How we talk about class

24 Oct

Talking about social class is hard. While there are many reasons for this, I’m interested in one really basic explanation: the language.

Here’s some terminology from sociologists Coleman and Rainwater (1978):

  • Upper-upper class
  • Lower-upper class
  • Upper-middle class
  • Middle class
  • Working class
  • Semipoor
  • The bottom

Sound familiar? While other language preceded and follows this model, the upper-middle-lower framework persists. We’ve even filled in some of the cracks (“lower middle class” and plain old “upper class” being the obvious holes).

What is so uncomfortable and problematic with this language is the explicit hierarchy that implies other hierarchies: of morals, quality of character and inherent human worth. And while we rationally “know better” than to judge a person by her/his bank account, that judgment is rooted in some biases that form early on:

  • Around 3-4 years of age, children tend to demonstrate a bias for “rich” people as happier and more likeable. They also believe the rich should share with the poor (Bisson et al.)
  • At 10 years, while children still advocate for wealth-sharing, they begin to explain different socioeconomic circumstances with concepts like “motivation” (Bisson et al.)
  • Around 10-14 years of age, children develop a social perspective of race and ethnicity, recognizing socioeconomic correlations and patterns for different racial and ethnic groups (Quintana, 1998)
  • In adolescence, children tend to accept socioeconomic inequality and explain it with concepts like “merit” (ex. people are poor because they don’t work hard enough), even though they understand structural, systemic inequities (Bisson et al.)

In other words, children tend to believe rich is good (and deeply so, enhancing one’s very desirability as a friend, if you follow the logic that rich = likeable). They also normatively come to believe–no doubt through the example and attitude of adults–that being rich is a result of personal merit (earning it by working hard) and inherent identity (being white, as opposed to Latino, in the US).

If you’re deeply depressed right now, here’s the good news. Knowing the arc of children’s awareness and biases around socioeconomic status means that we can intentionally educate to expand their self and worldviews in a developmentally supportive way.

Of course, that requires evolving language that doesn’t enforce the default bias that elevates “rich” and diminishes “poor.”

So here’s a DIY (Do It Yourself) workshop moment:

  • How do you identify your socioeconomic status? Use language that means something to you. And consider how you’d name that identity to a child, to a friend or colleague, to someone from a different country and then to someone who speaks a different language. What language is clear and useful to you and to them? Some examples that I’ve heard in my workshops: “comfortable,” “just getting by,” “living paycheck to paycheck” and “privileged.”
  • How would you identify other socioeconomic statuses, relative to yours? Try to push beyond degrees-of-the-same-concept (“less” comfortable, “more” comfortable and “really” comfortable) that only serve to muddle what you’re trying to identify clearly and usefully. So, for example, if you identify as “living paycheck to paycheck” perhaps some useful distinctions are: “not getting a regular paycheck,” “building savings,” or “financially independent from employment.” See what names convey meaning for you.
  • Test drive your language. See how it sounds out loud, just to yourself and then to someone whom you trust.

Maybe we can start a revolution in language that brings intention back to how we talk about socioeconomic status and class. (See tomorrow’s post on language for more.)

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