Moving to L.A. from the South has taught me many things about pilates, aura fluffers and rooftop bars, but the most surprising discovery I’ve made after nearly a decade here is that although I grew up in Tennessee with a single mom in a trailer so cheaply built that even the black line on the wood paneling was painted on, I actually have, if little else, decent manners.
Still, it took me a while to figure this out. Mostly because I unknowingly assumed exactly what I was messaged about what it means to “act right”: Wealthy people are refined, mannered, proper and correct and set the tone for the rest of us; middle-class people are doing their best imitation of the rung above them, God bless ’em; and everyone else is basically Joe Dirt.
I’m certainly Joe Dirt. I grew up very poor — socks-and-sandals-in-the-winter poor, sister-tanning-in-the-yard-slathered-in-butter poor, don’t-know-your-daddy’s-name poor. I lost my virginity right on schedule — that is, too soon — to a guy who drove a Camaro and had a sincere mullet. But I was also instructed not to act like some low-class embarrassment, mostly because that’s literally what everyone expected me to be. Years removed from that experience, I still have those impulses.
Working-class people, in my broad estimation and anecdotal and personal experience, are far more conscientious and paranoid about appearing to act right. Why? Because they’re so used to knowing they look poor that their best bet not to feel morally shamed for not stacking enough paper is to have manners — the closest thing to what moneyed people have that they can muster.
That’s certainly why I carry with me this oppressive sense that I must offset with good manners a lack of good breeding, education, extensive travel and whatever purse. Does that give me the right to be offended by an affluent person who didn’t bring a bottle of wine to a party? Not really. But I can’t help wondering why they don’t have to care.
It’s been drilled into my head: take a bottle of any kind of hooch to a party, even if it’s hosted by a stranger or a friend’s friend. If I show up with nothing, I’m a bad person, and if I somehow can’t get a hold of some sauce, I’ll feel bad the entire time.
I see now, though, that the real legacy I carry is the insecurity of the poverty of the small-town farmers, seamstresses, carpenters and factory workers who raised me, many of them not educated past eighth grade. They impressed upon me the need to act like somebody, to act right, to show some class, even though I wouldn’t have known where to procure it. If I cursed? I should know better. No slip under the skirt? Embarrassing. Dirty hands at the table? Criminal. Not thoughtful, polite, considerate, kind or helpful — whether it’s to a widow who needs a casserole or an elderly man who needs his leaves raked? Feral.
Because the so-called lower classes have so little and are judged so harshly for the crime of not earning at an acceptable rate, the only way to ward off your judgment is by showing you cleanly scrubbed polite children who still know how to act. More simply put, when you’re poor in small towns, everyone expects you to be coarse. So when you’re not, you’re singled out for that exceptionalism in a way that’s almost as good of a reward as actually being middle class.
This is not, I insist, an actual lionizing or nostalgia of an entire class — that’s too much of a generalization to be accurate; it’s merely my experience. Nor is it a defense of the South, which is far too problematic for its manners alone to ever save it.
There are more rigorous defenses I can lean on here, though: Poorer people, as a necessity to maintain the connections of community that they need due to lack of resources, are better at reading emotions than the rich, who, essentially, don’t need to care how other people feel. After all, you can’t really be a dick to the people you need to rely on, can you? Best to treat them like people.
Such a notion — that the working class actually enforces proper behavior as much or more than the middle, and certainly more than the upper crust — doesn’t seem radical, but it’s not exactly being broadcast. Try googling “working class manners” and you’ll discover that the conversation around the poor is mostly about their ignorance of etiquette, or the ways in which whatever working-class people do around what we’d call manners is an embarrassing tell that they’re working class.
Discussing the waning middle class’ odd amalgam of inherited values, biases and aspirational idiosyncrasies is for a separate piece. But there is good reason to at least mention that, possibly by now, the nearly nonexistent middle class has begun to feel as insecure as the working class, and its manners are now more of a tell of this insecurity than the name brands they used to purchase to demonstrate an ever-growing social standing.
Probably more important to note that when I talk about being poor, I say “used to.” I haven’t been close to the poverty that informs this way of thinking for almost two decades. But in some ways, that’s even more telling. Because it means that poverty is such a hardwired experience in youth that no matter how effectively you outpace it, it’s still in you on some cellular level.
And that’s something no amount of money could erase.