Social Class Defined

Social Class Defined

Social Class DefinedHow would you describe your social class?

How would you describe class to begin with?

Is it based on income? Education? Occupation? Savoir faire?

In reality, it’s a mixture of all of those things.

If your goal is to mingle or merge with a higher class, then you need to know what’s required, besides money.

Because if you think buying an expensive car, handbag, or home suddenly makes you upper class, think again. They’re not even part of the equation.

Real class is more subtle.

More complicated.

In this article we’re going to flush out social class by looking at a number of things, including:

  • How the social class system emerged
  • The four components that make up social class
  • The three behaviors that give away your social status
  • How to move up and down the social hierarchy

By the time you’re done, you’ll not only know the “secret sauce” that makes up the social class hierarchy, you’ll also know what it takes to move up the social ladder yourself.

Let’s get started.

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How The Social Class System Emerged

So when, exactly, did man come up with the idea of a social class system?

In ancient times.

As civilizations began to form and grow, people quickly discovered that they needed order and structure to feed, house, and govern everyone. So people were sorted according to their skills and abilities and the social hierarchy began.

Ancient Egyptian Social Class System

                               Ancient Egyptian Social Class System

The leader was at the top, and he surrounded himself with men who had the experience and/or education to help him govern wisely and stay in power. After that came the priests and the nobles, then the scribes and the soldiers, then the artists and craftsmen. At the bottom were the farmers and the slaves who typically had limited skills.

Then, as now, those with the most money, education, and power were at the top of the hierarchy; those with the least were at the bottom. No one wanted to move down to a lower rank; most aspired to move up.

The Maxims of PtahhotepWith that in mind, an aging Egyptian vizier and city administrator named Ptahhotep (pronounced tah ho tep), who lived around 2400 B.C., wrote a series of letters to his son on how to live and prosper as a virtuous man while serving the gods and the Pharaoh. Later published by his grandson as The Teachings of Ptahhotep, it’s considered the first known etiquette book, as it covers how to behave and get along with others.

Some of Ptahhotep’s sage advice?

Only speak when you have something worth saying.”

Do not gossip in your neighborhood, because people respect the silent.”

Do not blame those who are childless, do not criticize them for not having any, and do not boast about having them yourself.”

Shocking how little human nature has changed since the time of the Pharaohs!

Anyway, the social class structure set forth in ancient times has remained intact ever since.

While it waned slightly in the west after the fall of the Roman Empire, it returned full force during the Renaissance. Many of the manners, dress, speech, and behaviors we use today originated during the Renaissance as a way to distinguish the upper classes from the lower classes. Table etiquette, dress codes, forms of address, etc., all are still ways we can easily discern someone’s background.

By the Victorian Era, nearly everything in Britain was based on one’s social class, from the house you lived in to the service you received. A hierarchical chart of the era shows how distinctly people were categorized.

Victorian British Social Structure

                          Victorian British Social Structure

It finally loosened after World War I, and has become increasingly casual ever since.

The United States was founded on the premise that all men are created equal, yet a social hierarchy has existed since the start, typically consisting of five levels:

American Social Classes

                       American Social Classes

Notice how it’s a mixture of education, occupation, and income.

There’s a reason for that.

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The Four Indicators of Your Social Class

So what, exactly, is class?

While the term is bandied about like a currency that you’re either born with or you’re not, the reality is that the concept of class is complicated – because it’s NOT just about money.

There are plenty of people with money and no class, and lots of people with class but no money.

Not all rich people live grandly; not all poor people live modestly. Again, it’s not just about money.

Social class and social statusIt’s a combination of things, the four most prominent being:

  • Education
  • Occupation
  • Income
  • Wealth

Let’s break these down:

Education

A good education has been an indicator of class since ancient times, because only those with money could afford to hire teachers. Today, most people who receive a high school diploma are considered working class; those who receive a college or post-graduate degree move into a higher class.

A degree from a prestigious school with a long history and difficult entrance requirements like Oxford, Harvard, or MIT confers greater status than one with minimal entrance requirements, like the local community college.

Learning about art, music, dance, and literature also confers greater status, as it points to the education and income level of the household in which you were raised.

Tables manners are part of your educationSo do your manners.

Knowing how to hold doors, enter rooms, exit cars, properly use table utensils, etc., shows that your parents come from at least a middle class background. Not knowing any of those things says they (or your antecedents) come from the working or lower class.

Knowing how to participate in upper class sports like skiing, sailing, and polo also confers greater status than knowing how to play working class sports like basketball, baseball, or football. While all sports require some degree of investment in time and money, maintaining horses, boats, and season lift tickets costs more than pulling a basketball or football out of a closet.

See how subtle this is?

What you learn as a child generally cements your social status as an adult.

Not always, but generally so.

Occupation

What you do for a living makes a difference, as skills were how people were originally sorted into different classes in ancient times. Jobs that require you to use your head, like doctor or lawyer, are perceived as higher class than jobs that require you to use your hands, like plumber or brick layer. So whether you use your brain or your brawn puts you in different classes.

Income

In the United States, you are considered low income if you make less than $30,000 per year, middle income if you make $30,000 to $60,000, and high income if you make more than $60,000. The ultra wealthy are described as those making over $250,000 per year.

Wealth

How you hang onto and invest that income can put you in different classes. If everything you own, including your house, car, jewelry, retirement fund, etc., is less than $50,000, you’re considered lower class. If it’s between $50,000 and $500,000, you’re middle class, and if it’s greater than $500,000, you’re in the upper class. If you have assets of more than $50 million, you’re considered ultra-wealthy.

So where do you fall in all of this?

Here’s a calculator to help you scientifically determine where you sit in the grand scheme of things. Just click on the “Components of Social Class” tab and use the drop-down menus to build your profile.

Your home reflects your social statusSo how can you increase your social status?

By improving the various components required to reach the next level.

So if you’re highly educated but in a low paying job, for example, get a better paying job. If your income is good but your education isn’t, increase that. Don’t have the wealth to qualify? Work on that.

It’s pretty simple once you break it down.

The bottom line is this: the better your education, typically, the better your job, income, and wealth. It’s a domino effect that’s proven effective since ancient times.

Are there any other factors that contribute to social class success?

Yes.

How you look, act, and speak.

All things that point to your level of education.

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The Three Behaviors That Give Away Your Social Status

Low class in high placesEver know someone who comes into some money and starts acting like they’re upper class? They’ll buy extravagant things and start living the jet set lifestyle.

But somehow, they just don’t fit in.

They’re just not as classy or cultivated as their new group.

And it shows.

Because, as the saying goes, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”

Or the ghetto. Or the Valley. Or the Midwest. Or the whatever.

Because we’re all a product of our upbringing. We can’t change who we are and what we learned.

And it shows.

Regardless of how much money you make or what car you drive, there are still three behaviors that instantly give away your class standing. How you:

  • Look
  • Act
  • and Speak

Let’s look at each in detail.

How You Look

How you dress and groom yourself is a clear indicator of your social class upbringing.

While all classes have become much more casual in recent years, the upper and upper middle classes still know how to dress for different occasions. They know that jeans aren’t always appropriate, and they’re familiar with the different dress codes. Those in high income positions usually insist on quality fabrics and good fit.

Working and lower class people tend to dress casually all the time and aren’t always sure about dress code requirements. That’s because dressing for different occasions is expensive, and not always in the budget. When they do go all-out, it can be flamboyant and over-the-top.

High income prefers subtle and exquisite. Low income prefers big and attention-getting.

Reality TV star Snooki on Instagram

Reality TV star Snooki on Instagram

See the difference?

The clothes, the styling, the setting – the pictures say it all.

How You Act

Manners were created so people could live in harmony with each other.

When even the slightest offense could provoke the drawing of swords, it became important to stifle primitive urges in favor of social harmony – especially as trade and political power increased.

The History of MannersThat’s the premise set forth by Norbert Elias in his groundbreaking work, The History of Manners (The Civilizing Process, Volume 1) written in 1939.

Whereas once people thought nothing of eating with their hands, relieving themselves wherever convenient, or copulating in public, these baser behaviors became increasingly frowned upon during the Renaissance, especially by people of high status. Thus, courtly manners were born, and those that did not possess them were deemed lower class.

