Americans like to think we live in a classless society. I agree. All my life I’ve bumped into individuals with no class at all. Rude, ill-bred whelps, oozing offensiveness from every unwashed pore. You know the kind, I’m sure.
However, whether we like it or not, the rest of us are scattered into dozens of classes, categories and types. For example, in today’s economy we each belong either to the top 1 percent (who have financial assets greater than the net worth of Argentina), or the bottom 99 percent, who wander around in tattered confusion, muttering “Where did my money go?”
Then there are the social classes. The major groupings used to go like this: “Working” class, i.e., persons who earn money with their muscles and carry lunch buckets to work; the “white collar” class, who work in offices and watch Facebook on their computers; and “the professional” class — doctors, lawyers, and auto mechanics who earn $500 an hour and up. All other workers were divided into dozens of sub-categories such as nurses, long-distance truck drivers and monkey-cage cleaners.
The symbol of social climbing was a ladder, or a greasy pole. This gave rise to sayings such as “Be nice to people on your way up, because you’ll meet them again on your way down.” Also, “The only thing wrong with reaching the top is that from that point there’s only one way to go.” These epigrams are credited both to Charlemagne and to Pete Rose.
The chief goal of social climbers was to be (or appear) different or better than those around you. There are about 2,700 ways to do this. In the old days, the most common climbing techniques included getting rich, getting a better education, owning a big house and a Maserati automobile, or joining a country club where you could eat in a noisy dining room while engaging in intellectual talk, i.e., real estate.
Some of those methods still work, but today’s ultimate social climbing device is to become “cool.” Once you’re accepted as being cool, the sky is your limit, at least for a short time. The trouble is that the meaning of cool is always changing. What’s cool today can be regarded as lame tomorrow.
A similar glitch is that what raises your status in the eyes of some people will cause you to become a joke to others. Example: implanting a steel ball in your tongue, or having a dragon tattooed on your forearm. Either of those moves can bring you new friends on the street, but you can say sayonara to your future as a stockbroker.
Another mistake a social climber can make is to appear in public in flip-flops. If Bill Gates, Helen Mirren or Charlie Rose were to step out on the street while wearing flip-flops, they would dive 80 points on the “distinguished” scale. Maybe that’s just my prejudice.
Over the years, social climbing and self-improvement have sometimes become entangled. Example: enlarging your vocabulary. In the 1950s, dozens of books offered to teach you bigger, better words such as “egregious” and “misanthropic.” The assumption was that if someone heard you use such terms, he would immediately hire you or ask you to marry his rich spinster aunt. Today, of course, anyone using a word more arcane than “awesome” will be shunned as a showoff and a freak.
Another status-raising fad was public speaking. Toastmasters and the Dale Carnegie courses promised, or implied, that if you could get up and express yourself smoothly before a group, your business and social future was assured. I’m sure that often was the case. However, the flaw in that idea was that when your speech ended and you sat down, you were still Homer Hankins from Gulch, Okla. Nothing had changed.
As you can see from all of the foregoing discussion, determining the class in which we belong can be confusing and inconclusive. Today, many ambitious men and women don’t climb ladders; they simply move sideways into new playing fields and situations. There they succeed or fail because of their own efforts or, more likely, because of the invisible influence of time, fate, happenstance and dumb luck.
At the center of the effort to join another “better” class is the wish to alter one’s basic nature or origins. You can’t fault an oyster for wanting to smooth down the rough edges of its shell. But in the process the oyster may accidentally get rid of the piece of grit that, left alone, would turn into a pearl.