Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Am I allowed to laugh at the Barclay’s guys wearing top hats?

September 14, 2010 · 4 Comments

Last night at Barclays Wealth was the first time I have ever been to an event where I was expected to mingle with rich, important people with one of my intention being to network for possible jobs (the other being to represent my school and my program, but I’ll get to that). I felt I was supposed to get dressed in formal clothing (painful shoes, scary make-up processes, scary hair frying devises) so I wouldn’t stick out as someone that didn’t care about the program, and it was kind of stressful. I recognize that a lot of people like dressing up, and that is great (they were super helpful and made it way less stressful). But I don’t like dressing up. I rarely dress up, and when I do, I’m really uncomfortable. I also have no idea how to network. I’m perfectly happy talking to strangers, but I don’t know what any of the social customs are for that particular type of event. The fact that I was wearing fancy, uncomfortable clothing leads me to believe that I am not expected to act like myself even though that is what I expect a person’s advice would be if I asked them directly. Otherwise I would being wearing normal clothes, the clothes I wear when I am expected to be myself. There are unwritten codes of conduct and a change in clothing and appearance denotes that those codes need to be enacted. I don’t think anyone could overtly tell me what those codes are because they are codes that you only learn through practice, and people that know them are unconscious of them because they seem natural.

This brings me to class. We’ve been spending all this time talking about how class in England is so weird because it’s based on habits and lifestyle choices when in America it’s mostly just a tax bracket thing. I really think we’ve been exaggerating this difference quite a bit. Class in America might be about tax brackets once you get there, but if you want to get rich, you probably need a sweet job, and if you want a sweet job, you probably need to be good at mingling with rich, important people. People from lower classes in the United States and in England alike do not get the same opportunities as the upper classes to practice mingling and all the social customs that go along with it (being comfortable in fancy clothes, which hand to hold your drink in, the best hand shake, how to politely find important people, what subjects are taboo, what jokes are okay, how coarse to get with language, how to gracefully enter and leave a conversation, how much criticism of society is acceptable and what part are off limits, how to show off without seeming like a jerk, etc.).

As a disclaimer, I’m not trying to paint myself as a victim and say that class limited me here. The fact that I’ve never had to look for a real job and that I just don’t like wearing fancy clothes limited me, but that is expected because I am young. But that experience of being really uncomfortable brings to my attention that there is a huge difference in social customs. Dickinson gave me this opportunity, and I’ll be better at it next time. What about people who just don’t get this opportunity in the first place?

For America, it’s the same thing we hear over and over again. The American Dream is a myth that propels itself by a handful of people who actually make it. People from lower classes have the deck stacked against them in more ways than one and the rich have just hte opposite. For England I think it’s a little more complicated, and I invite anyone to put their two cents in because I’m still trying to work it out myself. If England has a more rigid class system in which people take pride in their working class characteristics, how do they learn the social customs necessary to network and make more money? How can we even say that England has a rigid class system if Kate Fox says that middle classes have so much class insecurity that the use of bizarre upper class sounding, French terms are now characteristic of middle classness? If class in England is really not about money and success, is it the ends to some English equivalent to the American Dream?

Categories: 2010 Jesse
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4 responses so far ↓

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 14th 2010 at 16:45

    I actually completely agree that we’ve been overstating the importance of money to class in the States. I mean, there’s a reason we have separate terms for “classy” and “expensive,” and I don’t think anyone would argue that they mean the same thing. We’re also pretty familiar with the term “nouveau riche” and all the attendant (and generally negative) connotations, which is really just American (or, I guess, French) for what the British would call the upper-middle class. Maybe class and money are linked more in America than they are in Britain; that doesn’t mean that they’re inseparable.
    I do think we have to be careful when we evaluate class systems, though, to be realistic. Sure, different groups of society have different concepts of what’s polite and appealing. Of course. There’s nothing wrong with that, despite the fact that it doesn’t work out in everyone’s favor. Class exists and will always exist, whether the hierarchy is based on money, behavior, race, religion, family background, or whatever. Personally, I think a behavior-based class system is the most desirable of these options.
    I also think you’re overstating the link between mingling and getting a good job. I mean, we’re going to college to learn strong writing and speaking skills – much more important than small talk. We’re learning critical thinking and analytical skills, and probably pursuing internships to get job experience and build our resumes. We’re cultivating relationships with professors based on much more than our small talk and mingling abilities, and our professors are our advocates and advisors and important connections for the future. To reduce finding a good job and being successful to high heels and makeup is, quite honestly, belittling to successful people. And most importantly, it’s an extreme oversimplification of class systems.
    I share most of your questions about the English class system, though, and how it works out for the English working class. I’d be interested in looking at hard statistical evidence of class mobility in England – not just Kate Fox’s anecdotal evidence. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that, as usual, Fox has oversimplified and overstated the facts. I also wouldn’t be surprised to find that even if there isn’t much CLASS mobility in England, that there’s a significant level of ECONOMIC mobility. Again, I’m past the point where I can take Fox’s word on anything.

  •   bowmanc // Sep 14th 2010 at 17:12

    I also think that mingling skills are overstated in importance. Though it is certainly a benefit to be able to walk into a room, network with a bunch of different folks, I think a powerful resume speaks for itself. Personally, I think that economic status is a prerequisite for class in the US. You can be rich without being high class; however, you can’t be high class without being rich, unlike the UK.

  •   maryc // Sep 14th 2010 at 17:18

    First of all, thank you for expressing gratitude toward those who helped prepare you for the event yesterday evening. I think you’re fully capable of doing your make-up and hair yourself though. Obviously, just some practice will help. Maybe join the dance or theatre world and you’ll soon become a professional! Trust me…

    In regards to your comments on class, I agree. I think it’s been unwise for us to overemphasize the idea that class in America is based on one’s economic standing. The concept of class is complex and multifaceted and includes many more aspects of culture–one’s race, ethnicity, religious background, demography, and language. I also believe that Americans are very class-conscious themselves. We may all claim to be middle class when, in reality, we really are not. Perhaps someone should write about American class-consciousness in a new book called “Watching the Americans”…

  •   battilaj // Sep 14th 2010 at 18:34

    Yes, mingling abilties are definitely not the only way to get a job, but it helps. I realize that getting a job and being successful are a lot more complicated that one variable and require a lot of hard work, and I would never try to devalue that. But our college educations aren’t just teaching us strong writing and speaking skills; they’re also teaching us upper class writing and speaking skills. I could easily analyze and write just as intelligently in a less “educated” vernacular. All the thinking and analytical skills we are gaining, the relationships we are building with our professors, and the resume and job experience we are getting require a lot of hard work and are excellent assets, but they’re still social capital that is not available to everyone. Dickinson is a private school. They can only let in so many people on scholarship.

    MK, I also think you interpretted my comments about clothing very differently than I intended when I wrote it. I am not reducing success to high heels and make-up. I’m using it as an indicator of change in social norms and as an example of one of many small social cues that not everyone learns.

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