Class Matters Workshops

Download this brochure for more information on Class Matters workshops.

If you're interested in hosting a workshop, please click here for a brochure, or contact me about booking an event.

Order Class Matters

Class Matters book cover

Order Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers, 2005).

Press Coverage of CM

Classist Comments

What's the most classist thing you ever heard someone say?

(I'm not talking about someone like Bill O'Reilly or your right-wing uncle. More specifically, what's the most classist thing you ever heard a liberal or progressive person say?)

Read five interviewees' answers — and my own.

Class and Other Identities

How do you experience class differently because of your race, ethnic group, religion, gender, age, or other identity? What class dynamics do you notice within your identity groups?

Here's how a few visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Becoming Vesus Belonging

Psychology, Speech, and Social Class

Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | notes | references

Psycho- and Sociolinguistics

Though Bernstein's focus has always been the effects on working class children of middle class culture, code and control in schools, we can follow the bread crumbs he left in psycholinguistics to further pursue the psychology of these cultures. There we can see how these codes and cultures are reproduced in early childhood and how this may shape a child's sense of identity. This work and the research methods it employed may be dated but there is a common-sense truth to it that still makes it useful as a jumping-off point.

Bernstein's classic example of psycholinguistic training in middle class children is in the mother who says to her child, "I'd rather you made less noise, Darling." However idealized (and British!) this sentence may be, it is paradigmatic of middle class speech. First there is the characteristic "I" and "you" and the development of individuality through the negotiation between these "I"s. In fact, I have watched my dear friend and neighbor, Sally, use this kind of speech with her son for years. Sally is from a working class background but has assumed many of the language skills of the middle class. Her son, Jacob, has a penchant for pushing things as far as he possibly can. I can hear the kind of response this sentence would bring from him when he was about three. He would bang the toy truck a little less loudly, saying, "Is this less?" Sally: "Not enough, dear." He would bang a bit less loudly, "How 'bout this?" "That's still too loud, Honey." At this point he might start barely touching the truck to the floor, "Mom! What about this?" "That's better, thank you," Sally would say. Jacob would do it louder then, repeating his question. (Don't ask me where she gets her patience.) It is not so much that Jacob was concerned with finding the exact amount of noise he could make, of course, as that he was fascinated with the game of negotiation (and wanting to keep his mother's attention!). Sally, too, was interested in what they were doing together, less about the noise than about the way they were engaged. She was concerned with the kind of boy her son was, how he learned to negotiate conflict, and she was using the medium of language to shape that.

The sentence contains other operative features that are paradigmatic of middle class speech and culture. In addition to the I/you distinction there is "rather" and "less". Jacob is trying to figure out how much is "less", or, more precisely, how much is "less" enough to please his mother. Again, we see the encouragement of negotiation occurring simultaneously with, and through, language acquisition. "Rather" is not must, again there is the "I" who can decide whether or not he will please his mother. Throughout this process he is developing a sense of agency and an ability to negotiate across roles, parent and child, and, later, teacher and student.

When Jacob pushed too far, even Sally the Saint would tire of the game. "I'd like you to put that toy away now and find something else to do, Jakey, Mom's going to study now." "What if I don't?" he might ask. "We won't go to the store for Cherry Garcia ice cream later." Another feature of middle class speech emerges: a sense of means and ends becomes explicit. Now Jacob has to choose, but the choice is his. In this way he also learns that he has the means to create the ends he wants. From the standpoint of psychological development, we can see how these things can facilitate, indeed necessitate the development of a certain kind of logical reasoning and internal speech. Jacob sits silently for a bit. "I'm going to go next door to see Whitney!" he announces and dashes next door. All of these things — individuality, negotiation, hierarchy and the proper methods to negotiate across levels, a choice of means to lead to desired (and delayed) ends — are fundamental institutions in both middle class speech and in middle class culture.

Not to say that all is rosy in the socialization of middle class children. There can be negative effects from too much of this kind of constant role negotiation and behavior modification, and it is not hard to imagine a parent less skilled, and less destined for sainthood, than Sally. I suspect that the inhibiting sense of self-consciousness that many middle class people are plagued with may well be born of the close parental monitoring of children through verbal exchanges. It can also lead to the development of a constant internal censor or critic of speech and behavior. An example that comes to mind is the teaching of middle class table manners. Many friends and clients of mine have complained what a job dinner seemed to be. We can assume that in some middle class homes, these kinds of lessons get very picky and invasive as can the expectation of dinner conversation. It is interesting to note that, in my clinical experience with eating disorders, there is a much higher incidence in middle class people: anorexia seems to be almost non-existent in the working class. Likewise, bulimia, which can be seen as a symbolic rebellion of what one has had to "swallow", seems much less common in working class homes.

