June 02, 2004
At lunch yesterday with a visiting fellow American, we somehow stumbled on the topic of class divisions. Or rather class identification.
I mentioned that another friend of mine, who just moved back to Sweden after living eight years in London, was dismayed because his English girlfriend was ashamed of the fact that he worked as a hairdresser.
I said that it would probably be the same in the States.
"Yeah, I guess," my American friend said.
"And sort of the opposite is true, too," he continued. "Like people are overly impressed with the fact that I'm a veterinarian. Not that I mind talking about it. I guess it's just something that a lot of people wanted to be when they were young."
Which got me to thinking. America hates to admit it is classist, but it is. For the most part based on income, occupation and education, but classist it is. I can't think of a single friend of mine from the States who didn't have a university degree, so I guess I'm a middle class snob.
But here in Sweden, after five years I have yet to figure out what the class divisions are exactly, and more to the point, how people feel about them. My gut feeling is that, like America, Sweden prefers to think of itself as a more or less classless society. Which it isn't, of course. But university degrees seem to be much less common here than in the States, and salaries fall between a fairly narrow range so income can't be a very good differentiating denominator either.
I suppose class is something you're born into here, no matter how much Swedes hate to admit it. And the marker, of course, is how one speaks - every Swede I've ever met can place an upperclass Östermalm twang at fifty paces.
Is it possible that after nearly a century, George Bernard Shaw and his Pygmalian still ring true, ever so faintly?
Posted by Francis at June 2, 2004 07:08 PM
Class divisions seem more open here in Austria, and due like most places to both birth and education. Language is very much a part of it too -- which dialect one speaks reveals much about class origins.
Is America getting any closer to admitting it's a classist society?
Italy is something more or less like Sweden, from what you say. Hardly anyone ever goes to university, and it makes no difference at all, money-wise or culture-wise. It's basically a land of rural people like it's always been, only with a bit more money now than 50 years ago. Education didn't come along with this new money though, so people remained basically the way they were - except now even the humblest construction worker can afford a nice, sometimes even an imported car, Prada shoes and a loan for buying a house.
Quite different in Brazil, where there's truly an abyss between classes. Like you, Francis, I don't have one single friend back at home who doesn't have a college degree and doesn't speak at least one foreign language. Here the only person I know who has a college degree is the wife of a friend of ours, who majored in Literature but works as secretary in a small company of industrial machines, under a stupid, ignorant boss who shouts at everyone all the time.
Me, I'm a physician and a translator, but being Brazilian my degree can't be used here, except after a long, complicated process involving many official translations, stamps, signatures, photocopies and a lot of form-filling, which I can't go through right now. Which means I have to keep accepting stupid jobs like working in stores, baby-sitting and stuff like that.
The funniest thing is, my boyfriend, who didn't go to university either, has a sort of garage with his father. Basically they paint trucks and industrial machines, and he's going into soundblasting now, on his own. Back at home I'd never even had had the chance to meet someone with a job like his, 'cause we don't go to the same places, don't have the same interests, don't even speak the same way. And here I am, stuck with someone with what I see as a very weird job but which is considered a very good one here, someone with no college degree, whose only other foreign language is (apart from Italian, which he speaks well, other than his local dialect), alas, Spanish (and not too good a Spanish either), but who's traveled round the world a lot more than I have, has a lot more money than I (or anyone in my family of lawyers, engineers, dentists and vets) have ever made. And when we go out with his friends, they're all electricians, mechanics, garbagemen, bar-owners. It can get very lonely sometimes. I don't know one single person here who can speak English. Nobody reads much at all, nobody listens to foreign music, nobody learns another language, etc etc. I have nothing in common with most people here, but in the end we always manage to have fun anyway. I guess.
Life is very weird, I tell you.
Here in Austria in certain "classes" the University degree means a lot. They address you with your Magister whenever possible. Especially in public administration. The university degree in Austria is what the titles of Lords and Earls and whatever used to be before they were abolished.
I know a whole bunch of people who don't have one and will never get one. Lots of them have gone to university though, but never finished or dropped out.
Mig is right - it also has a lot to do with language. If you speak a strong dialect people will put you in a low class. If you speak Austrian with this nasal twang you are upperclass - or think you are. If you don't speak any dialect like me you have to be one of those ugly Germans.
