HEATHER DENKMIRE

The language of the working class and what it means for their success

Posted Oct. 02, 2013, at 12:56 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 25, 2013, at 10:03 a.m.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.
Contributed photo | BDN
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.

“Well, she’s no Einstein,” I heard my mother saying at the dinner party. This was the first time I heard my mother say something about my intellect that wasn’t entirely positive. I was 43.

It’s not as if my parents gave me a gold star just for breathing. They didn’t give false praise. Their expectations were high; it was always assumed I’d meet them. My parents were encouraging. They helped me see that life is full of opportunity. With hard work and creativity, I could do anything. This is a typical mindset for the middle class.

For most people, talking about social class is taboo. Talking about it brings great risks of offending people and even greater risks of misunderstanding. The fact is, working class/blue collar people and middle class/white collar people speak very different languages.

My point of view has been shaped by my middle class background. In Facing Social Class: How Societal Rank Influences Interaction, Nicole M. Stephens, Stephanie A. Fryberg, and Hazel Rose Markus write that the middle class experience is one that “encourages people to see themselves as independent actors, free to choose their possible selves, and to create their future paths.”

They go on to say that working class people don’t have “the material resources, the authority or status, and the cultural knowledge or information needed to influence the world according to personal preference and to experience the self as an independent, freely choosing actor.”

In other words, working class people don’t view the world as a place they change but as a world in which they live and do their best to survive.

Working class people live unpredictable lives. They don’t have the same safety net enjoyed by middle and upper class people, so life is uncertain. Because of this, working class people value following the rules — this is how they keep their jobs. They value working together and helping one another in times of need. Life is not “just about them.”

Since moving to Maine, I have been trying to better understand the role of social class in my life and in the lives of those around me. In a frank conversation with LannaLee Maheux on a podcast called, “ Lounging with LannaLee: White Trash, Bad Credit, and Art,” we discussed each other’s social class worlds, finding common ground and differences.

In retrospect, I see that I didn’t know what LannaLee meant when she talked about her parents’ expectations that she get a job. I learned from her that opening a checking account requires having a credit history. I’ve had checking accounts since I can remember, so it never occurred to me. I share this because it’s just the sort of thing that I know causes eye-rolling and disgust among many readers. To some people, this must mean I don’t have practical life skills.

In a wonderful blog, objecting to one of my columns, the anonymous author notes, “But her complaints — fear, misery, desperation, exhaustion, hopelessness — aren’t subsistence problems; they’re emotional ones. Denkmire isn’t talking about the necessities of life but an easy life.”

My internal life is a key component in my external success. I now recognize how expressing these priorities makes it sounds like I’m looking for an “easy life.” I don’t speak “working class,” though I’d like to learn.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such differing ways of viewing the world. However, the upper and middle classes — and here I mean college educated, white collar professionals — run the show in our country. This means that the institutions in mainstream America that are the gateways to social mobility, such as law, education, employment, media, and health care, are written in a language working class people don’t speak.

This is particularly troubling when it comes to how children are perceived in the classroom. When teachers have expectations based on middle class points of view, only those children who communicate in the styles teachers consider “correct” will be seen as successful.

In employment situations, as well, working class people are at a disadvantage if they want to move into middle class positions. When a working class person doesn’t use the hidden social cues of the middle class, the middle class decision makers may make negative assumptions about the applicant’s competence.

In America, people like to believe that social class doesn’t shape life chances. That belief is incorrect. Until people in the middle and upper classes who are running those gateway institutions — education, health care, employment, law, politics — recognize there is a language we don’t speak, history will continue repeating itself, and working class people will always be at a disadvantage.

Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at column@grantwinners.net.

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