One of the things I like best about living in New Zealand is the strong working class consciousness here. Any American who has entered professional or academic life from a blue collar home will tell you there is a distinct working class culture in the US, as in the rest of the world. Despite the best efforts of politicians and the media to convince us that class differences have been abolished in the US. And that no much how much wealth you acquire or how much social status you achieve, you will never "pass" as upper middle class. That something the way you think or express yourself will always betray your working class origins.
Readers from a working class homes will immediately understand what I'm talking about. While those from the middle and upper middle class may just have to take it on faith. It's a topic several Americans have written about: Lillian Breslow Rubin in Worlds of Pain, Richard Sennett in Hidden Injuries of Class, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey in Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, and more recently Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubrano in Limbo: Blue Collar Roots and White Collar Dreams
However the issue is rarely openly discussed, even in progressive and leftist circles. Ironically I was well into my 30s before I recognized the distinctly working class "culture" of the home and family I was raised in. I was always aware of being very different - of almost speaking a different language - than my high school, college and medical school classmates.
My Desperate Search for People Like Me
I remember the thrill of finally meeting someone at 19 - a gay composer who finally understood the very different way I looked at the world and other people. I was extremely apolitical at that age. In my naÃ¯vete', I attributed our ability to understand one another to "artistic temperament" - the fact we were both into music, art and literature. In fact in mid-seventies I took a trip to Santa Fe, after hearing it was a kind of artists' colony, in the hope of settling there and meeting other people like me.
During the same period I met and married the son of a Glaswegian foundry worker who - despite is Scottish accent and dialect - was only the second person in the world who spoke the same language I did. Yet Roy, a forklift driver didn't have an artistic bone in his body. Which puzzled me.
It was only in 1983 that an Appalachian friend clued me into the real reason I felt so profoundly alienated from my physician colleagues - and from most of my fellow leftists, who for the most part came from academic and professional homes. The moment of enlightenment occurred during a conversation about a fellow member of International Socialists Organization - who refused to speak to me about an urgent demonstration I was organizing because her oatmeal was getting cold.
"That's class privilege," my friend explained. "A working class person would never say that."
And suddenly a light bulb came on in my head about all the ways I was inherently different from both my medical colleagues and most of my fellow leftists.
Characteristic Blue Collar Traits
At the top of the list of characteristic blue collar traits, is a tendency to be blunt and forthright in most social situations, without self-censorship or hidden agendas. It drives us crazy when our middle class bosses, co-workers and fellow activists continually monopolize the conversation with their constant equivocation, rationalization and intellectualization. To be so lukewarm in general in stating how they really feel - and to constantly criticize us for being too open and direct.
We also have profoundly different attitudes towards childrearing. We believe in setting firm limits, unlike white collar families, who are inclined to be very permissive. We believe kids learn social skills best by playing in the streets, where there are no adults to supervise or intercede for them. We don't feel it's healthy for kids to spend all their leisure time in structured activities (such as piano, violin and dancing lessons - or too many organized sports) because they don't learn how to interact with other children this way.
We are intensely loyal, as opposed to upper middle class kids, who are raised from an early age to be fiercely competitive to get ahead. Finally we have an inherent distrust of ideological and theoretical concepts, which seems to result from an "excess" of education in the absence of common sense and hands-on experience.
One thing I really like about living in New Zealand is that I suddenly have access to a whole new vocabulary to describe everyday experiences. For the most part culture - science, technology, art, law and pseudo-sciences, such psychology, sociology and anthropology - originates with the upper classes and either filters downward or is imposed on the rest of us. With language the opposite is true - new language is created by the lower classes and filters upward.
New Zealand slang, which is mainly based on working class British slang, is rich and colorful, like ghetto slang in the US. And like their upper middle class counterparts in the US who appropriate ghetto slang, educated New Zealanders readily incorporate it into their own speech.