I don't think accent is a reflection of class here. There's a version of "My Fair Lady" ("My Fair Lady from the Cabbage Market", it's called) in which Eliza learns to replace her Brno accent and dialect with Prague-speak. I asked pretty much everyone I knew whether this was because the Brno dialect is considered "lower class" but it doesn't seem to be the case- accent and pronunciation is noted, but the Brno/Prague/Ostrava accents and dialects seem to be like New York/Chicago/Boston - you can recognize the accent, but you can't easily identify the class of the person on that basis. So, rather a different point than what Mr. Shaw originally intended, I think.
The ability to use the appropriate endings and in particular to spell correctly seems to be a bit more of a marker, but that could just be the people I hang out with (mostly teachers and translators)-- I, too, get a bit snooty over their/they're/there errors.
I wouldn't go so far as to say Czechs are "classless", although certainly a lot of the usual class divisions were somewhat forceably removed over a 50 year period. They do seem to be dividing themselves back up, though, and it seems to me there are two groups: the educated people, who judge to some extent on the basis of degree (as novala said), and the business people, who mostly seem to use cars, kitchens, and eyeglass wear as their measuring sticks.
Try living in England. I'm Australian - and while Australians might like to think they're from a classless society, they're not; Australian society is split into divisions based on wealth just the same as pretty much every other Western nation is split, whether respective nations wish to admit it or not.
But here in England the class system, for which it is famous, still resonates, although it's much less difficult to move up (or down!) within a generation or two as it once used to be. The thing that really gets to me is the sheer OBESSION with acquiring wealth and possessions here. There's a certain level of worhip of material objects that the average Australian would never even think to aspire to. Status here is based on the car you drive, the value of your property, your address, your education (specifically the university you went to - Oxford or Cambridge), your annual income, whether your money is *new* or *old*, who you vote for etc etc. Should I go on?
It's an all-consuming obsession, sadly at the expense of having a social conscience. It's a ME, ME, ME culture that wants everything but isn't prepared to do the legwork to achieve it. By this I mean the English constantly complain about the state of the roads, the state of the health service, the state of the education system, which have all deteriorated through lack of investment and funding for 20 years or more, but if anyone suggests paying higher taxes (to fund improvements) there's a complete UPROAR. They want the best of everything but they just don't want to pay for it, because that's someone elses job, right?
Rant over . . .
Wait, is that the U.S. or England you're talking about there, Kimbofo?
I am an American married to a Swede who lives in Scotland. Scotland is incredibly class divided, levels of education and private or public schools being a major factor. It works both ways though, well-educated Scots often speak with a barely audible Scottish accent, soundly much more English than people are acceptably allowed to here and therefore are prejudiced against as result. As an American, some people assume that I am upper class because I have an American accent and most of the Americans who travel here are wealthy. Others, knowing that I come from the South greet me with the all too well known and beloved condescension that I am a poor ignorant American who can't see the obvious right in front of my face.My favorite is taxi drivers who take me round my arse to get to my elbow and expect that I won't notice.
Anyway, that is not why I responded. The reason was to respond to class divisions in Sweden. I lived in Sweden for six years, mostly in Stockholm. There are clear class divisions there, especially amongst the large number of immigrants. They live in substandard conditions, which by Swedish means is still pretty good, and can't get jobs even if they speak Swedish and are qualified as professionals in their home country. I have a Phillipino friend there that was a well known journalist in her home country and works only rarely in Sweden and them mostly as a translator. She speaks fluent Swedish and English as well as Tagolo.
Another interesting aspect is that my husband comes from a small fishing village on the west coast. His father is from a long line of fishermen. His Mother is from Stockholm, from the family Gyllenhammer and although did not grow up wealthy, has the hint of aristocracy about her regardless, old money that ran out I suppose! I see the class divide clearly within this family and feel the effects of opinions within various parts of the family.
Yeah, the U.S. is definitely striated by class. I suppose that class isn't widely recognized b/c of the "American ideal" that anyone can do anything in America, which isn't true. Don't tell that to America's poor, however. They might start to vote (period) in ways antithetical to the social elite!