The British Middle Class in One Short Paragraph

A British middle class mother explains the social realities of class to her daughter.

Harriet Walker, a columnist for The Independent, was feeling disappointed in herself for not confronting in a social situation someone who expressed political/cultural views she abhored. When she told her “resolutely” middle class British mother what happened, the latter responded:

Its always hard for the middle classes. We’re pushed from the top and the bottom, and to try to change either one’s mindset in a social situation feels rude, and it never goes down well. Being polite and going down well is what the middle classes are proud of.

Harriet reflects “This remains the best simultaneous apology for and defence of the middling sort that I have ever heard”.

Which is I think the perfect analysis of what her mum said, not least because apologizing for and defending oneself at the same time is an essential part of being polite and going down well.

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.

4 thoughts on “The British Middle Class in One Short Paragraph”

  1. “Even after 18 years, I never really knew where I stood with the English. Why did they keep apologizing? (Were they truly sorry?) . . . The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with “I can’t complain” when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.”

    Sarah Lyall in the NY Times a few months ago.

  2. For me this was the sentient sentence:

    Yet I chose not to violate the code of the package holiday bar by dragging my ideology into it.

    And thank you.

    There is a place and a time for everything.
    Knowing when to keep your dogma on a leash is at least 10% of human wisdom.
    If you have forgotten this, throw a haversack on your back and go for a walk-about.

  3. This kind of behaviour is rarer than it was. This may be an urban legend, but there is supposed to be an ultra-realistic phrase book for foreign visitors including this dialogue:

    Foreign visitor: Excuse me, could you please tell me the time?
    Young British person: Piss off.

  4. The question is always ‘by objecting, can I change the other side’s view? Or just drive them further into that corner?’

    I still remember being asked by the couple from Milton Keynes how we could ‘live in London with all those foreigners?’.

    We also go to the same holiday hotel as a very nice couple, avowed Christians, he works in something related to justice (not the police) and made some remark about ‘gippos’ (ie gypsies). One just avoids having the discussions with them.

    I don’t think this is ‘middle class’ so much as learning to pick your battles.

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