Show Some Class

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

"And what do you do?" is a single question that can tell you many things about a person. No doubt, that's why it's so often asked. But there is another question that can tell you even more - far more. "What is your social class?"

While the average person may think in terms of Lower, Middle and Upper classes, sociologists see it as being far more complex. They divide each of those classes into three more classes - Lower Lower, Middle Lower, Upper Lower, Lower Middle, Middle Middle and so forth for a total of nine distinctly different subsets. For convenience sake, these are sometimes abbreviated as L1, L2 and L3, M1, M2 and M3, U1, U2 and U3.

The L1's are unskilled laborers (field hands), L2's are semiskilled (factory workers) and L3's are trained and often licensed (plumbers). If L3's are asked their social class they will almost always say "Middle Class" and for this reason a tenth grouping - Working Class - is often offered as a choice, but never really used. Anyone who says "Working Class" is put in somewhere with the Lower three groups.

The M1's (store clerks) usually earn less than the L3's but have more in the way of education and social polish. They see themselves as being superior to the plumbers who, having dirty hands, usually agree. They, in turn, see their lack of education as a personal failing and so encourage their children to go to college. Unfortunately, this first generation to pursue a degree often mistakes Training (a specific approach that teaches one to earn a living) for Education (a general approach that teaches one to live). This leaves both father and son bewildered and disappointed when the Junior College graduate winds up in an admittedly white collar but meager wage job. "Book Learning" may then be set aside as the son goes to work with the father. M2's (electrical engineers) may still not make as much as L3's (electrical contractors) but they carry far more prestige. The M3's (physicians) are, of course, at the top of the must-work-to-eat hierarchy.

While most psychological studies are based on the performance of rats and college sophomores, most sociological studies are based on the six Low/Middle classes. The Upper three classes are simply not available for filling out forms. But, nevertheless, the U1's (new moneyed rock stars - David Bowie), the U2's (older families with money - the Kennedy's) and the U3's (established fortune crowd - Rockefellers & Lodges) can still be identified. Here the hierarchy is based not on cash but on breeding over many generations. Bowie may have far more in the bank than one of the Rockefellers, but it will take several generations before any of his kin are invited to the same parties.

And now, having established all these different social classes, where's the payoff? The payoff is in knowing that each of these nine groups shares attitudes, values, fears, desires, etc. with others in the same group, and that any attempt at getting the different groups to see the world the same way is doomed to failure.

Take something as seemingly universal as time. The higher your class, the further ahead you think. Lower classes see the immediate future. Wages are typically quoted as dollars per hour, day or week. The middle class looks further ahead. Wages are quoted in monthly or yearly figures. Upper classes see way ahead. The donations, foundations and university buildings all serve to pave the way for their family's name into the next century.

Ideas of proper parenting vary widely from class to class. The Lower groups see toys, lots of toys, for their kids as sufficient nurturing, and expect an early maturation. The Middle (AKA Dr. Laura) groups believe there is virtue in working and sacrificing their lives for those of their children. Unfortunately, decades of such work and sacrifice for children usually winds up with just so many children making still more children for lives of work and sacrifice. The Upper classes provide both the fame and the fortune. What more could one want?

Education is seen differently too. The lower classes see it as the means to more money for less work. The middle classes also see education as the means to more money though it may well involve even more work. Curiously, the Middle classes' tendency to put off present pleasure for future gain makes three and a half years of college education a total failure if the student drops out six months short of a diploma. What may have been learned as an individual is as nothing compared to recognition by the group. The Upper classes, having little in the way of a pressing need for either money or recognition, see limited effort as an altogether acceptable way of life, and view any advanced degree as a mere Union Card.

The role of the woman in the family tends to improve from the Lower to the Higher classes. Where women are considered inferior to their mates at the bottom, and equal to them in the Middle, the Upper classes often come close to being a matriarchy. The Feminist Movement, with its emphasis on equality, was clearly a Middle class phenomenon. The Lowers couldn't handle it and the Uppers didn't need it.

Medical care for psychic ills also differs with class. The bottom expects a bloody job. Go in there and cut out what's wrong. They are the clear choice for a lobotomy. The Middle class (considering their lack of leisure time they probably comes closest to a true Working class) looks for a quick fix. Protocols that get them back on the job in jig time are de rigor. They get pills. As one moves higher still, psychotherapy is the preferred form of treatment for a class of individuals who have the where with all to actually take the advice, make the necessary life change, and wait to see if it works.

As for spending money, L1 and L2 spend it like the proverbial drunken sailor. A day's labor for a night's fun seems a good exchange. The upper two classes, U2 and U3, are not terribly interested in making or spending money. They simply have it. The middle classes, M1 through M3, are the one's who fuel our consumer economy. However, unlike those at the bottom and those at the top, they are very uncomfortable around anything that smacks of raw, unadulterated pleasure. So they invest (though unless you regularly lunch with Alan Greenspan that's pretty much a crapshoot) and they potlatch. This is a behavior that anthropologists have found around the world. Quite simply, it's a way of saying I'm better than you because I can spend more than you. This is the world of the $10,000 Rolex that keeps the same time as a battery operated Sports Illustrated giveaway.

Just as the L3 Building Contractor sees education as a means of moving up, but then mistakes it for training, so too does the U1 Movie Star see wealth as a means of moving up, but then mistakes it for money. Something as simple as a necktie may be viewed as an indication of rank within the Middle classes. From Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene to Versace and Brioni, it's clear to the troops just who will salute whom. Thus, from the designer logo outside to the designer label inside one may march through the Middle classes.

Look At It This Way

There are literally dozens of different attitudes that go with each class - yet they are rarely discussed, and almost always misunderstood. And too, there are different social orders that go with different races and ethnic groups. But, from even this very brief discussion, it should be obvious that the politician/pundit who says he represents/understands all the people is either mislead or misleading. It's the same as saying apples and oranges, bananas and pineapples, coconuts and kiwis are all the same because they're all fruits. Talk to someone in an adjacent social class and you may as well speak a different language. Talk to someone several social classes away, and you may as well tete-a-tete with the cat.

Dr. Stephen Mason is a psychologist, radio talk show host and member of MENSA - the international high IQ society. He may be reached via E-mail at:

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