American Culture

Teaching underclass kids which fork to use

CATEGORY: BusinessFinanceI recently came across a useful article over at Ragan’s PR Daily entitled “What to wear to work in the PR and marketing industry.” After reading through it, my first reaction was that it was mistitled – what it offers is good advice for what to wear to work in just about any industry. From where I sit now, there’s nothing terribly innovative about author Elissa Freeman’s advice, but it’s also true that there’s sometimes significant value in being reminded of the basics and having them presented in a tight, coherent fashion. We have so much noise in our society, so many messages screaming for our attention every waking minute, that it’s easy to lose focus on something as simple as dressing appropriately for a work culture.

The main points?

  • Feel comfortable in your clothes.
  • Dress to impress on the job hunt.
  • Accessorize carefully.
  • Fit the culture.
  • Follow the leader.
  • Dress your age.

My second reaction was (predictably enough, if you know me) a bit deeper. I have been keenly aware, for more than 30 years now, how a concept as seemingly fundamental as “dress appropriately” can be an unfathomable web of arcana for vast swaths of our society. The reason is that fashion and grooming – clothes, shoes, accessories, hair styles, facial hair (for the guys), even scents – are powerful cultural markers embedded in class codes that are virtually invisible to those of us born and raised into the underclasses.

It has always been so. If you study your history back far enough, you’ll discover that once upon a time it was actually illegal, in the great monarchies of Europe, for commoners to wear certain styles (even if they could afford them). The high fashions were reserved, at pike point, for the noble born.

These days anybody can walk into any store in town and march out with a bag full of whatever they can afford, meaning that I can dress like Bill Gates or Prince Harry if I have sufficient credit. But the financial means for a simple country boy like me to look like a Rockefeller and the cultural know-how to do so effectively – those are different things.

I grew up working class. In the South. The rural South. I was raised by grandparents who came from meager means and grew up through the Great Depression. I never went hungry, but we never had much in the way of luxury, either.

The real poverty that I endured growing up was cultural. Class is very real in America, and this is especially true in the South, which can be hateful and mannered in ways subtle enough to baffle a courtier in Louis XIV’s Versailles. There were rules. Rules having to do with style, with behavior, with clothes and cars and interior decorating and… really, with just about everything.

And I didn’t know the rules. Worse, I was in college – an elite, moneyed, conservative private Southern university – before I began to figure out that there even were rules. Looking back, I was sort of like Jethro Bodine walking around the big city, blissfully unaware that everybody was laughing at him, not with him.

The rules. I had figured out in high school, thanks to my competitive debate experience, that if you have a Southern accent – especially one as hillbilly as mine was – people think you’re stupid. And everybody thinking you’re stupid, that comes with a wicked price tag. So I taught myself to speak with a perfectly flat Midwestern accent. For years nobody guessed I was Southern. People I’d meet would guess Ohio or Pennsylvania, but never the South.

But… how to dress. I thought polyester was a perfectly acceptable fabric for a suit. I didn’t understand that certain kinds of patterns in your sport coat scream “used car salesman.” I had no understanding of color (other than I liked bright ones in garish combinations). What shoes do you wear with those pants? Huh? And… what’s an “accessory”? What’s wrong with wearing my Casio sports watch to an interview? Oh, I need to get a nice watch. I see. You mean like a Timex?

Looking back, I imagine people thought that I was being dressed each morning by a chimp. A not terribly stylish, even by ape standards, chimp.

I remember my father telling a story. He was somewhere on business and got ushered into a formal dinner that was at least a couple class steps above his station (not that he cared – Dad was incredibly self-composed and at ease in any social situation; whatever faults he had, they did not revolve around low self-esteem or high self-awareness). He sat down and was confronted with a veritable armory of – and here it is, the redneck’s nightmare – forks. Forks of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of them, it seemed. I know my father. Up until that moment his dining experiences had never involved anything as exotic even as a salad fork or a special spoon for soup.

“What did you do, Daddy?”

“I just started with the one on the left and worked my way in.” Which, remarkably, was precisely the right thing to do. Had it been me, everybody else at the table would have been navigating the phalanx of forks like Vanderbilts and I’d have been trying to eat the foie gras with my feet. (And I’d have had no idea what the hell it was, either.)

Dad had some kind of instinct about how to behave that I didn’t. Worse, nobody explained the rules to me because in my culture, nobody else knew them, either. They might know that your socks ought to match your shoes, but that was about it.

So I marched off into the world, a bumpkin with no clue how to act, how to dress, which fork to use. And since I didn’t know these things, it was clear to all the more cultured folks I met that I wasn’t one of them. They might be nice to me. They might have a beer with me. The girls might even date me if they wanted to get back at their parents. But… opportunities didn’t present themselves. They didn’t call when their fathers were hiring. When they graduated, the girls never considered, for a second, that I might be appropriate for them long term. (Yes, L-J, I’m looking at you.)