They still are today.

Most middle and upper class families drill manners into their children starting at a young age. Sharing toys, using nice table manners, and saying “please” and “thank you” are all signs of respect. By the time a child enters middle school, good manners are usually a part of their ingrained behavior.

Or not.

If you don’t cement them early, they become harder to learn later in life.

Which is precisely why most interviews for high paying jobs includes a dining component: they want to test your table etiquette skills.

You may have graduated from a prestigious university, but if you don’t know how to hold a fork properly or what to do with a multi-course table setting, then you don’t have the savoir fair necessary for the job. Many promising candidates are eliminated during the appetizer.

Are good manners exclusive to the upper classes?

Of course not!

There are plenty of working class people with good manners, and it’s what allows them to advance when their formal education limits them.

Because good manners are appreciated everywhere in the world, and will open doors that schooling can’t.

Bad manners won’t.

Neither will a bad attitude.

How You Speak

Fran Drescher as The NannyEver talk to someone with poor grammar? Or who spoke too softly? Or who had a strong accent?

You formed impressions about them based on how they spoke.

Same if they were too loud. Or cursed repeatedly.

Because speech is one of the easiest ways to discern someone’s education and background. And if it’s undesirable, it can keep them from succeeding.

Remember the story of My Fair Lady?

It’s the story of a Cockney flower girl named Eliza who lives on the street and barely scrapes by selling flowers. Through happenstance, she becomes the student of an upper class vocal coach named Professor Higgins, who bets his friend that he can transform Eliza’s speech into that of a lady in six months, so she can work in a proper flower shop. Eliza agrees.

Through hard work and sheer determination, she makes it. At the end of the six months, Eliza’s speech and manners have been polished enough that she’s mistaken for a visiting duchess during the British Social Season. It completely transforms her life.

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady."

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Now while Eliza’s story is fiction, there are plenty of people who have taken speech lessons to improve their careers, including:

Katherine Hepburn

Criticized for her “shrill” voice early in her theater career, Hepburn headed straight to New York to work with a voice coach, where she cultivated the Mid-Atlantic English accent that allowed her to play wealthy characters for the rest of her career.

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly

After being accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York, Grace’s teachers told her that her voice was high and nasal – the unmistakable Philadelphia twang. So she studied with voice coaches and listened to records until she achieved her unique brand of diction – a near-British accent.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn developed her breathy, whispery voice to hide the fact that she stuttered. She learned early on that if she whispered or sang she could control the stutter, so that’s what she did. It was her signature voice.

Deborah Norville

Born and raised in Georgia, and a summa cum laude grad of the University of Georgia, Norville managed to sublimate her Southern accent to appeal to a wider audience. She’s been on television for 30 years.

That’s how important having a pleasant voice and cultured speech pattern can be, particularly if you’re in the public eye.

To ignore it is to risk career stagnation.

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How to Move Up and Down the Social Hierarchy



Oprah

Oprah has been a pop icon for 30 years.

Her influence is massive.

From her book club to her Angel network, her school for girls to her OWN television channel, she’s touched tens of millions of lives through the years and created a fortune for herself.

All by being the “common woman.”

She may rub elbows with royals, presidents, and celebrities, but she never forgot her humble roots.

Born into poverty to an unwed teenage mother and shuffled around to relatives until she was a teen, Oprah was made fun of by classmates, forced to sleep outside because of her skin color, and endured years of sexual abuse from family members. That she didn’t slip through the cracks and become another poverty statistic is due to two things: her father’s encouragement, and her love of reading.

Reading not only allowed her to learn new things and escape her life, it also taught her how to speak correctly. She didn’t sound like a poor black girl from rural Mississippi; she sounded like an educated woman. She happened to be both.

Her ability to speak won her a beauty pageant in high school, which lead to a radio show, which garnered her a full scholarship to college with job offers waiting once she graduated. She had her own syndicated talk show at age 30.

So what does this have to do with moving up and down the social hierarchy?

Oprah was born into poverty and lived a hellish life because of it. But because of her ability to speak, she lifted herself up by connecting with her viewers. She was one of them. She understood their trials and tribulations. Soon, she could talk to world leaders and trailer park dwellers with equal ease. All of them felt comfortable with her.

