Top Indicators of Your Social Class

One morning not long ago as I was minding my own business in a dressing room at Macy’s, my sensibilities were assaulted by the sounds of three high school girls trying on prom dresses. As they grunted and tugged their way into various gowns using crude language laced with expletives, they discussed THEIR body parts, their boyfriends’ body parts, thongs, acne, and birth control. Then things got really crass.

Appalled and seeking escape, I skipped trying on half the garments I’d brought with me and was just leaving the dressing room when one of them mentioned a fellow classmate and one of the others snickered, “That girl has no class.”

Please!

Look, I don’t care if it WAS Macy’s, no one will ever mistake these girls for blue bloods. Their manners and language will keep them far away from polite society, just as their cutting school to shop for formalwear without their mothers will guarantee that they’ll be inappropriately dressed come prom night. The signs are all there.

When I mentioned the episode to some of the other mothers as I picked up my son from preschool that day, it sparked an interesting debate. What, exactly, is “class” and at what income level do you “switch” classes?

If only it were that easy!

Social ClassOnce upon a time, it was. The old hereditary caste system divided people by rank and occupation, and typically, those with the highest incomes were also at the top of the social ladder. But times changed. Merchant princes were born. Dynasties were founded on cotton and steel. An aristocratic title was no longer a guarantee of vast wealth.

Today, the concept of class remains complicated, because money doesn’t necessarily equal class. There are lots of people with money and no class (see opening paragraphs, above), just as there are lots of people with class but no money. Not all rich people live grandly, not all poor people live modestly. It’s not just about the money.

It’s a combination of things, the four most prominent factors being:

  • Occupation
  • Education
  • Income
  • Wealth

Let’s look at these a little closer:

Occupation – what you do for a living makes a difference. A doctor or a lawyer is perceived as being higher class than a plumber or a brick layer because one category requires brains, the other requires brawn. Whether you use your head or your hands to make a living puts you in different classes.

Education – a good education has been an indicator of class for millennia, for only those with money could afford to hire instructors. Today, most people who complete high school are considered middle class; those who receive a college or post-graduate degree move into a higher class. A degree from a college 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.

Income – in the United States, you’re considered to be low income if you make less than $30,000 a year, middle income if you make $30,000 to $60,000 a year, and high income if you make more than $60,000 a year. The ultra wealthy are described as those making more than $200,000 a year.

Wealth – how you hang on to and invest that income can put you in different classes. If everything you own, including your house, jewelry, retirement fund, etc., is less than $50,000, you’re considered low 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 what’s YOUR social class? Here’s an interesting calculator to help you scientifically determine where you sit in the grand scheme of things (click on the “Components of Class” tab and use the drop-down menus to build your profile):

So what does all of this have to do with clothing and image?

In our society, we often say that “image is everything.” I don’t believe that. I think that how you look can get you in the door, but what you know will keep you in the room. This study of class confirms it.

Regardless, there are those who will try to fake their way into anything, including those class-questionable high school girls in the dressing room. Many think that money – or the appearance thereof – should grant them access to the highest echelons of society. But as we’ve just seen from the occupation/education/income/wealth variables, it just doesn’t work that way. There’s a lot more to it than the superficial.

So how can you determine someone’s probable class if you don’t know their background? It’s easier than you think. Don’t get distracted by the flashy exteriors some people hide behind. Here are the easy-to-identify indicators of your social class:

1. How You Speak

“An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,” sang Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. “The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.”

It’s true. How you speak reveals SO much about you that you can talk to someone on the phone for just a minute and accurately pinpoint his background. Accent, grammar, vocabulary – everything you need to know to tell where he’s from and how much schooling he’s had. Double negatives, letter dropping, poor grammar, and unchecked expletives indicate a lower class; proper grammar, ease of pronunciation, and a large vocabulary indicate a good education and thus, a higher class.

2. How You Eat

Good table etiquette, including knowing how to hold your fork and chewing with your mouth closed, is just one way you show your class at the table; another is what you consume. While each class has its own definition of “good food,” the differences are significant and a direct reflection of the food budget. The higher classes tend to favor small portions of a wide variety of high quality ingredients while the lower classes tend to opt for large portions of a handful of low quality ingredients. Hence, a distinct class difference in waistlines.

The dining table is also one of the favorite testing grounds for potential employees and spouses, to see what they eat and how they manage their place settings. Many a promising candidate has been eliminated before dessert.

3. How You Dress

Clothing and accessories have been used as class indicators since ancient times, and they still are today. Modest, well-fitting, occasion-appropriate pieces in fine, natural fabrics are signs of an upper class; revealing, poor-fitting, occasion-inappropriate pieces in cheap, synthetic fabrics are signs of a lower class. In many cultures, wearing a lot of makeup or showing lots of skin (legs, arms, or cleavage), marks you as a prostitute (low-class).

4. Your Manners

How you treat others says a great deal about you. From simple courtesies like “please” and “thank you” to holding doors and keeping the radio volume low, when you show respect to others regardless of their position, it means that you are confident and comfortable with yourself — which is very classy. But when you’re oblivious to others or when you treat them poorly because you think you outrank them, it marks you as petty and low-class. Want to know what to expect of a potential employer, spouse, or in-law when they let their guard down? Watch how they treat waiters, doormen, and custodial personnel. It will tell you everything you need to know.

5. Your Personal Library

“You can tell a high-ranking man by the size of his library,” a mentor once told me, “and a low-ranking man by the size of his television.”

