The Class Project 5: Mine!

Possessions.  Property.  Things.

This is actually the subject that first led me to believe that my attitudes are not middle class, but upper class.

It’s also a category where upper-class attitudes that have functioned well for centuries sometimes run into problems nowadays.

I believe that one’s class — mental class, not current economic situation — strongly affects what you buy, what you keep, how you treat it.  This is hardly news.  What I find interesting, though, is just how perverse some of the attitudes are.

Specifically, the lower class tends to buy what they want, rather than what they need, and to do so on availability, rather than quality or price.  Nutritionists and social workers often bemoan this, and attribute it to ignorance.

I’m not sure it is ignorance; I’m not sure just what’s going on, but it seems as if it’s not a lack of knowledge so much as a lack of belief.  If you want a Big Mac now, maybe you know that it’d be healthier and cheaper in the long run to buy some groceries and make something at home, but damn, you’ve got five bucks in your pocket and here’s Mickey D’s and it’s not like saving a buck is ever going to matter, or like being healthy is important, because you know that you’ll never save enough to matter, it’ll all get ripped off somehow, and your health isn’t important because you can’t afford a doctor and someday you’re going to catch a stray bullet or some stupid virus or some toxic chemical from the scrapheap you live in anyway, and it won’t matter if you’ve taken care of your heart or your colon.  So you buy the Big Mac and live for the present.

If you ever have money, you want to show it off, so you buy something trendy and expensive.    You buy what you want while you can.

The working class, on the other hand, understands savings, and will buy cheap.  Clipping coupons and hitting the weekly sales at K-Mart, stocking up on bargains, etc.  You buy when the price is right.

The middle class buys what it can afford.  “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”  Possessions confer status.  A car is a statement of who you are, your personal style and your current level of wealth.  You replace things when better ones become available — new-model cars, software upgrades, etc.

The upper class buys quality, and keeps it.  Price is irrelevant.

This was the point I tripped over sometimes as a kid.  Friends would notice something odd about our household and comment on it — for example, that we ate all our meals with antique sterling silver flatware.  We would shrug; it’s what we’d always done.

“But this stuff is worth money!  You could sell it to an antique dealer for hundreds of dollars!”

Yeah, but then we’d have to buy new flatware; what’s the point?  We don’t need the money right now, and we do need forks.

(Later, when I went to college, and eventually bought my own stainless steel flatware, I finally discovered the point — I like the taste of steel better than the taste of silver.  But that’s just me.)

In fact, here’s a clear-cut example of class attitudes.  Let us suppose you discover that the fancy china Grandma gave you is rare, collectible, and valuable.  What do you do with it?

If you’re lower class, you sell it.  If you’re bright, to a respectable antique dealer, after dickering; if you’re stupid, you pawn it.

If you’re working class, you get it appraised, then pack it up very carefully and set it aside somewhere, figuring it’ll appreciate and you can sell it for even more someday when you need the money.

If you’re middle class, you put it on display somewhere in your home, probably safely behind glass, and point it out to visitors.

If you’re upper class, you shrug, say, “That’s nice,” and use it to eat your meals, same as before.

This is where the distinction between nouveau riche and upper class becomes obvious; the nouveau riche think that money is for showing off, for establishing status, and will therefore buy the most expensive goods and display them prominently, while the upper class think that you buy things to use, and will therefore buy the best stuff, regardless of price, and use it.  Nouveau riche buy Rolexes; upper class buy whatever watch looks good and keeps good time.  Which might be a Rolex — or a Timex.

The nouveau riche build huge ostentatious mansions.  The upper class live in whatever’s comfortable for them.

13 thoughts on “The Class Project 5: Mine!

  1. Thanks for coming out with this series; it’s handy to have these thoughts available. I was wondering why I seemed to have jumped so many class levels on graduation, since there wasn’t anything different in my actions or attitudes. Seems I just fell into an area where that those characteristics were expected, rather than different.

    You mentioned how pseudointellectuals and social climbers saw money as a weapon in this series. Could you expand a little on that? I’m afraid I don’t get it at all. (Well, maybe it’s a way to go “See! And you said I’d never amount to anything.)

  2. At this point I’m still posting old stuff, written years ago, and anything new is going to have to wait a little longer, but discussing money as weapon is something I ought to do, yes.

