobs in McDonalds, or people who have been laid off from low-paid jobs, set up their own niche businesses– and become wealthy. We increasingly have plumbers and electricians earning more than teachers and junior civil servants– and we have Royals dating middle-class folk now!

    Linda, you sound like a charming, intelligent and amusing person to me– so you should have no trouble fitting in :) York is indeed a lovely city, and Yorkshire folk are salt of the earth.

  7. Linda Trim October 14, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    I have had much amusement from reading your blogs, especially since I am contemplating a move back to England next year after a LONG hiatus over here; pretty much my whole adult life to be honest. I think we can hide from the “class” thing quite well in the US. I live in Chicagoland, Western suburbs, and I cringe when I read of the poverty in South Chicago or wherever, but I don’t have to see it. I think (tell me if I am wrong) that in the UK it might be much more visible, in that you see people from more walks of life. I have not been back since 2006. I am thinking about locating to York (‘cos it’s a nice town) so am very interested in your impressions of England, since I am very Americanized now, just British at the core. I would not have any immediate family in the area so will need to make friends, and having read your blog I am scared! Since I am older than dirt, perhaps folks will take pity on me, LOL.

    • yankeebean October 14, 2009 at 8:20 pm

      Hi Linda

      I totally don’t want to scare you about making new friends! I’m sure you’ll be all that more prepared since you’ve lived here before :) . Roll on back and keep us posted!!

  8. Steve Shawcross September 21, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Fair point Peacefulyorkshire…

    It depends what you define as “class”. I feel in the UK we define class as catergorising people in terms of their jobs, that’s it really… or lack thereof when it comes to chavs (scallie and neds are regional variations of the word chav)

    Thus terms like “Essex man” aren’t to do with class, merely geographic, no different from Scousers, Brummies or Weegies in that sense.

    “Public school” or “Old Boy’s Network” aren’t really class terms either– just indicative of what sort of school you went to– and whom you know from them: Upper class *and* middle-class people attend public schools– even people from working-class backgrounds– if the parents have the money (often the case with plumbers and electricians now).

    Termss like “Mondeo man” are essentially just political or marketing terms, infrequently used by the public at large in my experience. “Mondeo man” was previously only used by car marketing firms, as shorthand for lower-middle class families, who would buy a Ford Mondeo… it only became widely known via Tony Blair, since he declared he wanted to court votes from such lower-middle class backgrounds

    Officially in the UK there are just three classes, often sub-divided into “upper” and “lower” for each class by the goverment (“chavs” would be the fourth ‘class’ I suppose, the underclass). Any other class-related terms are just synonyms thereof, and aren’t widely used: I’ve certainly not heard of the “rah”– new one on me– I’m intrigued! :D

  9. SapphireCate September 15, 2009 at 11:05 am

    HUmans are a tribal animal, as such we will form bonds with people with whom we identify and make those bonds visible. I think a lot of American social problems would be greatly alleviated if we could talk about the US class system (which does exist) with anything like the frankness the Brits can discuss the (admittedly fracturing) british class system.

    • peacefulyorkshire September 21, 2009 at 5:37 pm

      Thanks for your comments y’all.
      I just can’t seem to think of the same extent of words in the USA as I can in the UK though. Horrible race related comments are a whole other issue in the USA and I am SO not going there…! Steve, you mentioned white-collar workers, blue-collar workers and the infamous trailer-trash and rednecks… Maybe I have been away from the USA for too long, but I can’t recall anymore words than the ones you mentioned that are class related. In the UK there are tons!

  10. Iota September 11, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    I think one of the nice things about moving to a new country, is that you are freed up from making assumptions about people. You don’t know the significance of the Cath Kidston diaper bag. You just think “that’s a pretty bag”.

    I’ve undergone a similar-ish process to you. It’s not so much to do with class, but I can place people a lot better now, by what they wear, how they talk, where they send their kids to school, what their job is, where they go on vacation… There are definite groupings.

    I rather miss my earlier fresh-faced innocent non-judgemental self! I found it liberating to have to take people totally at face value.

  11. Steve Shawcross September 11, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    I don’t think class matters as much now as it did in the past, in the UK. There’s a saying that has become prevalent this decade: “We’re all middle class now”.

    This true to an extent: Since the 1980s, heavy industry has all but disappeared, and traditional ‘working-class’ jobs have largely disappeared. The ones that do exist, have become middle-class in a way– a plumber typically earns more than a teacher now.

    The upper-classes are mingling with the plebs. Prince William/Katie Middleton, or Mike Tyndall/Zara Phillips, so even the Royals aren’t that ‘upper-class’ now.

    The general public aren’t that concerned with class I don’t think, certainly nothing like the Victorian times or time before. Two world wars (where people of all types fought together), the social revoltuion of the 1960s and the plutocratic revoultion of the 1980s have blurred and broke down class barriers. We now have people of ‘working-class’ pedigree becoming multi-millionaires.

    The only people who really concern themselves with class these days are politicians… especially this Marxoid government who are obsessed with classifying people and social engineering! Or the media and marketing groups, who like to simplify life or know who to sell what to.

    There is a growing underclass I concede: Those who don’t work, and live off benefits (chavs)– those that are homeless too.

    In conclusion, the point to bear in mind here is that the UK is no more class-ridden than the USA: After all in the USA, we have white-collar workers, blue-collar workers and the infamous trailer-trash and rednecks.

    I think class exists in any first-world country. I think we’re just honest about it here I suppose, and don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. But at the same time most people don’t really think about it in the UK, only humourously these days. Anybody Brit who does take it seriously and is snobby about, is someone to avoid ;) See Hyacinth Bucket!

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