Worldly people tend to read, travel, and ask questions. Unworldly people tend to sit, watch, and accept. When the small Library of Congress went up in flames at the hands of the British army in 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered part of his own library in replacement – 6,487 volumes. This from a man who taught himself seven languages, proposed a new government, quadrupled the size of the country with the Louisiana purchase, and founded the University of Virginia — in addition to his tenures as Ambassador and President. See what you can get motivated to do when you turn off the television and crack a few books?

Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as equals, without rank or class distinction. But while we don’t have the formal aristocratic hierarchies of other countries, we’re often quick to describe ourselves as being middle or upper class, as having class, or to condemn others for NOT having class. It’s part of our culture.

So is aspiring to greater things. It’s part of the American dream.

So who’s “the real deal” and who’s “playing” you? Go back and re-read all the indicators of social class. Watch how people move. Listen to how they speak and what they say. In a very short time, you’ll be able to discern the classy from the classless, the carefully cultivated from the haphazardly thrown together. The signs are everywhere. Just follow the clues.

===========================================

Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Occasion Magic.  Ready to nail the dress code every time?  Occasion Magic can help.

Be Sociable, Share!

7 Comments

  • webxi

    Reply Reply December 13, 2014

    The women passing through my life keep trashing others as not of my class. One told shocked me on reference on class and i was so confused, i told her she belonged to the class that she thought she belonged to.

    The shocker is that my background is full of the most immoral, full of crushing poverty alcoholics, religious maniacs and occultists…. which ended up in me being brought up by a sponsor;emotionally and psychologically, by a very wealthy, most polished, London home owner, world vacationer woman full of humor.

    Marrying the two background, and a sinking into religious cults, made sure i was mentally broken down, needing an incredible amount therapy that i had to pay all on my own, but mostly through internet based research therapy.

    The word class has always passed round me like a man in a dream. Sometimes i would get a perception that they are referring to me. But i was just too confused in my mind.
    What is class when your mind cannot remember what day of the week it is? Anyway i have been trudging on but today some chips seem to have fallen apart.

    It started with my two neighbor women. I had tried dating one of them but turned out she was too
    religious to allow anything. The thing is i have almost been a dad to a child of one of these two women.
    And i can totally say in two years i have been literary a dad, the mother of this child, has never showed gratitude of making and passing on to me a cup of tea! The sister, i have always been
    generous to her. I have many times brought her small gifts of gratitude when we come visiting
    from some place with their child. Again she has never as much as passed on a sweet to this kind stranger who is so thoughtful of her and their child.

    Because of the rich sponsor that brought me up, there is an internal part of me that is exceptionally
    generous…. but i had always assumed, incredibly, that everyone else had that same generosity.
    Until today it had never clicked that some people are,well,without mincing words, low class.

    And like a cascading panorama i immediately saw the so much low class that has danced and ululated in my life. The mother of my child who has never paid for a cup of tea any time we went to a hotel, the men who have always been yapping about cars and land. Jeez. it was like the paul who saw the light one day.

    Now all those statements about class i used to hear have come back with a bang. I never could ear what the hell people are saying. how can your alcoholic brother or promiscuous sister be any any other class but your own. There were the neighbor women who seem to think our neighborhood is heaven and it would always baffle the crap out of me. Now i see her. She truly doesn’t believe this is the neighborhood she should be at… and why it was so important to give birth birth to multiple children, that always was a baffle. Why? i love it when i go around with my kid…. Now now now. I simply have never seen this woman walk out f the gate with her kids! it makes sense now.

    Phew. Finally. I do understand what this class thing is all about. I finally know what was lacking in my family. My siblings would always look at me in a strange way. Like expecting i will kick them out. I actually did it because it was always hanging around waiting to be done, but it was more about of following my gut to define boundaries in an otherwise badly dysfunctional family. But in reality
    the thing that was lacking. in very simple terms. was class. There was gratitude. there was no
    happiness. There was no tolerance. There was no acceptance. Shame was like a Jehovah’s cloud of mist and my small tiny love was like a small piece of meat being thrown to hyanas.
    My family. i am glad to note, and a hell lot of people who have passed through my life, the ones
    variously mentioning the baffling class…now i am happy to learn. in reality. They were terribly
    lacking in class.

    And thank you author for allowing me to express.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 15, 2014

      Hi Webxi – wow! Sounds like you’ve been through the wringer! A lack of gratitude reflects education and a sense of entitlement. If you’re not taught to show appreciation for others, you don’t show it. If you feel entitled to things without working for them, you don’t appreciate them. The two go hand-in-hand. Since you were raised by a sponsor with a big heart and big checking account, you have an advantage your siblings did not. I know you feel a family allegiance to your siblings, as you should, but I would encourage you to look for better educated women for relationships.

  • webxi

    Reply Reply December 16, 2014

    Diana
    Just to say thank you for your words n calling
    my previous sponsor big hearted.
    it was long overdue for some one else besides
    me to say such words.
    her name is ann. the closest a child could get being
    mothered by an angel was to have this woman
    attend to your childs needs, fears, wants and expectations.
    Anyway. Thanks once again for your audience.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 16, 2014

      You’re more than welcome! 🙂

  • lee77

    Reply Reply May 4, 2015

    This may sound odd, but one of the best indicators of a person who has money, as opposed to one whose check will probably bounce, is the type checks they use. If they use “designer checks” with animals, beach scenes, or whatever, there’s a good chance it will bounce. People with money inevitably use cheap, plain checks. I learned this when I was selling books through the mail. If someone sent a plain check, I sent the book immediately. If I received a designer check, I’d wait for it to clear before sending the order.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 5, 2015

      Interesting! Thanks for the insight!

  • Patryk

    Reply Reply June 15, 2017

    Spot on and enjoyable.

Leave A Response To lee77 Cancel reply

* Denotes Required Field

Security Code: