How do we show belonging? Status & Class.

Status & Class

Status or social class is a unique grouping because many of our efforts go into convincing a level above our own that we are one of them. Membership brings advantages. Class and social status can include a person’s attitude, financial class, prestige or reputation. The differences can show up in daily interactions such as how people carry themselves socially, the work they do, the clothing they wear and the leisure activities they pursue. Successfully showing that we fit in can ultimately help us provide more stability for our families.

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This isn’t just about wealth. For centuries we have seen how the newly rich may have money, but they are marginalized by the upper echelons of society for lacking ‘class.’ “They don’t really belong. They can’t be trusted. They are not one of us.”

Status is not a choice that people ponder over. “Hmmm. Which class would I prefer? To have access to power and resources or not to have access to power and resources?” All other things being equal, people naturally migrate toward classes above their own. Unless someone is already a king or queen.

Upper class culture is filled with indicators of belonging, including home and lifestyle, civic and artistic causes, a full range of highly stylized social activities and preferred brands. Bespoke in abundance. Members can spot one another across a ballroom.  And they can spot a “visitor” just as easily. Their lives are relatively secure and in their control. Upper class parents tend to emphasize self-directed values in their children. “You are special and deserve to be who you want to be.”

Middle class culture has its own indicators, including home and lifestyle (perhaps two working parents to make ends meet), sports team support and neighborhood engagement. They often invest heavily in education and attire for their children to ensure access to more opportunities. They are somewhat in control of their lives, with access to savings, insurance and some investments. People tend to value independence and self-fulfillment for their children, sometimes prioritized over cooperation. 

Working class culture is rooted in dependence and insecurity. Hourly wages in uncertain jobs often don’t support home ownership, healthcare or education. Members of this culture are more interdependent as they deal with the ups and downs of employment and family issues. Helping one another – sticking together when the chips are down - is seen as vital. You don’t wander around taking things you want from one another. There are dues to be paid. Working class parents often emphasize conformity, fitting in, as a way to survive. If you make waves, you risk expulsion from work or school.

When kids are in high school these class differences can be brutal. At the age when identity is being defined, they are exposed to a flood of stories and images promoting how to be cool. Woefully, 99% of what they see comes with high price tags. At the same time, “competition” is at its most intense, being surrounded by hundreds of other teens looking to belong and be special at the same time. It can feel like winners and losers every day. Evidence of social status too often wins the day.

Learning to behave like the group into which you want to assimilate can set you on the path to belonging. But it can be a steeper climb than anticipated. The ways your roots show can seem endless. And that is okay. You may find you can partake in the pleasures of a couple of class levels. You can fit in different worlds bringing some of the values across lines.

After you have started the transition, family and friends from your earlier world may say, “Remember who you are and where you came from!” These are great opportunities to reflect and perhaps find ways to hold onto aspects that can continue to serve you and your community well.

{Status & Class} in Appearance & Fashion

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Fashion

Fashion is the primary communicator of class. It has always been that way. In many ways, it is the purpose of fashion – a visual display of who is in what station in life.

Beyond the basics (ie: blizzard protection), we humans have choices. This color or that color? Long coat or jacket? Immediately we enter the realm of judgment. And a huge factor in what we choose is the message we send – the thought of, “How will people see – and judge – me?” We all want to belong and to be liked.

Culture comes barreling in to set up decision-making criteria for us. It shows us finely groomed men in tailored suits wearing expensive watches – in front of expensive cars. The message is, “I have my act together. I am financially independent. I am king of the jungle.” Women wear dramatic and somewhat revealing fashion, hair that flows, red lips, diamonds sprinkled everywhere – in front of the luxury car. The message? Surprisingly these messages can be for men who want to be in the company of a woman like the one in the ad. It says, “Drive this car – this very expensive car – and look who will come your way.”

These sorts of ads are selling status, giving everyone an understanding of what exclusivity looks like. If you want to belong, here’s what you need to do.

Fashion guidance works the very same way. Madison Avenue masterfully presents image after image of status or wealth to promote high-end brands. Fashion runways and magazines tell the story. Consumers who are already in that class – or aspire to be, notice everything – the body type, the fit, the fabrics, accessories, the hair, the make-up – the brands. Page after page.

Those who ‘know’ then recognize those same details in those around them. The group’s members constantly reinforce their compliance to evolving group standards. Their active social network keeps demand high and relegates last year’s trends to the back of the closet or to Goodwill.

Marketers also flood media with images intended for middle class consumers, offering brands that may reference high-end trends in more accessible ways. New colors, patterns or fabrics this year? Hints of military? Different fit? People in the middle class aren’t in a position to abandon last year’s fashion – just yet. They are more likely to add a piece or two, perhaps for special occasions.