It may also be the case that excessive emphasis on children to translate impulses and feelings into speech, and formal speech at that, may obscure other kinds of experiences. The inculcation of the ego-heavy "I" may have ramifications for how much empathy one will feel with others. Likewise the expectation of monitoring and "role negotiation", with simultaneous acceptance of hierarchies, while well-preparing the child for school and professional life, may leave her less likely to rely on her own devices or to value being with equals. I remember the few lower middle class kids who lived, briefly, in the working class neighborhood I grew up in. They were not very able to relate to the other children. They were always trying to get the teacher's attention and it seemed to the rest of us that they were missing out on the best part. They didn't like recess. They seemed awkward and lonely on the playground, almost like they didn't know how to be children. This may well have been different had they been with other middle class children (children more like them), but still it serves to contrast the groups and further illustrate possible booby traps in the psycholinguistics of the middle class.

Which brings us to the working class side of the psycholinguistic coin, one which, as we shall see, we will eventually have to exchange for the more inclusive currency of semiotics (communications of all kinds) if we are to continue tracking culture. How shall we compare the interaction of the working class child and mother? In a similar situation, a child banging a toy truck against a floor, a parent might say, "That's enough!" A more gentle approach, on a less harried day, might simply guide the child away from the offending truck and distract him with something else. The first thing that will strike us, from a purely psycholinguistic point of view, is the lack of all those middle class skills: development of self, negotiation, means and ends, a sense of individual agency, role negotiation. There would seem to be little encouragement to develop reason and internal speech in such a situation. Indeed, it seems to me working class children, in a purely working class setting, do not develop these things in the way that middle class children do. But if we try to look through a working class lens instead we begin to see other things emerge.

We have seen that working class culture is based on intimacy, on meaningful silences, on a sense of belonging. "If an elaborated code creates the possibility for the transmission of individuated symbols, then a restricted code creates the possibility for the transmission of communalized symbols" (Bernstein, 1971, p.148). But what is it that those silences consist of, and what exactly are these "communalized symbols"? We shall not find working class psychology and culture as neatly packaged in language. The restricted code is, by its nature, implicit, it is not about spelling things out. Children are taught to tune in to many things other than words. In this culture, words become buoys that float on a sea of shared assumptions. Words are markers that lead into the waters of a non-verbal realm of communication and shared consciousness. Mothers and fathers (and aunts and grandparents and neighbors and, especially, other kids) teach children to navigate these waters toward a mutuality that seems like mind-reading to a middle class person.

It is amazing what you can learn by sitting on your front porch in a mixed class, urban neighborhood, where I watch Sally raise Jacob. Across the street, Michelle's boy Rashad is whacking the tree in front with a plastic bat. The first thing Michelle does is give her son a meaningful look. He looks back, hesitates, then hits the tree again. He is angry because his father has come back from jail. Michelle says, "Quit that!" and looks right at him. Her tone is firm but not angry; there is a softness in it because she understands — she is upset, too. The look says everything: she understands but there is nothing she can do about it and destroying the landlord's property is not going to help. He looks her in the eyes, then looks down, and then continues hitting the tree. She says nothing, sighs. He looks at her. She looks him in the eye. "I don't need to tell you twice." He stops, he knows she is right. She doesn't need this right now and twice is more than enough for this mother and son. What I am struck with in this example is the expectation that the boy will begin to tune in to what his mother is feeling and the fact that he does (despite developmental theories that claim he is too young to develop empathy). The looks this mother and son exchanged were by far the strongest part of the communication. As Bernstein commented, it is not only that what is not said is more important (than what is said), it is how it is not said (1971).

The mother who uses fewer words is teaching her child something else that is as crucial to social success in working class culture as the ability to debate is in middle class culture. She is telling him, implicitly (an implicitness he will learn to reproduce), to "tune in" — to her, to others, to what is happening around him. Lack of sensitivity to these things is the most frequent complaint I hear about middle class people when I counsel mixed class couples in marital therapy. Of course, therapists are taught the correct response is to teach the working class person that she (or he) must learn to say exactly what she wants and what she means, that she can't expect her partner to read her mind. What if her childhood taught her to do exactly that, "read minds" in the form of multiple non-verbal clues? Could it be just as valid to request that a middle class partner learn to pay attention to non-verbal cues?

We can also see with Michelle and Rashad the sense of immediacy that is prevalent in working class speech and so much a part of working class culture. "Now" is the time everything is happening: now he should stop ("Quit that!"), her tone and gaze say now is the time consequences could come. In working class life people usually get together with others when they feel like it, rather than scheduling social dates. This immediacy is also seen in the fact that the restricted code doesn't navigate through different tenses very well — something that I have struggled with in my (middle class) writing. Middle class culture, through its emphasis on means and ends, which are placed further apart as a child ages, creates a psychology based on delayed gratification, which has its rewards in education and in professional work. Working class people enjoy a larger and roomier sense of "now".

As a clinical psychologist, I have had many a middle class client striving for the ability to live in the "here and now." Indeed, Humanistic therapies are designed to try to relocate middle class people in the very things that we find common in working class communication: body language, emotional empathy, directness, pluck and enthusiasm. In short, they seek an experience unmediated by the elaborated code and all that close monitoring in early childhood. In experiential therapies they learn to pound pillows and say, "Quit that!"

Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | notes | references