Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The students' guide to becoming upper-middle class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

If you view social class as a collection of subcultures with shared behaviors, values, knowledge, and attitudes then you can learn those behaviors, values and whatnot.  Based on the number of people who view my blog entry “What are upper-middle class people like?”  I thought I would create a list of things to do to appear to be upper-middle class.  The upper-middle class is the group of college educated and graduate educated professionals, managers, business professionals,  teachers, and faculty.  This is a large and diverse group with many sub-groups.  Once you get the basics of class performance mastered you can move on to specializing in a social class sub-group.

Think of this as lessons in how to assimilate.  You may also think of this is how to class pass.  You may also think of this as how to create adaptive camouflage.  

Lose weight
Being healthy and looking healthy is basic to people in the upper-middle class.  Your physical appearance and health are things that people notice.  Tan skin in the case of Europeans, clear skin, and a healthy BMI are signs of social status.  Learn about exercise and then go to the gym.  On most campuses there are people who are paid to help you get into shape.   Listen to professionals about how to exercise.  Learn about nutrition and eat a lower calorie diet.  Eating more healthy food, even on a student budget, is affordable.  The Freshman Fifteen is the result of poor dining choices, so learn to eat well.  Campuses have wellness centers, nutrition people, and loads of resources for you.  

Dress well
Dress, like health, is one of the first social class cues that people notice.  Even on campus you should dress well.  It should be no surprise that students who are dressed well tend to be perceived more positively by faculty than those who are not dressed well.  Better perception means better grades.  There are many types of dressing well based on gender, ethnicity, and location.  There is not a standard upper-middle class dress code other than being semi-formal or at least business casual.  Wear a polo rather than a t-shirt.  Wear a dress shirt rather than a polo.  Wear a tie with a dress shirt.  A good rule is to avoid brand logos on anything you wear  then you will never have the wrong brand.  It is easy to judge others by brand names, so avoid this fashion cue.

It doesn’t need to cost a lot to dress well.  Thrift shopping is a great source of quality clothing but to be successful as a thrift shopper you need to know about clothing quality and construction.  Dressing well means learning something about clothing, construction, and fit.  Career centers on campus often have people who will help you learn.  YouTube is a great resource on dress and clothing.  In a few hours you can be quite well informed about dressing well.  Shopping wisely for quality doesn’t cost a lot.  Quality clothing last longer, so make sure you like it and make sure it fits before you buy.  

Learn the difference between fad and fashion.  Always go with classic fashion.

Members of the upper-middle class are language snobs and that is not going to change.  Language is one of the first social class messages, along with dress, that people notice.  Like dress bias, language bias is unjust,  unfair, and unlikely to change.  Think of the upper-middle class dialect as a new language for you.  Campus writing centers will help you with the written variety of prestige English.  Online resources are freely available.  

Knowing a second variety of English is a good thing.  Do not lose your language or origin.  It is yours, cherish it.  Know that you are judged unfairly on people’s perception of your use of language.  Make up your own mind.  Social class is inherently unfair and unlikely to disappear.  

If you really want extra social class points then be able to speak and read a second language at a B2 level (see CEFR, and knowing about CEFR gets you points also).  Knowledge is valued by members of the upper-middle class.  Have some poetry or sayings readily available in your second or third language to make sure people know that you know something.  If poetry or sayings are not your thing, then read a major newspaper in that language (at least the headlines) and reference reading something in it.  “I was reading in Le Monde/Der Spiegel/El Pais  last week that . . . “

Learn school stuff
Data indicates that most students study or do school work around 10 hours per week.  If you double that you will dramatically improve your grades and learn a lot more.  Think of college as a 40 hour a week job.  Put in your 40 hours, and even overtime.  Members of the upper-middle class value knowledge and academics.  Young people are often judged by their GPA.  This judgement is unjust, unfair, and unlikely to change.  Remember that social class is about hierarchy, and any opportunity to rank you in a hierarchy comes in handy for people who don’t know any better.

Learn non-school stuff
There is a secret handshake, secret narrative, and secret knowledge to the upper-middle class.  The secret knowledge is cultural capital.  Bourdieu (read Forms of Capital) wrote about cultural capital.  The short version is that cultural capital is the knowledge and skills of the ruling class, the class that makes and enforces the rules.  In the US the ruling class is the upper-middle class.  General education exists because those courses are cultural capital.  Art, music, theater, literature, science, news, economics, politics, are all cultural capital knowledge.  On campus it is amazing that students who have free access (pre-paid at least) to cultural events stay away in large numbers.  

Eating and drinking are social classed.  Knowledge about food, alcohol, beer, and wine is basic for people in the upper-middle class.  Taking the time to read food magazines like Saveur, Bon Appetit, and the like on the web will provide a great food and drink education.  They also have great low cost recipes sometimes.

Geography, at least tourist geography, is a knowledge base.  Members of the upper-middle class have a collection of places to visit that are upscale and safe.  These tourist traps, like Cancun or Pattaya, are often in the midst of a great local area more deserving of your time.  Disneyesque sanitized experiences are part of the upper-middle class travel and vacation knowledge.  Learn where these places are; Hilton Head is different than Diamond Head.

Learn interpersonal skills
Along with Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital there is his idea of social capital.  Learn how to make and maintain friendships, loose ties, strong ties (read Strength of Weak Ties by Granovetter) and relationships with a wide range of people.  Social capital is not who you know, it is who knows you.  Networking skills are critical.  Making friends with people who have resources means that you have access to those resources.  Leadership skills training spends a lot of time on the interpersonal part of leading.  Sign up for that training.

Learn how to tell a great story and learn how to tell a story great.  Be memorable, be personable, and be yourself.  Learning how to be comfortable in group and social settings is a skill for extroverts, introverts, and people in the middle.  There are groups like Toastmasters on most campuses to help you learn more about speaking in public.  

Being a member of student organizations is a great way to meet people and practice your social skills.  Being a volunteer for an organization is a great skill builder.  

Study abroad
In the blog “Stuff White People Like” #72 the author writes about study abroad.  While funny, it is also true.  Your experience of study abroad can place you in another culture, or you can stay in the golden ghetto of US students.  You choose.  There is often financial aid for study abroad, so it can be affordable.  Most campuses have a study abroad office, or belong to a consortium of campuses that have a study abroad program.  

Get rich slowly
Saving and investing wisely is a life skill.  Take the time to attend campus seminars on financial
literacy, visit a local bank and ask for someone to explain wealth management.  Say that you need to know for a life skills class.  Accumulating economic wealth takes time, as does accumulating cultural capital/wealth and social capital/wealth.  These are investments and investments take time to grow.  Make sure to learn what all of this costs.  

Pay attention
The best way to learn about people in the upper-middle class is to watch and listen.  And then take the time to learn.

Don’t lose your self
You are who you are.  Don’t lose that as you learn about a new subculture.  Learning a new collection of behaviors and values should be a “Yes, and . . . “ occasion.  

This blog may be offensive to some people.  Some people may infer that I am suggesting that you should assimilate to an unjust and non-inclusive system.  Far from it, I am providing you with informed choice.  Make up your own mind.  Please note that there are alternative UMC cultures beyond being a hipster so you have a wide range of choices.  

Chances are pretty good that social class  is not going to disappear in your lifetime.  Your choice is what you are going to do about social class.  If you want to fight against the system, good for you.  If you want to corrupt it from the inside, good for you.   If you want to ignore social class, do so at your peril.  

We all have an attributed social class, what others think of us.  This attribution can be managed.  We all have a social class of origin, and we need to keep that in our hearts and minds.  We all have a current felt social class, and that is entirely up to you.  

Edit Dec 4. Someone noted on Twitter that I did not include anything on college major. People in the upper-middle class don't see college as vocational preparation. College is preparation for graduate and professional school. Getting yourself ready for graduate or professional school is central to the college experience. Plan it out carefully. Prepare carefully. Find out what the graduate or professional school of your choice wants and build toward that. 

Edit Jan 20, 2018. Building Academic Capital