No matter how qualified I was for a job, it usually went to the kid from the right family, with the right connections, wearing the right clothes. These people can smell the thread count on your button down before you even walk in the room.

The “what to wear to work” article linked above is really helpful, but it has me thinking that we need more. Millions of poor and working class kids who have the brains to thrive in middle and upper class contexts lack the cultural skills, the basic awareness, even, of the rules, of the ways in which how they act and present themselves work to keep them down. That hair style might be the absolute pinnacle of fashion in your working class ‘hood, but it signals, as clearly as a blinking neon sign around your neck, that you’re not one of us. Yes, I have a job for you as an admin in the warehouse, but management? Bitch, please.

I wish there were community programs designed to teach high school kids the cultural skills they’ll need to climb America’s class ladder. The programs I have in mind would address areas like:

Diction: You can’t speak ghetto. You can’t speak cornfield. If you’re going to sound Southern, you need to sound coastal and not upland/hillbilly (that is, Scarlett O’Hara instead of Gomer Pyle). You can’t sound like you were an extra in Fargo. And you can’t sound Jersey Shore under any circumstances. Here in Denver we have a huge Mexican-American population, and there’s a distinct Latino accent. It’s nowhere near as tragic as how I grew up speaking, but it nonetheless is a class marker. Hiring managers hear that accent and instinctively situate the speaker in a particular context – the non-commissioned context – with all the limitations that attend it.

You can learn how to flatten and “normalize” your accent, and you can also learn how to avoid going ethnic, head side-to-side “oh no you didn’t” sister or “I’m a-fixin’ to whoop your ass” redneck in ways that make those raised in polite society want to run away from you. (I still have to fight down the urge to get my back up Nor’ Cackalackey style when somebody pisses me off, but it’s doable, and you get particularly motivated once you come to understand how those up the food chain view that sort of behavior.)

Dress: You don’t have to spend a fortune to look respectable, but you do need to know how to maximize what money you have. When do you wear black shoes vs. when do you wear brown? When do you wear blue patent leather? (Trick question. Never.) What socks go with what pants and shoes? Is this belt okay? Can I wear a black sport coat with khakis?

Getting just one of these questions wrong can cost you a job. No, seriously.

Grooming: 25 year-old male with a 1970s porn ‘stache applying for a managerial job. Next. Young woman with Camaro hair. Next. Your cologne, bought on sale at Walmart, arrives for the interview two minutes before you do. Next. Is that a mullet?! A gold tooth?! Somebody call security.

Professional/Career Counseling: I work in marketing. When I was a teenager if you’d asked me would I like to work in marketing, I’d have thought you were offering me a job as a bag boy. Worse, that might have seemed not bad.

If you’re an underclass kid, you know there are doctors and lawyers and accountants, but your understanding of what goes into becoming one is nonexistent because there are none in your family or among your circle of friends. The people in your cultural sphere are manual laborers. They work in stores and shops and maybe they do bookkeeping. If they’re in the medical world, they’re on the underside of the glass ceiling – lab techs, dental assistants, etc. Given what they know of the world, they often have no clue as to how they’d even aspire to being a real physician. A marketing researcher? They might be fabulous at math and stats, but they have never heard of the job title.

Meanwhile, across town, middle class and upper class kids know all these things. They have role models in their lives and that means a) they have ready access to knowledge about these professions, b) there is a cultural assumption that it’s doable, because people they know do it all the time, and c) they have the connections to shepherd them in the right direction.

What else? You know, I can’t prove it with hard research, but I suspect that names get in the way, too. This is most evident with African-American naming conventions, which frankly mystify the hell out of white people. I now understand that there are rules that dictate some of these odd-sounding names, and that once you know how those conventions work the names make a lot more sense.

But I’m imagining a job application process. Submit the same résumé to 100 hiring managers, only you change the names. On 50 of them the applicant is “Michelle Harris” and on the other 50 it’s “KaTrinka Harris.” What do you think happens?

And it isn’t just about black working class cultures. I grew up in a place where you run across a lot of guys named Wayne, Randy and Earl. These are very Southern working class names, and no matter how smart the guy is (I have good, intelligent friends with each of these names), an upper-class interviewer can’t help hearing the hillbilly.

So if your name is Randy Morgan Smith and you go by Randy, what if I suggest you think about changing over and going by Morgan?

I hate seeing people underperform their potential, and I especially hate it when the underperformance is a result of external social and economic forces that artificially limit opportunity. I want excellent education for everyone, I want a level playing field in hiring and promotion, and I understand that all too often, the factors keeping us from fully realizing our potential (as individuals and as a society) are buried in class considerations that we not only don’t address, we don’t even acknowledge. After all, here in America we’re all equal, right? Anybody can grow up to be president and if you got six dollars and mule you can be a billionaire and any suggestion whatsoever that any of this isn’t true makes you a socialist.

I’d like to see programs that help poor and working class kids with ambition bridge the class chasm. Not everyone wants to climb the ladder, of course, and that’s fine. Do what makes you happy. But if you settle further down the socio-economic scale, it needs to be the result of an informed decision and conscious choice, not because of external factors working to keep the rabble in their place.

