Thursday, February 12, 2009

A touch of class

This study about socioeconomic status and body language doesn't necessarily track to me. The study authors posit that people of higher socioeconomic status are able to be, well, rude when speaking to others -- not maintaining eye contact, grooming themselves during conversation. People of low socioeconomic status, however, are forced to curry favor by actively engaging others in conversation.

It's unclear in the study summaries available (the actual study is for APA members only, unfortunately) whether the participants were paired with people in their own socioeconomic bracket. That's an enormous factor, I'd imagine -- I'm not sure if two high-socioeconomic-class folks in a room together would let down their guard and breathe easy at being among their own (I think of Eddie Murphy in his "White Like Me" sketch on Saturday Night Live), or if perceived competition would force them to up their "I can't hear you nyah nyah nyah" game. Surely the Guggenheims don't all sit around grooming themselves whilst avoiding eye contact and not smiling. (Or maybe they do? I wouldn't know.)

But what I'm really curious about here is A) class guilt, and B) how and when we bury our social cues. Surely I can't be the only middle-class bleeding-heart liberal who probably errs on the side of being patronizingly friendly to those at an obvious disadvantage to me. When I'm talking to someone who is clearly several rungs below me on the socioeconomic ladder, I become acutely aware of my privilege and become more solicitous than I would be of another white thirtysomething lady on the subway -- it's some sort of backward way of showing that we're all in this together, or something. I'm painfully self-aware of this tendency -- it's painful because the fact that I know that I'm doing it means that my kindliness is motivated not by my common bond with all humankind but by a form of patronization -- and I've always chalked it up to white middle-class guilt.

I also wonder how this intersects with the findings of another study: That women are hard to read. Apparently neither men nor women are accurately able to judge the level of interest a woman has in a dating prospect (interested men are supposedly easy to spot -- my hunch is that they're just trained that you've gotta be aggressive to get a date, which may be why some of them seem to think that catcalling might actually be a nice way to meet someone special). Body cues, language cues -- they're all ambiguous with the ladies. I suspect that women learn a dual set of social codes: How to act by your class, and how to act with men. If we're hard to read, maybe it's because our sex overrides other social groups we might be a part of, regardless of whether we realize that's what's going on.

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