For this group, the brand itself can be the statement. So small logos or brand identifiers are common and important. Peers judge not just on the trendiness and quality of their clothes but also on the depth of one’s closet. Not repeating items – having a week’s long rotation or more – can be important.

Working class people obviously have fewer resources and fewer choices. They are more likely to have a few garments they wear repeatedly – perhaps even wearing them out. Discount centers and second hand shops provide access to affordable but not necessarily fashionable or even well-constructed clothing. Overstated and dominating brand knock-offs are in abundance – Gucci in 8” gold lettering. These can provide a message to the upper classes that, “See, I have good taste, too.”

When people step into a class or status above their own, they know the stakes. They may overspend, and perhaps not wisely, for those occasions. The higher status members can tell; they can always tell. But the gesture and effort is appreciated.

The Pampered Look

A routine of spa treatments, facials, trimmed brows, massages, manicures and pedicures contributes to a nearly flawless look. Perfect grooming – hair that is colored with care and cut with precision in a clear contemporary style.  All takes time and money. All done by professionals.

This all shows. For those who want to be accepted into a higher status, there are at-home versions – but the difference is clear.

Basic Anatomy

Children from the upper classes have access to better health care, which includes tools such as orthotic shoes, orthodontic treatments and support for a variety of other irregularities often not covered by insurance. Lower class families go without.

Many in the upper classes work with trainers and coaches to develop personal gym and yoga routines. This all takes time and money, neither of which are abundant for those in the working class.

As adults, plastic surgery and botox treatments are beyond what most working class people can afford. Access to a healthy diet and lifestyle can also be a challenge. All of these physical advantages have a noticeable cumulative effect.

Jewelry & Accessories

This goes without saying. Almost everyone wears jewelry. The difference is easy to spot. In many middle and upper class families, jewelry is handed down through generations, a reflection of established membership in a class. 

Costume jewelry gives people the opportunity to show style and fun without breaking the bank.   

In all classes there is pressure for men to buy expensive jewelry for the women in their lives. Wearable evidence of love. Even when women are financially independent and can buy their own, the demand is still there.

Fine Arts

A key difference between the classes is the interest and ability to purchase – and even collect – art.

Homes are larger – wall space is abundant – and art is on display. Many of the world’s masterpieces are privately owned, even if they are on display in museums and galleries. Often members of the upper classes have an extensive knowledge of all of the arts and thus serve as benefactors and supporters. Art is an investment, not just in value, but in establishing oneself as an arbiter of good taste. This is reminiscent of the patronage systems of long ago.

For middle class people, fine art is accessible (and sought out) in museums. An appreciation for individual local artists and styles is a way members of this class establish their unique taste and individuality. Often homes will have original work, antiques and pottery displayed in an overall interior design and color scheme. Furniture choices, bedding patterns and table settings all make statements.

Driving through different class neighborhoods you quickly spot the difference in investment. Tree-lined approaches, high walls, seasonal sprays of color show you the high status expectations. Landscaping with shrubs, formal front entrances and lawns suggest middle class. Of course working class people’s housing rarely affords them much, if any, front yard space. 

{Status & Class} in Music & Movement

We are musical creatures. It is like a rising tide inside us, making everything inside more fluid and connected.

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High End Musical Genres

We all have the potential to enjoy any musical genre. We begin at home and broaden our portfolios from there. Nearly endless possibilities.

Historically, musicians (all artists) have been supported by nobility and royalty. There was appreciation that an artist needed relief from the daily grind to develop mastery and to create masterworks. Courtly music became more and more refined – offering works on a grand scale requiring scores of artists and production support. At the same time the rest of the world was working the fields, the barns and the smithy shops.

Orchestral, chamber music, ballet and opera all have their roots among the privileged classes. The relationship continues. Attend a performance and you will see tuxedos and gowns, expensive jewelry – and champagne.

The cost of entry into this musical world is still quite high. It requires a considerable investment in time to understand (to appreciate) the genres. And the cost to attend (ticket price and attire) is out of range for many. Patrons who do attend find lots of evidence of upper-class support – from seeing their names on buildings to listings in playbills.

Social Dance

If we were to visit school dances at a prestigious private school and a working class high school, we might find some of the same basic playlists. Teenagers all have access to – and follow – each new generation of artists. Being current trumps many other forces in the effort to be “cool.”

