Vance Packard(first published, April 1959)
The Status Seekers
"An explosive exploration of class behavior in America and the hidden barriers that affect you, your community, and your future."
| CONTENTS |
"The upper classes LIVE in a HOUSE . . . use the TOILET, the PORCH, LIBRARY or PLAY-ROOM. The middle classes RESIDE in a HOME . . use the LAVATORY, the VERANDA, DEN or RUMPUS ROOM." -- E. DIGBY BALTZELL, University of Pennsylvania.
WHILE AMERICANS ARE CEREMONIOUSLY EGALIARIAN IN their more conspicuous behavior patterns, they reflect, some-times wittingly and often unwittingly, their class status by the nuances of their demeanor, speech, taste, drinking and dining patterns, and favored pastimes.
In the matter of demeanor, the upper-class ideal is one of cool, poised reserve. This demeanor serves the double purpose of rebuffing pretenders and demonstrating one's own competence to carry the torch of gentility. The model for genteel behavior is the pre-World War II British aristocrat, who wore a wooden mask and, in the male version, cultivated a mustache to hide any emotional twitchings at the mouth when the owner was under stress.
The stiff upper lip must be maintained regardless of the provocations. Some months ago, I happened to attend a very proper upper-class tea. The guests included members of several old, moneyed families, a university dean, etc. The Hostess exuded cool elegance. In the midst of the tea sipping her young son burst in excitedly to exhibit a mongrel pup he had just bought for $2 at an auction. The hostess, presumably, was appalled by his intrusion and by the long-term implications of his impulsive purchase. But she smiled, murmured "How nice," and went on talking to a guest. The flustered pup, meanwhile, lost bowel control in the middle of their Persian rug. In a'lower white-collar home, such an untoward incident would have occasioned gasps, blushes, and howls of embarrassed merriment. At this tea, the incident seemingly passed almost unnoticed. Guests continued chatting on unrelated subjects. The hostess acted as if this was the most natural thing in the world to happen at a party, raised a window calmly asked her son to please remove all traces of the pup, and went on chatting about the forthcoming marriage of her guests' daughters.
In speech, too, the upper-class members copy the British model, at least to the extent of striving for a cool, precise diction, and by pronouncing the "a" of tomato with an "ah." The British upper-class members still have such a distinctsve form of speech that, not long ago, a nationwide argument, developed over claims that the Royal Navy, in its screening of officer candidates, was favoring candidates with upper-class accents, other things being equal. *The Evening Standard* headlined one article: "Is There a Sound Barrier against Your Son?" and added that "It might hang on a dropped 'h.'
With Americans, choice of words is more indicative of status than accent, although the New England boarding schools nurturing future upper-class boys have long fostered the Harvard, or Proper Bostonian, accent. In general, both the upper classes and the lower classes in America tend to be more forthright and matter-of-fact in calling a spade a spade (for example: organs of the body, sexual terms, exeretory functions, etc.) than people in between, members of the semi-upper and limited-success classes. In this respect, at 1east, we are reminded of Lord Melbourne's lament: "The higher and lower classes, there's some good in them, but the middle classes are all affectation and conceit and pretense and concealment."
Persons who feel secure in their high status can display their self- assurance by using unpretentious language. Old Bostonians are notably blunt (often to the point of rudeness) in their language. A well- established society matron of Dallas and Southampton gave the appropriate upper-class answer when asked about the "secrets" of her success in entertaining. She responded, according to *The New York Times*, with: "Why I just give them peanuts and whisky."
Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell of the University of Pennsylvania has compiled a table of upper-class and middle-class usage of language as he found it while making a study of Philadelphia's elite. Here are a few examples:
Upper Class Middle Class Wash Launder Sofa Davenport Long dress Formal gown Dinner jacket Tuxedo Rich Wealthy Hello Pleased to meet you What? Pardon? I feel sick I feel ill
Also, I might add, as you move from the upper class to those somewhat below, sweat becomes perspiration, pants become trousers, jobs become positions, legs become limbs, and people "go to business" instead of "go to work."
