One of my favourite features of life à l’heure française is that I don’t even have to think about class. While there’s definitely a class structure in France (as there is everywhere), having origins in another European country bestows a form of classlessness. Even – and perhaps especially – if the country of birth is England, given George Bernard Shaw’s observation: ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’ (We may assume this applies to females, also.)
Yet I hadn’t realised to what an extent this defining feature of emigrant life is both a relief and a blessing until I was struck by a brace of comments on a UK media blog. One commenter was welcoming a new commenter, a foreign national. All well and good. At least at first sight. Then the Anglo-commenter ruined it all by immediately classifying the non-Anglo – whose nom de blog indicated place of residence – accordingly. ‘Posh’ was the allocation in this instance.
I saw that and winced. Then I felt angry: how rude! Surely, everyone in the UK knows that ‘posh’ ranks among the most dire insults, right down there with ‘poor’, ‘old’ and ‘chronically sick’? Next I noticed another commenter using the word ‘snob’ to identify certain echelons of the middle class. Could that commenter really be unaware that he/she was thereby automatically revealing him/herself to be just as snobbish as the notionally snob-infested upper middle social stratum? Such obvious howlers would be hilarious – if the profligacy of time and potential social cohesion involved weren’t enough to make one weep.
What on earth is this obsession with marking out one’s respective positions in some largely fictive – not to mention irrelevant – class divide? God knows I’d already had a bellyfull of the whole bally business before I escaped. Would-be classifiers have no idea how to attribute my class accurately. Good luck to ’em in trying to succeed in what is so clearly an absurd – if not downright impossible – job.
Socio-economic status is only useful or meaningful if you need to work out how to govern or market to people, how and to whom to provide a service or sell a product. Only in those circumstances does it make any sense to identify and target a group or groups. Unless, of course, politics and commerce both trump common humanity on all counts (sadly, there’s already plentiful evidence of this).
But to return to the subject in hand, I wondered how Posho and Snobbo’s exquisite social antennae might work if transplanted here. After all, Nice is a markedly cosmopolitan city. There are people here from all over the world, either visiting or resident. Rich people – whether ‘posh’ or not (I’m not getting into that one!) – are omnipresent. As is poverty. And, indeed, all gradations of income between the two extremes. At the same time, few of the usual stylistic signifiers necessary for stratification are present.
So how would they cope, our P and S, faced with all these different people – all of whom would pose near-insurmountable problems to the would-be attributer of class? It would surely take P and S an unconscionable amount of time to work out which rung of the social ladder each new acquaintantance occupied. Because P and S wouldn’t know how to do it, this business beloved of so many Brits of ‘putting people in their place’ (in both senses of that term). The usual rules don’t apply: P and S would be doomed to fail from the outset.
Instead, everyone I deal with has to judge me according to: (1) how pleasant I am (I am, oh I am); (2) how trustworthy (check), and (3) how interesting (hm, subjective – but I’m prepared to grant myself the benefit of the doubt so why shouldn’t potentially-interested others?). By and large, they get it right – if not, there’s usually a good enough reason.
Napoleon described mine as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. Oh, for the UK economy’s sake, that he had been correct! But revenons à nos moutons (and I am not suggesting Brits are a nation of sheep, however strong a case may be made): has globalisation really turned masses of my compatriots into strict and sedulous market researchers? What a pity that would be. Because, when faced with another human being, nothing truly matters except the qualities enumerated above. Any other considerations should be, as GBS would have said – and resoundingly, too: ‘shandygaff’!
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