Monday 9 March 2009

Rituals and Taboos- Memes of Class

One thing that as a 'Brit' always strikes me when I watch US TV programmes, is just how class conscious a society the United States is.

More so than the UK? In some ways, yes. Even a sitcom such as Friends betrays huge elements of class consciousness, an awareness of social conventions, the distinguishing features which mark out the young professional from what Americans would call 'trailer trash'.

Of course, class is alive and kicking in the UK, don't get me wrong. But in some ways, British society is surprisingly more fluid than one might expect. And a large part of that of course, has been due to a kind of inverse snobbery. Usually, it's de rigeur to criticise inverse snobbery. But in the UK, since 1945, when we've all had an equal chance in terms of education, the only thing that has given you away in social situations, has been HOW you speak. And this far more so than in the US. The cut glass accent of the well to do has incised into the rest of us, the bray of the 'elite' and the rest of us have closed ranks. And subconsciously, we now take into account the other factors. We actually have more respect for the man who's accent betrays the council estates of South London, but still has well lacquered hair and an expensive suit, as against the ex public school boy dressed in similar attire.

The old elite, rather than holding itself up as something to aspire to, has instead looked to embrace the mass culture. Time was when Football was a 'working class' game, the elites followed Rugby and Cricket. But the class divide has collapsed, not by the masses taking up Rugby and Cricket, but by the elites joining the rest of us in our love of football. Tony Blair famously said that in the UK, we're all middle class. Well, in the sense we all aspire to the creature comforts of the middle class, this is so. But this new all inclusive middle class, has the values of the old working class, by and large.

Thatcherism encapsulated that. It was a very working class form of Toryism. There is no longer a working class in the UK, there is a professional class and an underclass, but that professional class is composed primarily of people who look back and say 'My grandparents were working class' and see that old class as the class they came from, not the middle class of pre war days.

Nevertheless, it's interesting how people will always find hidden codes. Ways of marking out those 'in the know'. Pointless things, a lot of the time which mark out people who know the social codes from those who don't. What is the point of these things? Well, social status really. It marks you out as either 'sophisticated' or- not. And that really is what is behind any class system.

In a rigid class system, where class is obvious, these codes don't need to exist. Or they exist in fairly blatant ways. A medieval baron was generally no better or worse in terms of his behaviour than a peasant. He would eat the same way, talk the same way, do most things the same way. He was however, bound by a complex social code regarding his interactions with a peasant. Even in battle, he couldn't actually kill the peasant, for example. It was just not done. Peasants fought peasants, nobility fought nobility.
Most of the complex social codes of British society actually date to the decades following the industrial revolution when possession of fancy clothing no longer told you very much about the origins of a person. However, knowing what a fish fork was, did.

In fact, eating still has many of these codes. There are some desserts that you're still supposed to eat with a fork, which has always seemed daft to me. But more significantly, how many people would DARE sit in a restaurant and hold their fork in their right hand and their knife in their left? It's just not DONE.

And there isn't any reason. It's just code.

Even when I was growing up, it was considered 'bad form' for women to drink pints. Women were supposed to drink halves. If you think about it, the rule is/was completely pointless, no logic behind it. Yet at the time, I bought into it. I can remember taking girls for a drink and feeling uncomfortable if they asked for a pint. As if they weren't quite a 'lady'. I think it's something that has now largely fallen by the wayside, it has become a taboo that emancipated women have deliberately set out to break and nowadays if I was out with a girl and she didn't ask for a pint, I'd tend to see her as a bit too conservative and traditional for my tastes.

I find it interesting to notice that these codes go through transitions in two differing directions. On the one hand fashions which mark off those 'in the know' get democratised and are then abandoned by those in the know. Then on the other hand, fashions which at one time marked the way to behave, get sidelined as the mass culture turns what was once the 'done thing' into an archaism.

On the one hand, there is the brand Burberry. At one time considered a high class brand. It wasn't 'cool', it was 'refined'. The sort of thing the well to do wore when they played golf, or went fishing.
And yet now, it has become the symbol of the 'chav'.

Nobody who wants to be taken seriously would be seen out wearing Burberry today.