10 replies »

  1. There is, actually, research on African-American names done, I believe, at Harvard. Resumes were sent out with identical qualifications, only some had generic names and some had names we associate with African-Americans (LaKeisha and the like). The study found that one had to send out 50% more resumes with those AA names to get the same number of interviews.

    I’ve told you this story, but after getting my first job with a real future, I was told that I almost didn’t get it because I wore brown shoes with my gray suit. Later, in that same Fortune 500 company, a guy took over the marketing department who had a rule about hiring. He would ask you where your parents went to college. If both hadn’t gone to college, he wouldn’t hire you. It was that simple.

    Like you, I discovered my lack of cultural knowledge in the work world, and decided to do something about it. I found a book, “Dress for Success,” by John Molloy. Molloy had done research by city on what clothing was acceptable and what clothing not acceptable. It wasn’t the best research,and wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, but it was probably accurate, nevertheless. He found that black raincoats hurt you at work and in the job market. A tan raincoat was de rigeur (and if you’ve ever walked from one of the Metra stations in Chicago into the Loop during morning rush hour, you’ll know that it’s a sea of tan raincoats in the winter). Acceptable patterns on ties, at that stage, were limited, as were acceptable colors. And the list went on.

    As you’ve pointed out, there are people out there who simply know these things because they grew up with them. Those who didn’t are, de facto, limited.

    And I agree that it would be very useful to make this very clear to young people from working-class backgrounds, and teach them the manners and style they need to “pass.”

  2. Excellent. You know I can relate to your background (from the other side of the Appalachians). My parents actually sent me to “White Gloves and Party Manners,” a course that taught me how to curtsy (never used that much), write a thank-you note, set a table properly (with multiple forks), and basically be a little lady. Quit snickering.

    Back in the 90s I suggested that we put a finishing course into the curriculum (it was an all-girls Catholic school that attracted a lot of blue-collar students). Why? One of my favorite students (with as much polish as 40-grit sandpaper) showed up for her Senior Project–in the office of a trucking company–in her best goin’ out Friday night red mini-skirt. With matching heels. We got a call and had to have a conversation. Two years I arranged for all of the girls to go to the ballet when we still had one in Cleveland. For many of them it was their first time. The second time I did a presentation on the morning news show we had in-house on what to wear (and what not to). I had pictures on cards that I flipped through. One year we had a freshman at homecoming bending over at the waist so guys could pitch pennies into her cleavage. At one prom, I had to sew a girl back into her dress because she got out of the car wrong and the leg slit finished the short journey up to her behind.

    Now I work at a school attended mainly by kids from families with WAY more money than I will ever have. I will never have (and really don’t want) the cars they drive to high school in. But we also make an effort to include promising students from the inner city. What we don’t do is teach them how to fit in. And that’s a shame. Some of them pick it up by being observant. But a lot don’t–and we lose them. I’ve suggested a number of times that we set up a “Success Program” to do what you are talking about–because we need to. For the sake of the kids. It’s not enough to have “potential,” but you need someone to work with that and build on it.

  3. This is pretty potent stuff Sam. Other than my mother’s brother, no one in my family had gone to college, unless you count my mother’s father going to school for heating and air conditioning in the late 1940s. My brother and I both have masters degrees but none of my three sisters ever went.

    My niece (who’s 26 with no college) by one of my sisters posted on facebook that she went to an interview and they expected her to know something about the company! She was shocked. And oblivious enough to post that on facebook. She’s smart, she’s driven, she owns her house, which is a huge thing among her class since most of them are perpetual renters. But somehow, she never knew something so basic as researching a company that you are interviewing with. So she’s still a receptionist at a hospital with not much prospect of advancement. And her tattoos don’t help. In fact she lost one job because of them.

    At the mid-sized state university where I work, the career office offers a formal dinner with students where they teach them many of the rules. A lot of our students are still, even in this day, the first generation to go to college. Many of our students are probably bound for middle-management in the Midwest, but that’s still a leg up from their parents. Kind of where I’m at actually. No Ivy League, not much professional prestige, but still better off than my parents. And hopefully, my kids will be better off still. At least I’m trying to educate them, but I have limits like I don’t care about watch brand, or phone brand, or thread count, so they’ll have to pick up on some of that themselves.

    I have a lot more swimming around in my head, but I have to think it through to get it down.

    I have no idea what foie gras is or how to pronounce it.

    • Great comments, everybody. It’s always interesting when you do a post on something nobody ever really talks about and then you get all these comments from people who are very aware of it. I think that’s maybe an important part of the problem. Maybe the underclasses don’t talk about it because we’re embarrassed?

      • I think either we are unaware of it until it’s said out loud, or we figure we can’t do anything about it. How in the world can I look like someone who grew up with money. I know they look different, but how do I duplicate that? Can I afford it even if I can duplicate it?