Story: An Encounter with British Class Culture


The following stroy was originally written in June 2008, at a time during which I should have been doing much more important things than writing blogs. It proves the power of procrastination. If you want to get things done find something more important to do first.

It also shows the impact of timeliness on the relevance of a story. I wanted to tell some anecdotes about life in the UK from a foreigner’s perspective. Quickly, some stories formed in my head,  notes were made, drafts were written. Of course, once the ‘Other More Important Project’ was successfully completed  these stories never got finished and my blog slipped gradually into a hiatus.

Much has changed since then, most notably that I don’t even live in the UK anymore. Also, I have reached a point where I can think about getting back into blogging. So, why not start with something that is already half-formed to ease me back into it?

Thus, without further ado, please find below a little story about my first “real” encounter with British class culture.

Of course I heard about class culture in Britain. It is one of those stereotypes that come to mind when you think of England, together with  images of manor houses, ladies wearing ridiculously large hats and elderly gentlemen nibbling “After Eight”.

Some time ago yours truly went down to his local. It’s a nice pub and although it is not what you might call a “rough place” the amount of “working class” people is definitely higher than in the average “Daddy’s-paying- for-my-Oxford-education” kind of place you can find elsewhere in affluent southern England.

On that particular night on which this story took place I met a couple, let’s call them Alex and Liz, whom I knew casually and they asked me to join them at their table. Some time later Alex got up to order more drinks. Whilst waiting at the bar he started talking to a girl and pointing towards our table. I assumed he knew her and that he’d offered her to join us. Said female (not unattractive in a conventional way) sat down next to me and started to make polite conversation. After about two minutes the following exchange took place:

Her: “Do you come here often?”

Yours truly: “Actually, I do. I live right around the corner.”

Her: “I come here quite often myself. Do you like it here?”

Yours truly: “Err, yes. It’s alright.”

Her: “I just wondered… It’s just because… you know… my parents are quite well-off as well.”

My brain, which at this point might have been already slightly affected by the intake of fermented grain juice, slowly started to work. What did she mean by ‘as well’? We had been talking to each other for only a few minutes and she was already making assumptions about my pedigree? I looked down at what I was wearing: Jeans (non-designer brand) and T-Shirt. My drunkenness, however, had not yet reached the point where I could not be a smart arse anymore (It rarely does).

“I believe your observation is based on the wrong presumptions. The tell-tale signs of the accent as an indicator of someone’s social class do not apply to me as I am not a native speaker. Indeed, most of my ancestors were coal miners.”

Ignoring the blank expression on her face, I gleefully elaborated on the subtle differences between dialects, accents, and sociolects only stopping when she managed a smile and excused herself.

It turned out that neither Alex nor Liz had known the nameless girl, and when Liz talked to her later she told her that she thought she’d offended me and my working-class pride. What Alex asked me was whether it had ever occured to me that she might have been trying to chat me up? Err, nope…

Being an insufferable know-all: Carsten for teh win!

Realising when someone tries to flirt with you: Failed!

Still, I found this incident quite amusing for several reasons. Firstly, at some point I did not have much of a foreign accent in fact even less so when I was a bit tipsy. When I had a good day it took people a while to realise that I was not a native speaker. Indeed, my colleagues used to tease me because of my “posh” sounding accent.(Sadly, though I cannot say this still to be the case after almost two years with little practice amongst Brits)

Yet, I had never encountered anything like this. Of course, I had heard about the British class culture but I had never assumed that I would ever get into a position to experience it first hand let alone in far from posh pub in southern Oxfordshire.

Sure, the way you speak is not only an indication for a regional or cultural background but also for education and “class” in probably most languages. However, it seems that this is still stronger in England than it is in Germany and if you don’t believe me, smarter people than I have written about this. Watching the English contains lots of fun and tongue-in-cheek, yet very accurate observations on English culture.

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