On the other hand, certainly anyone who has grown up in an urban landscape of my generation, will be familiar with 'firming'. This is a kind of gesture which replaces the handshake, where two people bang their fists together instead. I have no idea the history of how it came about, it seems to be a Black American gesture in origin, though I first picked it up from British Asians. And increasingly one is becoming aware that in certain given social situations, the handshake is no longer the appropriate gesture, the 'firming' is. The handshake seems to be now considered a slightly more formal gesture. The 'firming' seems to be replacing it as a 'respect' gesture amongst equals in a non business setting. It would be inappropriate to do it over a desk if both parties are suited and booted, but if one is introduced to someone in a night club, especially if they're not white, then the handshake is seen as perhaps a little stiff and formal, and therefore slightly hostile.

To be honest, I personally am still more comfortable with the old fashioned handshake, but I'm certainly aware that using it in SOME situations, would be evidence I didn't know how to behave.

On the whole, I guess I'm neutral about the existence of these codes. It's as well to be aware of them for one's own good, I guess. They will always, seemingly exist.

But it's as well to see them as what they are. It is not in one's own self interests to eat peas with a spoon at dinner, because people will judge you negatively, but I'm not sure that should also mean that it overly concerns you if others do.

Because ten years from now, we might all be eating peas with spoons. Who knows how long the existing social taboos will last?

These rules are there to enable society to function and we should see them that way and no more. They're fine as a way of aiding interaction and fine when they actually do give genuine information on the people involved. It's when they become stratified and set in stone that they become a problem.

It seems to me with a lot of these social codes that once they've become so well observed that everybody knows the rules and they're written down in a book somewhere, the rule has lost it's point.

A fish fork only has a purpose when only a few people know what one is. Because than it sorts out old aristocracy from the nouveau riches. Once everyone knows what it is, it's just extra washing up for someone.

Women not drinking pints might have served a purpose when men were after women who would make that placatory gesture 'I'm just a girl! Therefore I'm not going to sit here with a drink the same size as a man would have. Pints are manly!' But it serves absolutely no purpose today.

It's futile to think we'll ever truly escape this way of thinking. After all, we still insist on tieing a daft bit of cloth round our necks to go to work because no one will take us seriously if we don't.

But sometimes we should reflect as we adjust the knot, 'It's just a meme'.


Electro-Kevin said...

Some people I know (even in good jobs) eat like pigs.

Face in the dinner plate slurping it all up. That's disgusting whatever class you are.

Judith said...

I was pretty flabbergasted when I found out Europeans used their left hand for their fork. I felt like a positive klutz trading my fork back and forth whenever I needed to cut something. And the whole dual knife and fork utilization to get food off the plate? Why, I'd spent my life chasing that last pea down using only my fork.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Well the knife and fork thing may have more to do with a bias to using your dominant left hand or right. Most people being right handed tend to use the right to handle the knife. The others fall in with herd behaviour.

Your right about Burberry, I guess they are sunk right now, it is practically a badge of trashiness. That may change.

As for pints of beer. No thanks, I don't really like it and don't want to drink it for effect or to make a statement. Cider maybe, even Larger.

I think it's to do with fitting in with each other, especially peer groups. And maybe we all have a sort of belief we are the best, the coolest ones, the ones who got it most right and a little fear that maybe we didn't.

Crushed said...

E-K- I would agree, in many ways.

Having said that, I'm pretty much an Ersatz feeder most of the time. I usually eat on the move, or in front of the telly. Occasionally I even balance my dinner on the desk here by the PC.

Vicarious Rising- Do you not do it that way in America? I must watch cleosely next time I watch a US family eating.

The annoying bit is not being able to lick the ketchup of the knife...

The tableknife was invented by Cardinal Richelie, in fact. Apparently he wanted people to use rounded blades so they didn't pick their teeth with the blades...

Moggs- I think it's too late for Burberry.

To be honest, I don't know any girls who drink Bitter. Most girls I know drink Lager. By the pint.

You see, the change is kind of twofold. At one time a girl would either ask for a half, or a double Malibu and coke or something.
But now it's kind of seen to be taking the piss a bit to ask for a spirit when someone else is paying, girl or no girl. after all, if your mate asked if you wanted a drink, you wouldn't think 'It's his round, so I'll get a double in'. Not until you were all quite drunk, leastways.

So for most girls these days, a pint of Lager is the 'correct' drink to ask for.

I think the real art is being slightly ahead, knowing where you can push the edges and be seen to be avant garde, and know where the new boundaries are likely to be erected.

For example, I used to wear eyeliner and nail varnish, etc, quite a lot when I was younger. And I died my hair copper burgundy as well. I wasn't a goth, if that's what you're thinking. I just liked to push the boundaries on acceptable male dresswear. And I got away with it, though I certainly hovered on a taboo border.