Awards and Class

A combination of union rules and asbestos in the walls makes it illegal for me to hang pictures and plaques in my hospital office. That task was undertaken by a friendly fellow who, drill, screws and hooks in hand, informed me that I had ill-chosen the placements of the plaques displaying my degrees.

My undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees are important to me — they represent seven years of my life after all — but I feel fulsome displaying them. I therefore had selected for them a strip of bare wall between a bookcase and a rear corner of my office. In this position, I would be able to see them but my office visitors would not.

The picture hanger objected “You ought to be proud of these, doc. Put them out here where everyone can see them!” And though I am proud of them, I did not comply. Why did we see the matter so differently?

The anthropologist Kate Fox documents that this is a subtle difference between social classes (she studied the English, but her findings generalize to at least some Americans). Working class people generally keep their plaques, certificates and sporting trophies in the front room for all to see, and indeed feel comfortable pointing them out.

As we ascend to the middle of the class ladder, we find such honesty unfashionable. Perhaps we want to conceal our vanity and ambition because it’s a wise career move, or perhaps being modest makes it more likely your colleagues will give you awards because they don’t yet find you insufferable.

The dilemma for middle to upper-middle class strivers is that they want everyone to know about their awards without looking as if that is precisely what they crave. Fox is spot on in diagnosing how most English upper-middle sorts handle this: They hang their awards in the lavatory. All houseguests will thus be sure to see them, but the larky placement will suggest that the winner of all these laurels doesn’t think much about them, after all, they hung them in the loo, didn’t they? An American friend has her “nonsense wall” of awards, explicitly referred to as such, which has a similar effect of displaying achievements while at the same time appearing not to value them. Another American approach: Hang them in that dusty spare room where you also happen to put overnight guests whom you wish to impress.

What about the upper class? Self-made American uppers usually follows the working class model, never shutting up about all their putative achievements, which they mention them without the slightest provocation. However, a sliver of the American upper class and most of the British upper class are extraordinarily reticent about their honours, even when pressed on the point. After all, they can afford it, and they don’t need pieces of paper to assure them of their relative place in life.

The truly classiest approach I have observed, in the sense of the word “class” that Michael O’Hare so well explicated? A senior colleague who was so famous he could not attend a conference without receiving a plaque kept them all in a stack under his desk. He had space on his office wall for exactly one. When he was scheduled to receive a visitor from, say, the Royal Astronomical Society, he would dig through his plaques and hang the matching award in the place of the honour. He would then say to his guest “Normally I don’t make much of awards, but yours was so special to me that it’s the only one I display in my office”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Awards and Class”

  1. Donald Trump is “self-made” is his mind, perhaps, but not in any of the more standard realities. Which makes his utter lack of class even more striking.

    1. I had some hesitation about using him as an example because his father was rich, but his blowhardism won me over in the end.

  2. The term for “nonsense wall” in the Army is “I Love Me” wall. And it seemed that higher rank correlated positively with more stuff on that wall, usually right behind his or her desk.

  3. Those walls always seemed most counterproductive in the case of medical professionals — if you’ve gotten into the doctor’s office, you’re either already going to think they’re good, or you’re not going to be convinced by the diplomas.

    There’s also another kind of self-deprecation that some awarding organizations collaborate with, namely a chachke whose meaning is understood only by the cognoscenti. (If, for example, you walk into a journalist’s office and see a paperweight containing a reproduction Calder elephant.)

  4. I am an in-house lawyer, and thus don’t need a diploma to attract clients. (The poor buggers have no choice.) I hang my high school diploma on my office wall.

  5. One professor I had, an expert in hypnosis, hung his degrees and awards so that they were in the sightline of his patient who sat in the most comfortable chair in the office. I seem to remember a lot of gold and glitter. BTW wonderful word “fulsome.” It’s a delight to see it used accurately.

  6. You know, really classy would be no display of awards at all. There’s also something of a difference between mere diplomas and actual awards for real achievement. If you’re a professor or lawyer or a medical doctor you HAVE to have a terminal degree to have the job at all. No need to display it, unless you’re really proud you got your degree from X school, which seems a little pathetic.

  7. I’ve always intended, when I get a job with an office, to hang my most prized, door-opening credential on the wall.

    That would be my GED.

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