Of Common Earth
I’ll happily agree with Sarah that I’ve got no real idea about how stratified societies work. I can sort of fake it with enough research, but I don’t have that bone-deep knowledge that goes with growing up in a culture where your parents – or more specifically your father’s – name dictates what opportunities you have and how you should behave.
It’s something that Americans and Australians (there are others, but these are the ones I know about) find utterly alien. The average Aussie would have the same reaction to discovering that someone was of royal descent as they would to learning that someone had a notorious highwayman or any other interesting person in their ancestry, namely, “Oh, wow, that’s interesting!” I rather suspect the average American would respond similarly. After all, interesting ancestors can make for good stories.
The culture celebrates being of the common clay, preferring achievement over any other way to measure worth.
Which of course means it’s bloody hard to imagine a place where one’s social class matters more than anything else about one. The most formal I’ve ever been was to address adults (when I was a kid) as Mr, Mrs, or Miss. These days I save that for introductions and people who are clearly much older than I am. More often than not, it’s first names.
The one time I met actual nobility when I was living in Australia went a bit like this:
I’d been involved in a choral performance that was part of a graduation ceremony (I was part of a large choir, about 80 strong) for one of the Brisbane universities, and the Duchess of Kent was guest of honor. Security for the entire performance was insanely tight, and I figured there was zero chance of anything more than viewing the back of the Duchess’s head from the choir stalls.
The graduation ceremony ran smoothly, the choir’s performance was reasonably solid (tenors with equipment in vices, wobbly basses and shrieky sopranos notwithstanding). The Duchess did her thing, which was I think a speech of some sort and being involved with handing out the degrees.
Once everything was finished, my mother decided that she was damn well going to get close to the Duchess, so she found out which lift she’d be using to get to the main level where her car was waiting. And since I needed mum’s car to get home, we waited. And waited. Eventually the security detail comes out and tells us how far back we need to be. They did say we (meaning mum) were allowed to take photos.
I’m half asleep, while mum is practically bouncing. Of course I’m also still in the choir uniform, which is a hideous red top with a long black skirt.
The lift opens, and the Duchess sees mum bouncing and taking her photo – she paused and gave mum time to get a good shot – then catches sight of me half hiding because I’m about as introverted as it gets and just want to go to sleep. Of course, since she’s part of a choir herself or was at the time, the choir uniform is the draw.
Which leads to terminally introverted 25-ish Kate trying to collect her jaw when the Duchess comes over to talk. I swear it took me something like 15 seconds to remember what we’d all been told about how we were supposed to address her.
She’s probably dealt with the whole protocol and procedure most of her life, and she was very gracious to someone who was obviously completely overwhelmed by the whole deal. As I remember it we had a bit of a chat about the rules choirs had about jewelry (nothing too flashy) and the hideousness of choir uniforms as well as how much fun it was to sing for the big works. The rest is kind of a haze, mostly I think because I was just in shock that of all the people to choose to talk to, she picks the socially inept one.
Except that, really, security detail, noble title and all, what I remember most strongly is a woman who chose to be nice to someone she didn’t know and who could have been any well-mannered, well-off older lady. I think perhaps what impressed me about it was that she must have been just as tired as I was, possibly more. She’d been on tour around the country, so she could hardly have been all that well-rested. But she still stopped to chat for a few minutes.
I won’t call it a “common touch”: it’s more of a recognition that underneath whatever veneer there is, we’re all people. Some celebrities and some people in places with royalty and nobility choose to act as though they’re better because of whatever gave them the fame or title. Others don’t. They accept the security and so forth, but they don’t forget that we’re all of the same basic stock.
Now I’ve lost the thread of whatever I was going to aim towards, I’ll just say that the combination of aggressive egalitarianism and self-reliance is not a bad one, as long as it doesn’t turn into pulling others down to make oneself look better.