Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide To Cultural Competence

Layer 10: Social class: Including your economic and social class progression


Some indicators of social class to consider include:

•  Income
•  Education
•  Housing
•  Occupation
•  Neighborhood
•  Language (accent, vocabulary, grammar)
•  Assets or wealth
•  Appearance (dress, condition of teeth, posture, make up, accessories, hair style, etc.)
•  Possessions (including what you own versus what you would like to own)
•  Leisure (daily, weekends, vacations and special leisurely projects)


A contributor’s example of Layer 10:

I still remember the first time someone called me white trash in the workplace. I was 22 and it was my first “real” job after college working for a large non-profit in Boston. They paid me a modest hourly wage with no benefits; it was the year after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, so I was just happy to do something besides waitressing. Sure, occasionally when grocery money was tight, I would skimp on milk and put water on my cereal. But still, I worked in an office and I went to meetings.

One Friday, toward the end of the day, I was chatting with a friend at reception, swapping stories from our past. She had grown up in rural Washington, and I had grown up in rural Wisconsin. We both moved to Boston for undergrad studies, and we were boasting of how our big city indoctrination had successfully replaced our Americana accents and country-bumpkin habits. “No one would ever know I’m from Wisconsin unless I explicitly told them,” I said with a laugh. “They’d have to know I put Cheetos in my yogurt as a kid before they would suspect anything.” Unbeknownst to me, one of the organization’s vice presidents had just walked up behind me. “Cheetos in your yogurt?!” he said, joining our laughter, “Sounds like white trash to me!” I smiled, though my cheeks burned and my palms felt sweaty.

A few months after that, a friend in human resources approached me about the way I dressed. To me, this friend was the epitome of style. Every day, she walked into the office perfectly put together in the latest fashion with the tallest heels. I knew girls like her from growing up: classy, sophisticated and rich enough to shop as a leisure activity. This was why I had no interest in getting to know her. I assumed she was a posh, snooty, white girl whose daddy got her the job. Slowly, however, she became my friend anyway, and I realized we had the same lowbrow humor and passion for cheap iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Which is why one day, as we were walking to get our post-lunch coffee drinks, she finally told me what she really thought: “Girl, we’ve got to get you some new clothes.” “What do you mean?” I asked, taken aback and nervously smoothing down my Target button-up. “I think what I have is fine.” “Not if you want to work in an office!” she laughed with friendly incredulity. “Listen, I work in HR. I know you are barely making enough to buy toilet paper, yet you’ve got to dress for the role you want, not the role you have! There are ways to shop and be affordable. Let me help you.” I considered her for a moment, looking at her beautifully tailored dress, smartly cropped jacket and bright pink shoes. To me, she looked like a head of a department, not just a junior associate. “Ok,” I responded, “Help me.”

A year later, when I moved to Washington, D.C., for a job that paid me so much money it made me dizzy, I walked into the office my first day dressed in the latest fashion with the tallest heels. No one will ever call me white trash again, I thought to myself. And no one has.

Today – as I write this – I am at my home in Rome, Italy where I work for an international organization. Technically, I am making less than I did for that high-paying job in Washington, D.C., but I am working for a cause I believe in and I am living my life fully. And I still have enough “leisure” income to buy the occasional fashion or pair of heels. In fact, one of my coworkers – who I have come to know very well – recently told me, “You know, if I didn’t know you, I would assume you are some rich, posh, white girl whose daddy got her the job.”



His comment stung. I thought back to my friend in HR who taught me to dress and how unfairly I had judged her. It’s amazing how our blindness to ourselves can make us completely blind to others.

Although my cheeks burned and my palms felt sweaty, I simply smiled at him and rolled my eyes. “Yes,” I retorted, “but you know the truth. You know I used to put Cheetos in my yogurt.”