Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Class Divide.

Another one of the impressions that America left me with was with regard to the class divide. Compared to Australia, I certainly felt that there was a far more overt stratification in society. The effect was most marked to me in both Los Angeles and Charleston. Now, I don't have a particular problem with societal stratification (provided that people can live decently) but one of the things that struck me about America was that there appeared to be a subtle caste like structure in place, with the workers being the inferior class of human beings. I want to emphasise that it was a subtle phenomenon.

To give you an example of what I mean; in many places when I struck up a conversation with some sales member or supermarket cashier, they initially seemed taken aback that I wanted to speak with them in a normal social way. The impression that I got was that they were somewhat unsure as to why a customer would want to speak to them on a social level.  I found many of these people to delightfully warm, helpful and quite conversational. However, I could not help but form an impression that many of them did not get spoken to unless someone wanted something from them.

Don't get me wrong, this sort of stuff happens in Australia as well. For one of my summer jobs I worked as a cleaner in the local mall and noticed that people treated me differently whilst I was in uniform and when I wasn't. The thing is, the effect seemed more pronounced in the U.S.

The other thing that I noticed was that people who appeared to be wealthy wanted to be recognised as being "apart" from the rest. Once again, I've noticed this phenomenon in other parts of the world and at home, but it appeared to be far more overt in the U.S. (The other place where I noticed similar behaviour was in Eastern Europe, where the wives of the biznis men behaved in a similar fashion) Apparently wealthy women would barge in front of you, not acknowledge your existence and bark orders to the sales staff and I can tell the difference between prole rude and snob rude. These were snob rude.

Overall I got the impression that in the U.S. there seemed to a subtle  "successful caste" and "prole caste" and that the successful caste wanted to emphasise the difference.  Now in Australia,  as commentator Horst noted, we do have an entrenched culture of "tall poppy syndrome" with the effect that the rich or successful are far less likely to assert any superiority. As a popular local beer commercial emphasised, "Australians sit in the front seat of the taxi" apparently both an allusion to our society's egalitarianism and by implication the un-Australianess of doing so otherwise.  Like all popular myths, it is just that. But I have to admit the class divide seems much smaller over here.

This egalitarianism has both negative and positive effects. On one hand, it does tend to enforce a cultural equality, on the other, it suppresses any form of excellence. (Which is usually appreciated and rewarded outside of Australia). America, on the other hand, seems to have a culture which accepts and rewards success almost to a degree that Australia doesn't. On one hand, it seems to attract the best and brightest to your country, both for their benefit and for the benefit of America. On the other hand, it does seem to create a bigger class divide.

7 comments:

Black Death said...

When I visited Australia a few years ago, my wife and I chartered a car and driver and traveled around the wine country of the Clare and Barossa valleys. We invited the driver to join us at all meals, and he did. He said Australians and Americans always do this, but the British never do.

Cranberry said...

America is a very big country, and the regional attitudes tend to differ somewhat with regard to workers, wealth, education, and individual perceptions of them. But I will say that overall, there seems to be a general denigration of unskilled/low-skilled labor and blue-collar workers, even though blue-collar type report having an overall high level of satisfaction with their jobs and personal lives (OK, that is anecdotal as most of my friends are B-C but are really happy with life overall). I suspect any survey of "happiness," if such a thing could be done in any semi-objective way, would reveal the same.

I worked in a very wealthy school district for two years, from 2008-2010. There was a vocational school attached to the high school, where kids who wanted immediate post-secondary careers attended classes to become bakers, vet techs, mechanics, construction workers, electricians, etc. Some might go on to 2-year colleges for additional training but many just went straight to work after HS. They attended regular academic classes at the main school and were, by and large, middling students - they worked hard but knew college was not in their future and did what was necessary to pass and not much more. There were a few exceptions, but those kids were going to follow a passion regardless of their academic performance - high achievers all around.

You might cringe if you heard the way teachers talked about the vocational school kids. Phrases like "well, they are just going to be a wrench-turner or grease monkey" when they graduate were common. Or "I don't know why she would want to just be a vet tech when she should be aiming higher and be the VET for God's sake!"

The attitude of our educational establishment has as much to do with the creation of the caste-lite system you observed as any other economic or social factor. Children who choose honest labor over post-secondary education are generally given less respect. It's subtle, surely, but present and real.

Samson J. said...

but one of the things that struck me about America was that there appeared to be a subtle caste like structure in place, with the workers being the inferior class of human beings. I want to emphasise that it was a subtle phenomenon.

Yes, definitely - it's not just you! I have remarked on this *many* times; it's a subtle distinction I *always* notice whenever I travel to the US (from Canada). It begins in the airport - the way that passengers with money are perceptibly treated better. In Canada, we tend to use euphemize certain class difference, but in the US it's more out-in-the-open: you're either "moneyed class" or you're not.

Ulysses said...

I think it's a function of our affluence combined with our general desire to keep up with the Joneses. For example, I spent years waiting tables in a high end restaurant. The solidly middle class and really wealthy were generally the friendliest customers. The aspiring wealthy, who had some cash but weren't driving Porsches, were the most insufferable. They know they're not that wealthy and they think boorish behavior will convince people otherwise. They are uncomfortable in life.

I usually sit in the front seat of taxis and I talk to everyone, but I'm an outlier, even by Southern standards.

Mike T said...

The attitude from the educational system makes sense when you realize that most of the people who work in it are less materially successful than the very grease monkeys and wrench turners they denigrate. That teen who studies to become an electrician is far more likely to end up with a high middle class income by 30-35 than a typical liberal arts or business school graduate.

A few such people have made the mistake of assuming that as a Computer Science major, I would identify more with generic college graduates than skilled blue collar workers. To the contrary, I've quite a few times commented to the effect that I regard many of my college peers as entitled snobs who are parasites compared to much of the blue collar labor force.

helvetica said...

It's worse than that in some places - I'm from the Northeast US, where if you have the wrong last name, or grew up in the wrong town, or even the wrong side of an ok town, or went to the wrong high school, you are trash forevermore. Or forget your own job, heck if your dad had the wrong job you are trash. And if you are from the South then you are REALLY trash (to Northeasterners that is). But if you are from California or Europe or any country but Canada then you are a god.

I am one of the wrong name/wrong town/wrong dad crowd but I have a Middle Eastern parent, so it was always fun to get called trash, then make people's heads explode by pulling the "suave foreigner" card.

Did you visit the Northeast at all? Just curious, it is the worst place in the world.

BTW I left and moved to the South.

Jack said...

This phenomena may be observed in Florida as one visits the east coast v. the west or gulf side of the state. The east is primarily folks from the northeast. Not nice people all the way around. Pretentious horses rear ends.

Gulf coast is mostly mid westerners. Friendly, helpful people. Better yet, visit southern Ohio, West Virginia or Kentucky. Best example of human beings on the face of the earth. I found friendly folk in Bavaria many years ago as well. Wanted to travel Prussia, the Bavarian folks admonished me to stay where I was as the northerners were not friendly, like them.