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Being Miffy in Oxford

December 29, 2010

When I was working in London one summer during my university years, I had the wonderful opportunity to go to a staged production of Brief Encounter at the Oxford Playhouse.  If you aren’t familiar with this film and get even a passing happiness out of watching black and white movies from a more elegant age, you are in for a treat.   Brief Encounter was directed by David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia might ring a bell) and is about a chance encounter a married woman has in a train station that results in her having a brief, yet passionate affair every Thursday afternoon.  The staged production I saw took the original material and added Noel Coward songs and poems in strategic places, creating comedic spaces in the show to highlight further the tragic nature of the lover’s inevitable heartache.  What made the experience so incredible, however, was that I attended the production with a dear family friend, who is British, lives in Oxford, and happens to be named Cordelia.  It was her commentary that made me realize just how much was going over my head, simply due to me being American.

Take being miffy, for example.  If you are at all like I was, the word ‘miffy’ connotes a particularly wretched and fluffy children’s story heroine’s name, certainly not a word the proper adults use in everyday life.  But, as Cordelia explained to me at intermission, the word ‘miffy’ refers to the way someone drinks their tea: if they put their milk in the mug before the tea, they’re miffy.  If they put their tea in their mug before their milk, they’re tiffy.  And if they forgo the milk in their tea entirely, they’re Americans.  But, even more interestingly, how one drinks one’s tea is representative of their social status.  And, as Cordelia pointed out, that was something the director of Brief Encounter was highly cognizant of.

In the show, the lower class characters of the railway tea shop owner and her employee, the indefatigable Beryl, both were seen to pour copious amounts of milk into the cups before serving it to the customers.  The higher class characters, the married woman Laura and the charming chance encounter doctor, both had a subtly quick yet telling moment of their eyes meeting in consternation and amusement over their proffered cups of milk and tea.  Later in the scene, they held their forks and knives in (to me, a seemingly unnatural) manner as to cover up the stem of the utensil with their hands.  The lower class characters held their forks much as Americans do, like a pencil.  This too, apparently speaks volumes about how you were raised in Britain.

The fact that the modern Brit can still derive so much class information from activities as simple as eating and drinking serves as reminder how differently orientated America and England still are from one another.  For better or for worse, American ‘class’ is a nebulous concept, with as many as 9 out of 10 people saying they are middle class if they are allowed to throw a “lower” or “upper” prefix label in there.  (No joke.  No really, its Science.)   And it is almost completely defined by economic indicators: how much one makes in comparison to the cost of living in their region, etc.   In contrast, in England, the classes are still more socially stratified, and being of a certain class not only connotes a certain economic position, but also certain social morals and etiquette, values, family structure and linguistic patterns.  That’s not to say it isn’t more fluid than it used to be; it is.  And it is certainly more based on money than it used to be as well.   But even if one doesn’t care about class (and I know many Brits who don’t) they still notice it.   As Brief Encounter starkly showed, social differences that my more egalitarian-trained brain couldn’t pick up on without help where obvious to Cordelia.   And that conception of class effects a wider scope of societal norms than you might at first think.  The Manifest Destiny, for instance, is a central American tenant.  The concepts of the economic individual actor, that anyone can be rich or be president are pervasive and ubiquitous parts of our heritage.  And I think that I, for one, didn’t really account for differences that arise from a history of class as a currency as real as our dollar.

As we left the theatre, I asked Cordelia where I, any American, and for that matter, any foreigner fell on the social class scale.  She looked at me, and, as if it were obvious, said, “We don’t look at foreigners in terms of class.”   Good, I thought, as I pocketed my playbill, because I wasn’t going to switch over to covering the stem of the fork while I ate anytime soon.

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