Tea, accents, sporting pursuits and queueing are lifelong obsessions for many Brits. But other people’s social class is perhaps the most beloved of all our national preoccupations. We zealously draw sweeping conclusions about others people’s class, social status, education and relative wealth.
So be careful what you do and say when mixing with British folk – their social antennae are always twitching!
Most Britons believe that within seconds of anyone opening their mouth to speak, their accent provides clues to educational background, where you live, relative wealth and likely attitudes to most things of any importance. Having an accent a British person “can’t place” may induce barely concealed panic.
Having a cuppa
Forget the naïve foreign idea that a cup of tea is just a refreshing beverage. For British people, choice of cuppa reveals your place in society.
“Builders’ tea” is the standard black tea blend beloved of manual tradesfolk – traditionally requested “with two sugars, love/mate”. Earl Grey, according to a 2010 Opinium Research poll, is the default middle-class option.
Beware outre choices – requesting lapsang souchong will mark you out as snobbish and annoying.
For years, shopping at Waitrose was a proud indicator of bourgeois status, with devotees droning on about eager staff and fine food. Those who frequented budget European chains such as Aldi and Lidl were treated with quiet disdain.
However, as word spread that the latter actually sold excellent quality middle-class standbys (olive oil, nice coffee, sparkling wine) for half the price of Waitrose, middle-class people now furtively shop with the so-called “poorer” folk.
Fox hunting unites opposite ends of the social spectrum. Rich people think trailing packs of dogs chasing foxes while wearing expensive uniforms and riding expensive horses is proof they have joined the elite. Poor rural folk talk of the jobs created by “The Hunt”.
Many others subscribe to Oscar Wilde's famous description of it as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”. It became unlawful in England and Wales in 2005.
Temporary belief in God
When middle-class British people don't want to be chided by egalitarian peers for sending their children to private schools, they take the alternative – and much cheaper – option of claiming to be very religious so their little angels can go to the nearest nice church school. Once the kids are in, the parents invariably revert to atheism.
This sturdy waxy jacket used to be worn exclusively by posh people when faced with inclement weather or any jaunt beyond the M25. Then urban street youths took it up as a cooler alternative to hoodies. This has thrown the current social status of Barbours into flux. Watch this space...
Beer has been a wildly fluctuating marker of British social status. Before the Second World War, working-class folk drank bitter and stout, while their betters drank wine. Then real ales become cyphers of ye olde tradition for people with taste, while plebs drank tasteless foreign lager.
Now even Michelin-starred restaurants have beer lists – and even lager can be deemed a quality drink.
A nice beach and guaranteed sun are what folk of all classes crave on a holiday. But despite the beaches being comprised of the same stuff under the same sun, a stretch of Seychelles sand is obviously far classier than a package holiday break on the Costa del Sol, on the simple grounds that a five-star Seychelles tan costs a good deal more more than your average Spanish one. Unless you’re chartering a flight to the boutique end of Marbella, of course.
Now that Britain is a globally-renowned mixology hotspot, cocktails provide another arena for social judgement. Sophisticates request barkeeps mix something special with the latest hip gin, while the lower orders are pitifully marked out for ordering brightly coloured concoctions with names like Sex on the Beach.
Rich House, Poor House
Does money really buy happiness? Is wealth only to do with bank balances, or are there other enrichments to consider? Find out in Channel 5’s new series, Rich House Poor House, which launches on Thursday 30 March at 9pm, featuring two families from opposite ends of Britain’s wealth divide as they swap homes, budgets and social status for seven days of living each other’s lives. How much will they find they have in common – and how much will they think that it’s the money that matters most?