This ability to appeal to people from all up and down the social hierarchy is rare.

Most people only feel comfortable with those from their own social stratum. Most maids don’t usually feel comfortable talking to executives, for example, and most executives usually ignore maids. It’s like they operate in separate worlds.

That’s because crossing social class lines takes most people out of their comfort zones. So they don’t do it.

Which limits their income.

If you want to move up a social class, you need to start talking to people from it. If you already have a high social standing, you can engender loyalty and action by encouraging lower income workers. Mixing up and down the social ladder gives you a new perspective and allows you to connect with more people.

George Clooney

George Clooney

Actor George Clooney said that he learned early in his career to always go to lunch with the director of a movie he was considering doing. If the director treated the wait staff with respect, George would sign on for the picture. If the director ignored or chided the wait staff, George wouldn’t.

Because if the director treated the wait staff with care, it meant he would probably treat everyone on set the same way. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t. There would be friction and drama.

You’ve probably seen the same thing where you work.

Management ignoring the front line staff. Clerical workers treating maintenance workers as “less than.” Then they wonder why they can’t get any cooperation.

It’s no mystery.

Treat people how you’d like to be treated yourself, regardless of their background. You’ll be surprised by what it does for your bottom line.

FREE Bonus Report: How to Upgrade Your Social Status and Explode Your Income.  Click here for instant access!



A Quick Summary of Social Classes

We’ve covered a lot here, so let’s do a quick recap before you go:

  1. Social classes have existed since the dawn of civilization.
  2. Your social class is not based on the car you drive or the clothes you wear.
  3. Social class consists of four factors:
    -Education
    -Occupation
    -Income
    -Wealth
  4. To stand out and move ahead, you need to polish how you:
    -Look
    -Act
    -Speak
  5. Being able to relate to people all up and down the social hierarchy will expand your reach, influence, and income. Try it.

Now that you know all about what comprises the social classes, start observing others as you go about your day to day. Take note of their appearance, behavior, and speech. Say hello or hold the door. Strike up conversations in the check out line. Make jokes. Laugh. Build camaraderie.

Not only will you find yourself speaking to people from all social strata, you’ll also feel more comfortable doing it as time goes by. Be Oprah. Be the “common woman” who can talk to world leaders and welfare recipients with equal ease. You’ll love what it does to your income.

———

Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image coach who helps women upgrade their careers by upgrading their image. Ready to get the attention, respect, and income you deserve? Here’s How to Create Your Ideal Image so you can reach your goals.

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2 Comments

  • iamloved

    Reply Reply November 4, 2016

    I cannot tell you how useful this article is for me – thank you so much for the information!

    I come from a working class background (maybe ‘upper working class’??). Though I’ve always naturally gravitated towards some of the things you mention (always spoke well because I read so much, was picked out for not sounding ‘black’ when I was younger, interest in opera/ballet/classical arts, etc.), these things you mention are vey relevant and crucial for me to learn at the moment.

    My little one is now in a private school (5 years old) and we’re mixing with very different people then I grew up with for the most part, and I’m very aware of the need to be conscious about how we look, how we behave and how we sound as a family. Some elements of growing up in a west African family – with a strong culture of respect – has helped me with this. As you say, social classes are becoming more fluid, and a number of parents at the school also come from similar backgrounds to us (i.e. business and/or professional backgrounds, first generation to have their children in private schooling, etc.)so it helps to know we’re not alone.

    I’m quite intuitive when it comes to these sorts of things which is very helpful for us when navigating these circles – I had to resist the urge the other day to keep a lovely designed bag made in a cheap material, I knew I wouldn’t be able to use it in my little one’s school circles which helped me to return it to the shop! – and really want to help my little one with some sort of finishing school equivalent when she’s old enough (and once we have the budget!). I think she’ll be better off learning from the experts although I teach her all I currently know.

    Thanks so much again. I’ll be keeping this article for reference.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply November 28, 2016

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It’s true – once you begin to move in more elevated circles, how you look, act, and speak determines your level of success. It sounds like you’re on your way… 🙂

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