Class distinction was by far the most confusing, interesting and difficult lesson I learned in England. I’ve been hesitant to address this issue. Social class for many Western societies is a touchy subject, but as with this entire blog series, I’ll state my observations, not accusations.
I believe after 11, 300-word posts I have earned the right the make definitive cultural declarations. So here’s the basic difference between the American and British class system: money versus blood. The U.S. defines class based on how much money you have. In the UK, your class is a more predefined; you’re born into it.
In the U.S., you can determine someone’s social class by the size of one’s house, how expensive his/her car is, whether her purse is designer or his suit is tailored. They may have come from rags, but now they live in riches=upper class. Or reverse that: they were born into money, lost it, and now hover around the poverty line=lower class.
In England, wealth does not necessarily throw you into middle, middle-upper, or upper class. The giveaways include education, profession, accent, items in your home and–I read this in Fox’s book–the newspaper you read. Among countless other subtleties. (That word is familiar)
The accent thing being explained to me was equally confusing when I explained to them that our accents are geographical. Their accents, while also geographical, strongly denote class. For a long time, I couldn’t grasp this concept. Just like some of them couldn’t grasp that an American’s accent is arbitrary; their bank account, however, is not.
Because bank accounts fluctuate, Americans can move up and down the class ladder. I’m not sure this is as possible in England. They have ancient family roots that define who they are today. Class there is deep, ingrained, complicated. An issue I still toss about in my head from time to time, trying to make sense of and ultimately surrendering. Cultural differences don’t always translate well, or even at all.