When I write about my privileged background, I’m frequently met with disdain and harsh judgments. People have their own life experiences and their own interpretations of meanings. None will fit mine precisely. Speaking or writing bluntly about my background leaves me open for criticism.
Because this is my first — and, I hope, my last — experience living in “poverty,” I consider it an opportunity to shed light on aspects of socio-economic class that make most people uncomfortable.
In my last column, I began considering the different languages we speak based on class background. I mentioned the blank stares I get when I try unsuccessfully to make small talk at a 7-11, as an example.
A reader responded, “Get a clue. The clerk at the 7-11 isn’t interested in your liberal elitist ‘small talk.’ When I deal with people like you all I can think of is ‘privileged airhead.’” I was glad to get this response. It confirmed my suspicion that there was a class language barrier I wasn’t traversing. The reader recognizes the “liberal elites” and notes that we have our own version of small talk. That was my point: Different classes speak different languages.
There are parts of our country that are broken. For example, most reasonable people agree that health care is too expensive, and wages are too low. For us to solve these problems, working together as patriotic Americans want to do, we need to uncover and use a common language.
Referencing only my own background (wealthy, well-educated, going back generations) as my source for meaning, “the American dream” is the belief that with enough hard work anyone can achieve success. I think, though I am not sure, this is a sentence on which most people could agree regardless of class background. What gets complicated are the definitions of “hard work” and “success.”
In my version, hard work means using skills and talents to create or distribute goods or services for a truly livable wage without damaging our physical or emotional health. And, in my version, success means having the ability to pay bills without worry, eating well, enjoying time off of work, easily accessing high quality health care and living in a safe and comfortable home.
People who speak my language hold the power and, therefore, set the policies that affect each of us on a daily basis. For example, to get a “good job,” people need “interviewing skills.” Some grow up learning those skills, and some don’t. Not everyone speaks the language of successfully interviewing for a job, so we have set in place opportunities for training. The Maine Department of Labor’s Career Centers offer workshops to teach those skills, like the one happening in Augusta on May 23, called “Interviewing Skills Workshop.” The fact that most people I grew up with were taught these skills nearly from birth reveals some of our advantage.
When I say that people who speak my language are more likely to be successful, I am referencing my idea of the American dream. I am not implying that I think people want to or should live the way I do. Lives vastly different than mine can be rich and fulfilling. It seems obvious to me that I wouldn’t have a clue about what other people’s personal preferences are. I’m not suggesting that life is only satisfying if you’ve been to college or if you enjoy sushi and lattes (not together, yuck). It’s simply that people speaking my language will likely have better luck getting jobs and will be that much closer to achieving the American dream.
If your background is one that doesn’t speak the language of those in power, I understand resenting people who do. It’s as if people are telling you your way isn’t good enough. It is an unfair advantage that you are expected to learn a language other than your own, where people like me get along well without having a clue how to speak yours.
To fix the broken parts of our country — and I am suggesting the costs and accessibility of high quality health care and real livable wages for work are what needs fixing — we need to find a way to talk effectively together using a language with meanings we all understand.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.