As adults, the occasions to dance are less frequent, and may be more reflective of class differences. For example, many in the more privileged classes are practiced in the basics of ballroom-style dancing. Weddings, in particular, come with an expectation to participate. People know the protocol and choreography of navigating politely through the crowd. It can be a joyful way to celebrate as a community.

Playlists at working-class (adult) dances or events are less formal and more likely to include songs shared in high-school years. For better or worse, the individual “moves” from those high school years are more likely to be on full display. Dancing can be a way to recapture some fun experiences of the past.

Music & Social Circles

Performers of the fine arts are often invited into upper class homes and social events as a means of sponsoring/supporting their work. Everyone feels a personal connection. Kids get to know the artists by their first names. The artist and art form are familiar and accessible.

The shops and restaurants the upper classes frequent – the social, political and charitable events they attend – are more likely to have a musical backdrop that is refined and reserved. People feel at home in this soundscape.

Step into less affluent communities, more working class groups, and you are more likely to hear the trials of life in hi-fidelity. Think redneck, blues, hip-hop or heavy metal – genres that capture and reflect a more urgent or emotional experience of life.

Public performances in any of these genres provide rich views of class differences – everything from attire and demeanor to drinks and snacks.

Overall Movement & Demeanor

People automatically mirror or mimic those around them and, particularly, those whom they admire. So it is natural that kids grow to walk and move like their parents. At some point in our lives, we choose how to move so as to reflect the group with which we most identify.

You know it’s true. Watch a group of individuals and you can likely identify those who hail from the upper or lower classes just by the way they move around the room. At any game of charades, if someone had to identify royalty or upper class – the head is held a little higher (or a lot higher) the gaze is down, the strides are confident. The look is dignified – and gracious. Switch roles and you start seeing chins down. Perhaps alert to the environment, signaling informality. Overstated, perhaps. And definitely not universal, but there is a kernel of truth in it.

Learning an Instrument

Being able to learn a musical instrument can make a big difference in a child’s life. Social status makes a difference.

Private music lessons and tutors can be costly. The experience of owning your own instrument can contribute to commitment. Having the time to practice can be a benefit. Even concert attire can be a challenge for working class parents.

Working class kids’ desire to belong and participate is as strong as those from a more privileged background. But the landscape is different. It is way too easy for them to feel inferior in an uneven playing field. They give up sooner.

{Status & Class} in Storytelling & Language

Humans are blessed with an evolutionary advantage; we can transmit deep concepts and complex information to one another. Lessons learned over generations are passed down.

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Heroes & Mythologies

Each culture identifies heroes who best represent their group’s values. In the U.S., we tend to follow a common mythology that “Might makes right.” Our obsession with sports and athletes in many ways reflects those values. The more a group talks about its heroes, the more all members understand and internalize the path to group respect and affirmation.

In class groups, who are the people who get talked about the most – who serve as role models? In the higher status cultures, financial and business books and magazines often feature savvy investors, people who turned their wealth into more wealth. Fashion periodicals display the work of designers, giving readers insights into brands that scream exclusivity. Authors and artists, the intellectual elite are admired.

Who graces the covers of magazines for working class groups? Who gets talked about? Often you see stories about stars who flew too close to the sun. Celebrities brought down. The values? We are all just people at the end of the day. No one is really better than anyone else.

Language, Grammar & Accents

Often a “proper” accent evolves in a country, scrubbed clean of regional or ethnic dialects and local colloquialisms. It represents the standard. It can be used as an identifier of belonging – or not – to the upper classes.

People who aspire to belong to a more privileged class may work hard to abide by the proper standard, but real upperclassers can tell the difference.

Sometimes people can switch how they speak as they cross back and forth between worlds. Sounding too posh for your family can get tricky.

Gossip

Gossip is simply stories about people who stretch or violate group standards. It always plays a powerful role in policing and punishing unacceptable behavior. Sometimes people follow the rules just because the thought of being shamed publicly is too much to bear. We risk being marginalized – and that is costly.

High status people can be the subject of gossip particularly when they break social protocol. Being rude, offensive, indiscreet or indiscriminate can shake the social network in which they all operate.

In the middle class, you may find gossip about neighbors whose choices don’t adequately align with the ensconced middle class.

Working class gossip may focus on girls who get pregnant or boys who get “in trouble.” Communities know these mistakes bring a high cost to the individuals so the shaming starts early in order to prevent the kids who are fast-approaching those vital teen years from making these marginalizing mistakes. 

Children’s Stories

The dream of being liberated from the constraints of class is a common feature of fairy tales. The Prince and the Pauper is a great twist on the constraints of any class. But most often the lower class protagonist is presented as a diamond in the rough. “If only …..”

