Hugo has written a very funny, but also substantive, post about social snobbery. When he and his brother were teenagers they mocked the class consciousness in their family by labeling certain people and behaviors NOKOP ("Not Our Kind of People") and OKOP ("Our Kind of People"). For example, wearing a cap that says "Porn Star" is NOKOP, whereas belonging to certain clubs is OKOP.
I have been mulling this over all weekend, trying to figure out what role the often trivial markers of social class really play in American society. I didn't grow up in a WASP-y or rich family but my relatives and I have been rubbing shoulders with, attending the same schools, and belonging to the same groups as OKOPs for three generations. By the time I hit early adolescence, I had developed a finely tuned class radar whereby I could detect precisely what a person's class background was, even if it wasn't obvious to the casual observer.
I pretty much knew what the OKOP rules were and I could tell immediately when they had been violated. Some of these rules are substantive and even admirable -- don't brag, don't display an unbecoming interest in money and material things, be gracious and polite to the people around you. Some of the rules, however, were either wholly stylistic or just arbitrary. Wearing the wrong kinds of clothes could make you NOKOP, using pretentious language or bad grammar, or any of a million picayune little indicators. Many years ago, British author Nancy Mitford famously created her own mocking version of OKOP versus NOKOP, except that she called it "U" (upper class) and "non-U" (non upper class). From her writing, you get a sense of the triviality of these little class indicators, like the rule that it's better to say "rich" instead of "wealthy" or that it's better to have your family photographs in free standing frames on the table rather than in a frame hanging on a wall.
These things can have a visceral, emotional impact on people, though, even today. I will admit that when I first got married, I would feel embarrassed if my husband made a flagrant grammatical error ("he should have went earlier") or an etiquette faux pas ("Thank you for dinner" instead of just "Thank you" or "Thank you for a lovely evening.") I had somehow internalized the notion that these were things that really matter and that reflected negatively on my husband and on me. My husband's working class family members, on the other hand, have an instinctive dislike for anyone who is from a shi-shi background and they seem to worry a lot about snobbery. (I hear frequent comments from them like, "He comes from money, who would have thought he would be so nice.")
The good news is that I don't think this trivial crap really matters as much as it may have once. High society WASPS no longer have an absolute stranglehold on big business, or big law, or anything truly substantive from which they can exclude those who don't fit in. High society WASPS are also blending more with everyone else, and class markers are becoming more and more blurred in this country.
Still, I think there are places and situations where having a high comfort level with the OKOP world affords a person instant credibility. And while corporate manners might not be as rarefied as they once were, there is a certain buttoned down, toned down sensibility that may be tough on people from working class backgrounds or non-white or non-WASP ethnicities. Imagine having to change your accent, or the way you dress, or your choice of words in order to meet a set of arbitrary requirements that you don't understand or that don't come naturally -- daunting, huh? For example, my husband knows perfectly well that the correct grammatical construction is "should have gone" not "should have went." But, since he grew up from earliest childhood hearing and saying "should have went," he can't seem to shake it. I don't doubt that that kind of error could cost him a job in a lot of law firms, even though it has nothing to do with his ability as a lawyer.
What do you all think? Am I off base? Does this stuff still matter in any way that really counts? Is it purely social snobbery or does it have an impact in the workplace? How does the U.S. differ from other places? (My observation when I lived in the UK was that people were much more open about class consciousness than in the US. People seemed to talk a lot about the class significance of accents and even first names.)
UPDATED: When I wrote this post, I was thinking about the issue of social snobbery in terms of whether it still has a broad effect on society as a whole. In that respect, snobbery may be trivial in the big scheme of things these days (or perhaps not). On a personal level, I don't think it's trivial at all. Social snobbery has the potential to cause other people pain and a feeling of inherent inferiority for no good reason. In that respect, it's not trivial at all and it is absolutely vile. For that reason, I have categorized all snobs as NKMP (pronounced nokump -- Not My Kind of People).