So, I left you with that nail-biting cliffhanger, an unfinished list of cultural differences between the U.S. and U.K. You can stop holding your breath now, because here’s Part 2. However, you may want to stock up on caffeine, because what I intended to write in a sentence or two has (again) become a 800+ word essay. And I think each observation will take the same tangential spin into disjointed rambling. Or, we could say that each point is worthy of its own post, worthy of attention and feedback and discourse. However you see it, let’s launch into Observation #2: Stay Class(y), UK.
It’s Friday, and the city is bustling– a word that annoys me, but is fitting in this case– with tourists and Oxfordians alike. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, eating slices of roast beef and strawberries with my hands. Ladylike, I know.
John and I just killed a few hours in his warm office, where we chatted with his officemate about all sorts of things. Well, he and John did most of the chatting; I just interjected occasionally. His officemate made some interesting points about the class system:
- Rich people are not necessarily upper-class.
- Royalty are usually considered upper-class.
- The more upper-class you are, the less you are likely to act polite or appear well-groomed, because you don’t give a $#*! what others think of you.
- Middle-class people will use “fancier” words, dress neatly, and otherwise do their best to impress everyone around them.
This led into a conversation about “u” (upper-class) and “not-u” words. Wikipedia dates it to the 1950s, but apparently people still follow the concepts.
So, middle-class folks will use “not-u” words because they want to give a good impression. Upper-class people don’t really need to rise any higher in social status, so they can get away with slang, commoner-speak, and looking like a filthy hippie.
This raises so many questions and points out so many parallels against the social class structure in the U.S. I’m not a sociologist, obviously, so take this with a grain of salt.
- The U.S. places less emphasis on royalty on the social totem pole, but more emphasis on money (and therefore, power). People who go to fancy restaurants and don’t think twice about $300 bills are upper class. In the UK, they’d be considered middle-class. You’re middle-class, I’m middle-class, Bill Gates is middle-class, Bill Clinton is middle-class.
- It’s tough to compare the U.S. middle-class to that of the UK. I feel like we have so many levels of middle-class. Lower, middle, upper –middle classes exist and separate us neatly into economic tiers. It seems more blended here.
- In my experience, it’s more likely that a middle-class person will speak using informal language and… maybe not be as uptight about maintaining a pristine physical appearance (guilty). Upper-class Americans will pay more attention to how they sound, look, act, because slipping down the social ladder hurts them more. Politicians, celebrities, sports stars: all eyes are on them, waiting for the slightest misstep to feed the gossip machine, or to open a spot for the next-in-line (not by heredity, but by the size of your wallet) player to enter the game.
I could make more casual observations and point out differences, but what actually stuck with me is a similarity between the middle and upper –class, that I don’t think quite exists here in the UK. It’s not that American middle-class people don’t care about impressing others—on the contrary, I think it’s something all social classes have in common. We are constantly trying to out-Jones the Joneses, buy more shiny things, and beat ourselves into a pulp at gyms that rank your stats against those of your fellow cardio rats (sorry, Dad and Carol; I’m still not a fan of the concept).
Apparently, John and I are exempt from all of this as outsiders. Which is a good thing, because we were starting to sound awfully upper-class, with John’s penchant for four-letter words and my slovenly uniform of oversized sweatpants and sneakers. More than anything, though, I just feel this deep sadness for the UK middle-classers, because it just seems like you’re set up for a life of desperation for approval—the desire to be liked, which is different from the desire to be respected. You will always be part of the self-conscious middle-class, even if you get Bill Gates-rich.
I’ve been there. I’ve spent too much time caring about what others think of me, for the wrong reasons; I’ve spent too much time being ashamed for being “different.” Listening to John’s officemate describe all of this, I realized that I’ve finally managed to stop that and embrace who I am, with all of my quirks and oddities (or, most of them—it’s a work in progress). So it’s nice to be “exempt” from these silly cultural expectations. I don’t know where I fit in, and it doesn’t really matter in the end, as long as I’m myself and surrounded by people I love.
Cue the sappy music.
Speaking of people I love, there are developments ahead. In September, to be exact. September 8th, to be precise. And no, I’m not pregnant. More on the next post!