Life is lived yearning, depending on the kindness of those whose status is above yours. “If only …”

Overcoming hardships is often the work of lower class heroes.

Access to Literature

One of the biggest class differences is children’s access to books. Having exposure to a broader range of stories about cultures and challenges increases a child’s vocabulary and makes it easier for them to navigate through the world.

{Status & Class} in Theater & Rituals

Acting is not pretending. We act our age. We act like a manager – or a waiter – or a diva. We actively choose how we behave in our lives.

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Social Rituals & Ceremonies

Social networks are important for us all. In order to be able to navigate through our world of associates, employers, friends, vendors and partners, we must be seen as trustworthy and predictable. For the upper classes, country clubs serve as a place to socialize, blending business and recreational contacts. People get a sense of what it would be like to work with us or even to invite us into their private circles. Although violating a protocol may not be mentioned at the time, it will be noticed and treated as an indication that perhaps the fit isn’t there. When it comes to social “graces,” it is preferable to err on the side of formality.

PAYING ATTENTION – Being face to face with someone is the ultimate proving ground – the way to build trust. And this routine can be rehearsed and learned. Good eye contact and listening can show confidence and grounding. Looking away, or down, can indicate discomfort or even deception. For people socializing with a class above their own, this can be intimidating. There is much that is unfamiliar.

TENDING OTHERS – Making others feel at ease is the essence of etiquette. So much of our social dialogue evolves around caring for others. “How are you? How is your mom? I noticed this about you. What are your plans? Did you enjoy ….?” This all takes practice, especially if we are in a setting that is foreign to us and we feel intimidated and vulnerable. Part of succeeding is ACTING the role.

INTRODUCTIONS – Being able to handle introductions, a subset of tending others, is another learned script and choreography. Upper class people, who are very practiced in the protocol of social settings, learn early and use the process often. “Let me introduce ….” And it begins. The gestures, the eye contact back and forth, the comments are short and complimentary. Facilitating the handshake and hearing from the other. The sequence. And, finally, finessing into a conversation that all can feel connected to. The introducer has served everyone well, showing confidence and grace. For those who grew up in environments where there is less formality, this process can be intimidating – and serve as an indication that someone is from another class.

FOOD & DRINK PROTOCOL – Landmines abound for the uninitiated. How to eat – in conversation? It can’t look like it is all about the food. Or that we are ravenous. Or that we think we can talk with food in our mouths. People notice each violation. An oft-heard criticism is “It’s like she was raised in a barn.” The implication is that people who have not learned the social graces (through no fault of their own) are uncivilized – and therefore to be avoided.

With each evolution of civilization human beings reach new heights. And with each evolution there are people who don’t have the privilege of participating. For example, school uniforms were instituted to reduce the impact of class/status in learning environments to avoid exclusion. Perhaps we should make sure all kids learn basic social protocols as well. Learning how to take part in our society may be as essential as learning to read.

Social Norms in Privileged Homes

If all the world’s a stage, scene I opens up onto daily routines in an upper class life. The set is big. The props are expensive. The dialogue is comfortable and familiar to members of that class. You see an army of barely noticeable support workers moving through the scenes: nannies, drivers, personal trainers, pool maintenance workers, landscapers, housekeepers, drivers and chefs.

Members of the upper class know how to respectfully engage and manage a full cadre of workers meandering through their personal lives. There’s a fine line between acknowledging someone’s presence and interrupting their work. Workers aren’t rendered invisible, but close to it, since any one of them could be physically in the space where a father and daughter are having a sensitive discussion, or where a couple is simply talking about their day. For the privilege of having all that support, high status people have had to learn how to be families – to be intimate – when there is an outsider in their midst.

If we shift the lens and instead focus on the workers in this scene, we find another set of skills. They know how to move and act so as not to interrupt or distract. Eye contact is avoided. They know their role – and place – very well.

Two very different classes sharing space and time. A transaction.

Marriage Rituals

Milestones, rituals and ceremonies usually have the same intention across classes, but each class level has its own identifiable standards.

WEDDINGS are important to all groups. They provide the groups with opportunities to flood members with reminders about what makes their group special. Walk into any marriage ceremony and you can quickly tell the status of the couple. The size of the wedding party and the guest list. The music – soloists? Wedding attire of the wedding party AND the guests. Photographic crew. How many limos? Move onto the reception and, again, the class difference is clear. Formal setting? Number of courses in a meal vs a buffet. Crystal everywhere? Music? Gifts for guests?

The PROPOSAL ring is a particularly clear indicator of status, with an implied connection between ring value and the groom’s ability to provide a good life for the bride. For the bride, it is up to her and her family to show that she is worthy – planning the whole wedding event and obsessing about every detail, most particularly relating to the wedding dress. These displays can be very expensive for a single day but are considered worth the investment because they establish the new couple as bona fide members of the class to which they want to belong.

In middle and lower classes, the pressure to buy an expensive ring is also daunting, especially if the groom-to-be is busy paying off student loans while working at an entry-level job. Failure to impress can bring ridicule. For brides-to-be, the repeated ritual of announcing the engagement – holding out their hand to maximize the view– as evidence of how loved they are – keeps the stakes high. Many people go deeply into debt for the proposal and marriage. It can be seen as evidence of love. Everyone will have an opinion about every choice.

It is a class-based display. Young couples choosing a different route will have some explaining to do.

On Stage – Fundraising Rituals

As has been historically true, people in the upper classes continue to support the arts and other not-for-profit efforts. They invest enormous amounts of time and money to support events that bring attention to worthy causes – and bring in significant donations.

Belonging to the upper echelons of society brings with it high expectations. Participating, generously, in the fund-raising efforts of your peers is required. And failure to take a lead on some causes can bring criticism. Mailboxes are filled with requests.

Institutions such as hospitals, libraries, schools, churches, arts institutions, medical research and political parties all rely in great part on donations from the upper classes. These contributions range from huge capital campaign contributions (ie. new building wings bearing a patron’s name) to annual fundraising campaigns, membership programs, sponsorships, board membership – and more. High status reputations are put on the line when they make big commitments. They have to lean on their friends – as their friends lean on them. This interdependence strengthens a group’s bond.

Busy social calendars are filled with events that people from lower classes might interpret as luxury – champagne, high fashion, reporters, photographers, etc. And, although the high-price elements are all there, the truth is that attendees are “on.” From the planning to the invitation lists to the events, they work to maintain their status within the group.

Middle and lower class fundraising often requires a more hands-on approach to support bake sales and car washes. Families join together to make specific improvements in their communities, such as sending kids on a road trip, buying new band instruments or uniforms. Participation (membership) tends to migrate as their kids grow up so these groups rarely develop a tight connection.

Coming of Age Rituals

The importance of milestones as kids grow up is the same across classes. The difference is how expensive the events are. Attending classmates’ parties is a critical part of the school community and it is often a student’s first introduction to parties on a scale that are different from what they are used to. These events can range from a gathering of eight friends at a roller skating rink to a private concert at a huge venue.

For lower or working class parents, these milestones can be filled with pressure. They know how important it is for their child’s social standing, so they frequently spend more than they know they should to ensure their child can fit in. Of course, the class difference is all too obvious anyway.

{Status & Class} in Visual Arts

We absorb images as fast as the eye can see, sometimes zipping right past consciousness. Just too much to process too quickly. We may get an impression. A feeling.

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Architecture & Home Design

Working class homes can be high density, high productivity. Within those walls people must maximize every inch. Rooms are small and often packed with all the elements of the family’s daily lives – clothes, places to cook, study, repair, do laundry, eat with family, welcome visitors, display important reminders about faith, school, hobbies, etc. – and find privacy. People move through these close quarters never getting very far away from one another. Function and clutter prevail.

Home design starts playing a role in middle class homes. There is more room for people to spread out. You find specialty spaces like a dining room, mudroom, TV or rec room, etc. There is also more space to display art or antiques, making each home a reflection of the family’s uniqueness.

High status homes, where financial constraints are few, reflect the work of high-end architects, designers and artists. Vistas, cathedral ceilings, walls of glass – and floor plans that can rival museums.

Fine Art

A key difference between the classes is the interest and ability to purchase – and even collect – art.

Homes are larger – wall space is abundant – and art is on display. Many of the world’s masterpieces are privately owned, even if they are on display in museums and galleries. Often members of the upper classes have an extensive knowledge of all of the arts and thus serve as benefactors and supporters. Art is an investment, not just in value, but in establishing oneself as an arbiter of good taste. This is reminiscent of the patronage systems of long ago.

For middle class people, fine art is accessible (and sought out) in museums. An appreciation for individual local artists and styles is a way members of this class establish their unique taste and individuality. Often homes will have original work, antiques and pottery displayed in an overall interior design and color scheme. Furniture choices, bedding patterns and table settings all make statements.

Driving through different class neighborhoods you quickly spot the difference in investment. Tree-lined approaches, high walls, seasonal sprays of color show you the high status expectations. Landscaping with shrubs, formal front entrances and lawns suggest middle class. Of course working class people’s housing rarely affords them much, if any, front yard space. 

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