Will My Colleagues Judge Me?

February 17, 2012

Home  sick, I’ve been clicking around  the web and came upon this post on Corporette, a blog read by thousands of young women seeking advice about clothing and etiquette in the corporate workplace — in other words, they come to this site for coaching in middle- class based norms of dress and behavior in professional settings.

This post made me sit up straighter.  Rather than asking about maintaining fashion sense in footwear even on snowy days (the more common sort of conversation on this site),  one young woman, an aspiring law student identifying herself as being from a poor background, asked this:

My fiance is a mechanic – he loves his career and would not change it for the world, however, I am worried – will my colleagues judge me because of this?

And the author of blog, and  202 commentors  (to date) weighed in.   What unfolds is a fascinating discourse on class and education, though it’s rarely named as such.
The owner of the blog first weighs in with classic blue-collar stereotypes (on which she’s called by several commentors):
Can he make dinner conversation with people on “educated” topics? On a more basic level, are his table manners and his grammar good (or is he open to improving them)?
In the discussion that follows,  a number of lawyers mention that they never encounter any working-class people in their work lives.    Many lawyers frame the issue personally — lawyers are by nature “self-absorbed” so they’d either not notice others or would possibly, as individuals, be snobs.  Others tell tales of working-class partners who behave in professional settings.   Only a few mention that many highly educated lawyers are lousy conversationalists and slobs at the table.
And there are stories here of other women who have experienced exactly the kinds of judgments that the questioner feared.
As is usually the case with blogs that generate this much response, nothing is resolved, but I’m fascinated that a young woman with high aspirations (and apparently, the accomplishments to justify them) knows, at this juncture in which she’ll take the next step into daily interaction with those from class backgrounds much higher than her own, that class matters in ways that her new colleagues may never understand.
The comments are worth the read.
What catches your eye in this complex conversation?

It’s an unusually rich day for writing about class in the blogosphere, as Mr. Excitement opens his essay with these words:

In building a career as a theater director, I have been extremely conscious of my social class. It affects every aspect of both my artistic work and my career development.

The essay and comments provoke questions about access to the arts, about pursuing dreams from distant places, about the costs of becoming educated. He promises that there’ll be a Part 2. I’ll watch for it.

On his EarlyStories blog, Richard Lee Colvin also wrote about the NYT chauffeur-driven preschoolers story , and he asks a fair question:

This is a variant on a story that appears frequently in the New York media. Striving, image-conscious, nouveau-riche Manhattanites do whatever they can to get into a handful of expensive preschools because they think the schools will guarantee their kids a quick-trip to the Ivy League and we make them look silly in the bargain. Old story. Easy target. But beyond its obvious entertainment value, does it matter?

Some of the reasons that I think that this story matters (beyond the considerable entertainment value, of course):

  1. Stories like this are a reminder of a major flaw in the logic of NCLB: Parents like this will never stand still while other kids catch up to their kids. If all poor and working-class kids aced every standardized test thrown at them this year, these parents would simply find ways to move the bar. And then they’d hire drivers to get their kids to the other side of that bar.
  2. These kids are learning who they are in the world. They are learning (consciously or not, and not is worse) that they deserve
    • to be buffered from contact with people not like them by enormous personal and public space,
    • to have adults defer to them,
    • to be exempted from silly rules that were made for other people,
    • to consume as much fossil fuel on one preschool run as an entire village in African consumes in a month
    • to be very comfortable even when traversing only a few blocks to preschool.
  3. The kids heading for other schools, stuck behind the idling limos on public transportation, are learning (consciously or not, and not is much worse) their own lessons about what kids like them deserve.
  4. There is social drama going on all around the idling limos on the busy streets. The sanitation workers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and delivery people are thinking about their own kids as they’re stuck in traffic. As they dream the dreams of parents, they think about the enormous social distance that their kids would have to travel to be within shouting distance of a level playing field with the kids stepping out of the limos. From days and weeks of such encounters, aspirations are shaped.
  5. The kids of the sanitation workers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and delivery people are probably going to be working for the kids in the limos some day. At the very least, the kids in the limos will someday be called upon to to sit on policy advisory boards, foundations, and university boards. They’ll be major contributors to the political candidates of their choice. Other peoples’ kids are going to live under their influence.
  6. And everyone on the block is learning something about the inevitability of all of this.

Are these parents acting silly? You bet. But acting silly doesn’t seem to really matter.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers