Saturday, March 10, 2012

A touch of class(ism): Human Nature

The woman who called was short on her rent. She had a job lined up, she explained, she'd never had to ask for money like this before. 

I said I'd check what we could do and call her back, but I knew we couldn't bridge the entire amount she needed. She said she would continue calling around and try to piece together the rest.   

I get a lot of calls like this--and people show up at the door in need of help. But there was something a little different about this conversation and its resonance with me...and I realized it was because the woman was middle-classed. 

This was revealed by the way she spoke, her choice of words. It set me back for a moment; that I had recognized her class over the phone--and that--I'm laying all my cards on the table now--it made me more eager to help her

I could be more circumspect about what triggered this response. I could say that it was because our small contribution could truly make an enormous difference in her life--as opposed to offering what often feels like such a temporary stop-gap--a drop into a bucket with a huge, obvious leaking hole. And that might have been part of what I was responding to. 

But the take-home lesson for me was that those people who understand the social code in our country can more easily negotiate with the gatekeepers... gatekeepers like myself, or those at the phone company or the credit card company, or the gas or electric companies. If you can speak the language the right way, you are more likely to be granted a reprieve. But if you never learned the code, the gatekeepers can tell; we may not think consciously about this, but we can tell.   

When I called her back to let her know we could contribute a small amount toward her effort, the woman burst into tears. "I think I'm going to be able to do this! Everyone I've called has been so nice to me!" 

Yes. Like recognizes like.

(Want to read more of these stories? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the words Human Nature.) 


  1. So, is this post and the fact that you've shared an office with Jesus Christ a hint as to what you do for a living?  I've assumed professional environmentalist in some iteration, but now I'm guessing minister or director of a social agency?
    Provocative post, btw. Much food for all of us to think about. 

  2. There are people who understand how to negotiate food stamps and welfare checks and Social Security benefits.  And there are people who understand how to dress for a job interview and write a resume and look readily placeable to head-hunters.  These people find it hard to listen to and respect one another.  More's the pity! 

    If the welfare mother could present herself with the poise and confidence of the middle-class matron, she would stand a better chance of getting off welfare.  If the middle-class matron knew her way through the maze of forms and processes that the welfare mother negotiates monthly, she could benefit greatly from systems established to help her.

    And women can make these transitions far more easily than men can.  Put your blue-collar babe in a good dress and pumps, and she can play dress-up long enough to fill out a job application.  Put the blue-collar gent in a white-collar suit, and he will be so patently uncomfortable that he may just stuff the tie in his pocket and to hell with it all!  If, that is, he owns a suit.  If a woman has a black knee-length skirt and a white shirt, she can pass as middle class.

    I will not ,at this time,go into my rant about job applicants showing up inappropriately dressed.  But in the big game, it's important to understand the rules.

  3. Good post,  yes, we feel more motivated to help those we see as ourselves.

  4. A brave and honest examination of our sometimes unconscious or even invisible biases.  No answers, only questions.

  5. You're a good sleuth, dkm! Meet me at camera 3--that is, I'll text you (been watching too much Jon Stewart).

  6. I agree.  Consistent with article in last week's New Yorker on Altruism, in which we discover why vampire bats share their blood---because of that 6 degrees of separation, is really more like 3 and that middle class matron probably shares some gene pool with you and we want to further our own.

  7. I wonder how many times warnings are not heard because the messenger is not up to some kind of expectation.

  8. I was employed in  a UU church for many years. One part of my job was to work and meet with folks seeking assistance. I made it my job to find a way to say 'yes.' Folks expected the 'no.' I was alway impressed and shocked by those who burst into tears. I call them God's tears.