Ten Miles Square

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August 21, 2012 7:55 AM Awards and Class

By Keith Humphreys

A combination of union rules and asbestos in the walls makes it illegal for me to hang pictures and plaques in my hospital office. That task was undertaken by a friendly fellow who, drill, screws and hooks in hand, informed me that I had ill-chosen the placements of the plaques displaying my degrees.

My undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees are important to me — they represent seven years of my life after all — but I feel fulsome displaying them. I therefore had selected for them a strip of bare wall between a bookcase and a rear corner of my office. In this position, I would be able to see them but my office visitors would not.

The picture hanger objected “You ought to be proud of these, doc. Put them out here where everyone can see them!” And though I am proud of them, I did not comply. Why did we see the matter so differently?

The anthropologist Kate Fox documents that this is a subtle difference between social classes. Working class people generally keep their plaques, certificates and sporting trophies in the front room for all to see, and indeed feel comfortable pointing them out.

As we ascend to the middle of the class ladder, we find such honesty unfashionable. Perhaps we want to conceal our vanity and ambition because it’s a wise career move, or perhaps being modest makes it more likely your colleagues will give you awards because they don’t yet find you insufferable.

The dilemma for middle to upper-middle class strivers is that they want everyone to know about their awards without looking as if that is precisely what they crave. Fox is spot on in diagnosing how most British upper-middle sorts handle this: They hang their awards in the lavatory. All houseguests will thus be sure to see them, but the larky placement will suggest that the winner of all these laurels doesn’t think much about them, after all, they hung them in the loo, didn’t they? An American friend has her “nonsense wall” of awards, explicitly referred to as such, which has a similar effect of displaying achievements while at the same time appearing not to value them. Another American approach: Hang them in that dusty spare room where you also happen to put overnight guests whom you wish to impress.

What about the upper class? Self-made American uppers usually follows the working class model: Donald Trump and his ilk can never shut up about all their putative achievements and will mention them without the slightest provocation. However, a sliver of the American upper class and most of the British upper class are extraordinarily reticent about their honours, even when pressed on the point. After all, they can afford it, and they don’t need pieces of paper to assure them of their relative place in life.

The truly classiest approach I have observed, in the sense of the word “class” that Michael O’Hare so well explicated? A senior colleague who was so famous he could not attend a conference without receiving a plaque kept them all in a stack under his desk. He had space on his office wall for exactly one. When he was scheduled to receive a visitor from, say, the Royal Astronomical Society, he would dig through his plaques and hang the matching award in the place of the honour. He would then say to his guest “Normally I don’t make much of awards, but yours was so special to me that it’s the only one I display in my office”.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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