    The very short version is that pseudointellectuals and social climbers are highly competitive, and use money as both a way of keeping score and a tool they can use against their rivals.

  3. It’s not just you, I can’t stand the taste of silver. Steel just tastes better. Though I find I prefer wooden chopsticks for Chinese food. I am convinced that steel makes the food taste different (and I don’t even want to think about silver for Chinese food, ick).

  4. I saw that you haven’t had many comments so I just wanted to post to indicate that I’ve liked these posts and am interested in more. But a question: what role does religion play in all of this? What you call working class values regarding labor seems to line up with the Protestant work ethic…

  5. I don’t really think religion plays much of a role at all. I’ve known plenty of Catholics, Jews, and agnostics who had as much of the “Protestant work ethic” as anyone. I know it’s traditional to see a religious influence, but I don’t.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but hey, I never said this was anything more than my own observations.

  6. I just wanted to say thanks for posting these.

    And to note that IIRC the Robert Sheckley story where everyone is middle class is the later section of The Status Civilization, the part set on Earth. You mentioned this in Part 1 of this series.

    And the one of the marks of being upper middle class was having tastefully individualized possessions, unlike the crassly individualized possessions of the middle middle class, or the undifferentiated possessions of the lower middle class.

    There, I made it on topic for this one, sorta.

  7. The lower classs have no use for intelligence and little for education. The upper classes hire fungible worker bees and worker minds as needed. The middle classes forever struggle – evolution is a hoot if you are one of the surviviors – then suffers its gains compassionately confiscated and redistributed to protected minorities (less user fees ceded to the upper classes).

    Government: If you ever need anything, just call us and we’ll help you figure out how to live without it for increased taxation.

  8. I think you’re right, Captain, that it was The Status Civilization.

    Ah, Uncle Al — bitter as ever.

  9. This installment reminded me of one of my favourite bits of Bujold: Miles showing Ekaterin the Vorkosigan House attic, which is full of old worn-out junk (according to the Vorkosigans) or invaluable historical artifacts (according to historian Duv Galeni).

  10. We had silver plated ware growing up and some solid silver stuff. I never noticed any taste effects. The knife blades though were steel.

    I think this stuff is very different from country to country. I never would have thought I was upper class growing up in England, but now living in the US and now Australia I can see that I have some upper class characteristics… Materially, financially I went up a class or so over this time. My father came from a formerly somewhat wealthy German Jewish family (born 1916) and my mother grew up working class in Australia but then got a scholarship to University of Sydney to study classics (in 1948). She’s now got $2-3 million (I help manage it) but is very frugal. A large chunk came from my Dad’s inherited art work (my paternal grandfather’s family in Germany were art dealers) which he then sold most of at auction. So the inherited silver we ate with and the sold paintings make us some working class/upper class mix 🙂 Oh there some of the silver is nicely displayed in my Mom’s apartment – middle class?

  11. Apparently most people don’t notice the taste of silver, but I do.

    I also think cilantro tastes soapy.

    I’ve said all along that I’m talking about class in the U.S.; I have no idea how it works in Australia, and I’m not familiar enough with England or Germany to play expert there. I know it’s different; in England, for example, accent is very important, where it’s generally a minor detail in the U.S. (though certain southern accents automatically get one labeled as working class, etc.).

  12. Bo Lindbergh:

    Another Bujold example from A Civil Campaign:

    She pulled the envelope from her left inner pocket, and turned it over,
    staring at it. The cream-colored paper had impressive weight and
    density. The back flap was indented in the pattern of the Vorkosigans’
    seal, pressed deeply and a little off-center into the thick paper. Not
    machine embossed; some hand had put it there. His hand.


    She bet he even owned one of those daggers with the seal concealed in
    the hilt for the purpose, which the high lords had used to wear. One
    could buy imitation reproductions of them in antique and souvenir shops,
    with soft and blunted metal blades because nobody ever actually nicked
    themselves anymore to testify in blood. Genuine seal daggers with
    provenance from the Time of Isolation, on the rare occasions when they
    appeared on the market, were bid up to tens and hundreds of thousands of

    Miles probably used his for a letter opener, or to clean under his

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