When members of different classes address each other, we see a recognition of the differences in the language used. Ostensibly, we use first names with each other because first-naming is symbolic of equality. Actually, it is a little more complicated. Anyone is uncomfortable if his expectations are not met, and a social inferior expects his superior to act superior. However, it must be done in a nice, democratic way. The superior calls the inferior, democratically, by the first name, but the inferior shows deference in responding by addressing the superior more formally. Amy Vanderbilt, the etiquette authority, for example, advises me that even though the wife of a boss may address the wife of a subordinate by her first name, the sobordinate's wife should not address the wife of the boss by her first name until invited to do so.
A sociologist, investigating salutations in shipyards, discovered that, while supervisors invariably addressed workers by their first names, the workers only addressed each other by their first names. They addressed their foreman as "Brown," and front-offlce supervisors who came through the yard as "Mister Brown," and often took their caps off while doing it. One worker, when addressed formally as "Mister" by the investigating sociologist who had got to know him quite well, confessed that it embarrassed him to be so addressed. "It's like you were making fun of me somehow, pretending I'm more important than I am."
Experts in communications are finding that the maintenance of good communication between different levels as between management and workers, is far more difficult than assumed. Meanings become lost or distorted, especially when workers try to communicate upward. One investigator makes the figurative point that communication between management and workers is filtered by a funnel with the large end facing upward. The workers, he said, must try to get their thoughts "through the small end of the funnel. Sometimes the results are fantastic."
Our very modes of communication, furthermore, differ from class to class. This is seen in a study made of responses of people in Arkansas when they tried to relate to investigators what had happened when a tornado struck their community. The interviews were gathered by the National Opinion Research Center. A comparison was made between responses from an "upper group" (some college education and an income of at least $4,000) and those of a "lower group," composed of people with little schooling and income. The sheer problem the lower-class person encountered in trying to communicate across class lines his tale to the college-trained investigator was in itself a strain. Aside from language difficulties, communication was complicated by the fact that the lower-class person had different rules for ordering his speech and thought.
The lower-class narrator related the events of the tornado entirely in terms of his own perspective. His story was like a movie made with a single, fast-moving, and sometimes bouncing, camera. Other people came into the story only as he encountered them. His account was vivid and exciting, but often, to the listener, fragmented and hard to follow. (Example: "We run over there to see about them, and they was all right.") In contrast, the narrator from the upper group is more like the director of a movie who is commanding several cameras, as he tries to give the listener the big picture of what happened. He tells what other people did, what organizations did, and even what other towns did. His account becomes so generalized and full of classifying, however, that it is less concrete and vivid than the lower-class account.
Now we turn to other areas of behavior where characteristic class patterns emerge.
*Drinking habits*. Social Research, Inc., made a comparative 2 study of patrons of twenty-two cocktail lounges and twentyfour taverns in the Chicago area, and found that they represented different worlds socially.
The cocktail lounge is primarily an upper-middle-class institution serving primarily mixed drinks made of hard liquor, and operating in a commercial district primarily between the hours of 12 to 8 P.M. In contrast, the tavern is a neighborhood social center, and operates from early morning till late at night. Its patrons are almost entirely from what I call the supporting classes, the lower three. As you go down the scale, the number of hours that people who frequent drinking establishments spend in those establishments increases. Upper-lower-class people (essentially working class) who frequent taverns spend fourteen to twenty-three hours a week there. Pierre Martineau has made the interesting observation that many taverns catering to this group use, as a name for the establishment, a title combining the names of the proprietor and his wife. Examples: "Vie & Ed's," "Fran & Bill's," "Curley & Helen's."
As might be surmised from the foregoing, patrons of the tavern see the tavern as a place where they can obtain social and psychologlcal satisfactions and not just a fast drink. Most of the patrons live within two blocks of the tavern. Each tavern has its own social system. "Regulars" come in at the same time every day; they have their own rules about who is acceptable as a member of their in-group, and what constitutes proper and improper behavior in a tavern.
Each tavern caters not only to a specific social class but often to a special group within that class. Many of the taverns studied turned out to have a clientele consisting almost entirely of either Old Poles, New Poles, Italians, hillbillies, or Germans. One of the taverns catering to Polish-Americans had on its walls posters announcing events of interest to Polish-Americans, such as meetings of Polish-American war veterans, and the juke box offered primarily polkas. This tavern's proprietor said of a nearby tavern, "No, the tavern across the street is not like this one . . . all hillbillies over there . . . never come in here -- don't want them in here. We never have any trouble, and we don't want any.... They stay in their places.... No, they just learn fast when they move in here that this is not a place for them."
That hillbilly tavern across the street, catering to recent white immigrants from the South, featured on its juke box rock 'n' roll, hillbilly, and Western music. While the big drink in the Polish tavern is beer, the big drink with the hillbillies is a "shot" of whisky.
In general, however, the preferred drink of tavern habitues is beer. A glass of beer can be nursed a long time and further, it is less likely to threaten self-control. Pierre Martineau, in mentioning this fact, referred to beer as a "drink of control." He went on to say that the tavern customer, usually a solid workingman, has a "terrible fear of gettingr out of control and getting fired." You find the least concern about self-control, he added, at the top of the social structure. People there don't worry when they drink. They can do no wrong. This may explain something I noticed in Northeast City. The most notorious lush in town was a playboy who had inherited his father's wealth. Many people reported having seen him sloppy drunk in public.
Sociologists studying behavior pattems of the social classes of a South Dakota town, Prairieton, found the people of the top class and the bottom class had an interesting grievance against each other. Both accused the other of drinking too much!
In this connection, the attitude of Jews toward drinking might be noted. Among Jews, drunkenness is unforgivable. It is viewed not simply as in bad taste for a Jew to become drunk but degrading and sinful. An older Jew will rarely drink anything at all except an occasional sherry. The younger Jew, if he lives in a Gentile area, will serve martinis to guests before dinner, and may even, to be congenial, have a bar in his house. However, if he lives in a predominantly Jewish area, he drinks very sparingly and if a Gentile visits his home he is, out of habit, more likely to offer food than drink as a refreshment.
Two considerations seem to account for the Jewish aversion to drinking. The first is the Jew's tremendous respect for intellectual accomplishment. Drunkenness, of course, undermines -- at least for a time -- one's intellectual capacity. More important, perhaps, Jews see alcohol as a threat to self-control. Historically, Jews, as a persecuted group, have had to be alert constantly to threats to their family and their life. Drunkenness has seemed to make about as much sense for them as it would for an antelope in lion country.
*Dining patterns*. Tastes in food vary considerably from one end of the social scale to the other. Harriet Moore, of Social Research, Inc., tells of interviewing a man who had, in his lifetime, undergone an interesting series of changes in his food and drink preferences. As a lad, this man had grown up in a poor family of Italian origin. He was raised on blood sausages, pizza, spaghetti, and red wine. After completing high school, he went to Minnesota and began working in logging camps, where -- anxious to be accepted -- he soon learned to prefer beef, beer, and beans, and he shunned "Italian" food. Later, he went to a Detroit industrial plant, and eventually became a promising young executive. This was in the days when it was still fairly easy for a non-college man to rise in industry. In his executive role he found himself cultivating the favorite foods and beverages of other executives: steak, whisky, and sea food. Ultimately, he gained acceptance in the city's upper class. Now he began winning admiration from people in his elite social set by going back to his knowledge of Italian: cooking, and serving them, with the aid of his manservant, authentic Italian treats such as blood sausage, pizza, spaghetti, and red wine!
In general, conceptions about what foods best serve as treats become more elaborate as you go down the social scale. Bakeries in working- class neighborhoods sell birthday cakes that exhibit spectacular creations with a variety of flowers made of icing and a figure standing in the middle. Hors d'oeuvres will most likely consist of little sandwiches covered with a bland, green cream cheese and decorated with roses. I once saw an upper-class group, accustomed to casual hors d'oeuvres such as peanuts, blanch when offered a tray of decorated sandwiches at a party. Patrons of metallic diners -- most of the patrons are from the three lower classes -- can have, their choice of pie or cake but all will be buried in whipped cream.
Tastes vary to some extent, by class, on the hard-soft scale. An executive of a leading bread company told me that only the upper classes like hard, firm bread, and that people in the lower classes prefer the loaves that are so soft that they seem to be made of sponge rubber. When you go into a restaurant, you can typically tell what kind of people patronize it just by glancing at the bread basket. Only restaurants catering to sophisticates will place hard-crust rolls in the basket. Restaurants striving for a mass appeal will emphasize soft buns and soft breads.
Finally, acceptance of strange, offbeat foods is much more common with the two upper classes than with the three lower supporting classes. The average person of the lower group feels anxious in the presence of strange foods, and considers them fraught with danger. A Midwestern society matron reports her astonishment to find that her maid will not touch many of the very costly foods she serves the guests, such as venison, wild duck, pompano, caviar. Even when these are all prepared, steaming and ready to eat, the maid will cook herself some salt pork, turnip greens, and potatoes. They are the foods she knows.
Most of us like sweet-flavored foods, and many of us like sour-tasting dishes. But a liking for the other main flavors -- dryness, saltiness, and bitterness -- has to be developed; and only people interested in demonstrating their superior tastes will go to the bother -- or have the curiosity -- to investigate such items as anchovies. Foods also become cherished by the social elite as they become more expensive, rare, or difficult to prepare. Social prestige derives thus from knowing the difference between a burgundy and a claret, or serving caviar, abalone, or lobster. Harriet Moore states: "As a person strives to gain entry into a more sophisticated social group, he will almost invariably be alert and receptive to food preferences and dietary habits of its members. Failure to do so may well mean failure to get 'in.'" They learn, for example, to prefer to have their coffee served in demitasse cups. An acquaintance relates that he recently attended a supper given by socially elite wives for their town's volunteer firemen (largely drawn from the three supporting classes). The firemen were fascinated with the dinky cups placed before them by the ladies, but later seemed chagrined when their tiny portions of coffee were poured. The person striving to gain entree into a select social group also soon perceives that one never asks for ginger ale with his whisky (a favored drink at the limited-success level).
Games and pastimes. Interest in developing perfection in dancing skill goes down as social status rises. If you drive along the lower-income stretches of Chicago's Archer Avenue, you will note large establishments, conspicuously advertised, devoted to teaching dancing. They promise high levels of skill not only in ballroom but also "toe, tap, ballet, and acrobatic" dancing. Working-class parents, particularly those of East or South European backgrounds, have been persuaded that helping their children acquire grace through dancing will help them escape to a higher class, and so is worth considerable financial sacrifice. On the other hand, if you look in on a higher- class-dance, say at a New England boarding school, you are struck by the dancers' lackadaisical, offhand approach to dancing. Some, in fact, shuffle like zombies. This contrast has been noted in Great Britain, where millions go in for dancing, or watch dancers on TV, each week, and where millions are taking dancing lessons.
According to one investigator, zest there for stylish dancing is definitely "non-U," or not upper class. The editor of the *Ballroom Dancing Times* states: "The quality of dancing goes dovvn as you go up the social scale. You will find much better dancing at the Hammersmith Palais, than at the Savoy." (An additional explanation for this greater interest in dancing skill at the lower social levels is that lower-class young people have fewer places they can go to socialize and meet the opposite sex.)
The magazine *Mademoiselle* has found, in a comparative study it made of the lives of women who went to college and those who didn't, that college-educated women are seven times as likely to play golf and eight times as likely to play tennis as women who never went to college. On the other hand, the non-college women are more likely to go bowling, fishing, and boating.
Others have noted that bridge playing is largely confined to the upper two classes, and bingo playing to the lower three classes. While poker playing cuts across class lines, some of its most passionate devotees are Negro "society" women. They talk about their latest game for hours over the telephone, and some even stake their automobiles on the turn of a card. Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, in exploring this phenomenon sees their obsession with poker as an attempt to escape the frustrations (sexual and other) of their lives. One woman said that winning at poker was in some ways similar to the release of sexual orgasm.
*Entertainment and "culture."* Although most United States families now have television sets somewhere in their houses, television was originally most enthusiastically embraced (and still is) by people in the lower classes. When television was an innovation, the percentage of class members buying a set rose with every move down the social- class scale. At one stage, nearly three quarters of the members of the the lower-class families had television sets, while only one quarter of the upper-class families had them. One explanation -- taste aside -- for the greater popularity of television with people of the lower classes is that they are more confined to the house. They have no country club to go to.
A similar descending growth in popularity exists in the pattern of attendance at motion pictures, sports events, and other "spectator" types of recreation. In contrast, members of the two upper classes show a marked preference for active, creative activities such as playing tennis, visiting friends, and carrying on programs of serious reading. The upper classes read non-fiction as well as fiction. The lower-class members who read books at all strongly prefer fiction. A study made a few years ago of readers of *Harper's* and *Atlantic Monthly* magazines (mostly executive and professional families with an average yearly income of $13,150) revealed that they bought seventeen books a year, on an average; and half of them owned collections of long-playing classical recordings (average value of collection: $150).
The old class lines that preserved "culture" as a monopoly for the aristocrats, it might however be noted, have slowly been crumbling with the growth of literacy, democratic forms, and mass-production processes. Opera is being marketed in the hinterlands, and reproductions of art masterpieces are hanging on the walls in tens of thousands of American homes. The result has been the emergence of "mass culture," which Dwight Macdonald calls "a debased form of High Culture." Mass culture, he points out, is imposed from above: "It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying."
Fascination with culhure among the two upper classes seems to have regional variations based on distance from a major cultural center such as New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco. A semi-upper- class couple living within fifty miles of New York may never go to the opera or a concert or a ballet during their entire marriage and may rarely go to a play. In Texas or Iowa, on the other hand, such a couple is likely to i travel hundreds of miles to see a road performance of a noted opera, orchestra, ballet, or play. Possibly, in such an area, people feel a greater thirst for culture because it is not readily available. Quite possibly another factor is that it is easier to achieve status in Texas or Iowa by being an opera- or ballet- or theater-going enthusiast than it is in New York.
*Magazine reading*. The editorial content of any magazine pretty much selects its audience. We are drawn to the magazines where we can find self-identification with the situations characters, or authors presented. Social Research Inc., found this to be true in terms of class in its study of blue-collar vs. white-collar wives. As I indicated in Chapter 1, it found an "invisible wall" between the ways of life of the two groups. This carries over, it was found, into their selection of magazines. The blue-collar or Wage Town wife, who reads the "family behavior" magazines (sometimes called "romance" or "confession" magazines), very rarely reads the "women's service" magazines such as *Good Housekeeping*.
The report by Macfadden Publications, on Social Research's findings, states: "You might find a story about a truck driver and a diner waitress in either *True Story* or a women's service magazine. But in the service magazine the atmosphere is apt to be light and airy, the characters even treated as faintly comic. In *True Story*, these people are hero and heroine...." (And the hero or heroine, if I may intrude a thought, is usually caught in some ghastly dilemma involving sexual waywardness on someone's part.) Here are examples found of typical contrasts in title treatment between the whitecollar "service" magazines and the Wage Town "behavior" magazines:
Service Magazines Behavior Magazine -------------------------------------------------------------- YOUNG LOVE "To Catch a Man" "I Want You" BIGAMY PROBLEM "One Wife Is Enough" "Which Man Is My Husband?" ETERNAL TRIANGLE "Remember He's a Married Man" "Lovers in Hiding"
The "behavior" magazine article typically is illustrated with photographs, rather than drawings, to enhance the reader's feeling that this is an honest-to-gosh true tale.
Instinctive differences of behavior patterns by class will probably always be with us. Watching for the differences can in itself be a game that challenges our perceptiveness.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:02 EDT