Class, Codes, Consent

Of course it is creepy if someone from another ‘class’ makes overtures, @parodevi you are right in observing this. (Thank you @anjakovacs for asking). But I would want to pause a moment to figure out what this class thing means. Does it mean money, or caste, or this nebulous thing called background? I think not. I think the word class in this context means someone who understands social boundaries in the same way as the person receiving the overture.

So, if I am comfortable hugging, and even receiving a peck on the cheek in public from a friend, I will do so only if the friend is from the same class – the class that understands that there is nothing sexual in the hug and kiss, that it means nothing more than affection and carries no signals other than saying – I care for your welfare. In accepting and responding to that hug and kiss, I will be responding with the same sentiment – godspeed, go your way, and I go mine, with the warmth and affection of our friendship that makes us feel good. In another ‘class’ I would express the same sentiments with a Rakhi, a piece of string tied to a brother to signal affection, warmth, caring and a promise to be there to help if required. Neither of these ‘classes’ will really get the other side simply because in their heads they have a different set of signal-to-meaning coding systems. Its a different cypher, a different code book. Some people can read more than one code book, not all.

Each class carries its own signals and to mix classes is to mix the signals. There is nothing ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ in class here – it is just that they have different norms. These do not make one better than the other. If there is something normative here, I’d add that a more tolerant, accepting and nimble version is obviously a smarter and more intelligent version. A more complex set of signals exists in ‘classes’ that have set up protocols whether explicit or implicit, and those that have the benefit of being ‘in the class’ are obviously more deft at handling it, outsiders are shown up easily. This is why class becomes a sensitive issue – because it can hurt the ego and make outsiders out of anybody. We are a gregarious species, and we live in groups. To be ‘outclassed’ hurts. At the expense of reason, we react with emotion.

Class matters even more when the signals are liable to be judged as sexual. I’d like to recount a tale – I took a piece of black silk to the local tailor and was curtly informed that I’d need a lining as it was too transparent. A traditional handwoven silk that I have been wearing for decades was risque and suggestive to the mind of that (lady) tailor. Obviously, she and I do not move in the same circles though we are related by marriage across three families. She and I do not share the same notions of what constitutes a signal, and so, she and her people are not people I can be comfortable with – we are not in the same class. “It’s a dress, not a yes”, read a poster. This is what I wanted to tell the tailor, it is a dress, not a signal in my ‘class of people’. We wear what we choose and know that a no means no, there will be no force or suasion after that. Or mention. To discuss it would be to live in the trivial.

Delhi is one of many cities that is full of people who wear thick, layered clothes through the day, in the streets or as they go about their work and short, light clothes in the evening as they party. This is not hypocrisy. It is simply being responsive to the signals that are exchanged across classes. In the day as they interact with various types/classes, they seek the safety of the lowest common denominator. In the evening, when they are sure of not being misunderstood, they can be themselves in whatever they are comfortable wearing. The predators have different rules, different signals here – a simple short dress, or a simple alcoholic drink are not signals in this class.

So yes, when ‘classes’ intermingle, there is trouble and confusion due to mixed signals. Nothing wrong with that, as long as there is an agreed mechanism to sort out the confusion. A ‘frand’ request is different from a ‘friend request’ only because the social boundaries at each step are different. A ‘frand’ is likely to be over friendly, to want to become a part of my life by wanting to know too much, or engage a bit too closely. A friend on the other hand knows their limits. Because you see, each of us has different personal barriers, and a different pace at which we open the gates to our time, tolerance and attention. Our class, we assume, understands our pace, and the pacing. Those who do not get relegated, it would seem. Those who are ‘outside’ this classroom have not practiced this dance, this rhythmic pace of stepping forward, tentatively, formally and not crossing the invisible lines on the floor. To creep over and cross these lines is definitely creepy. It is creepy because it is a recognition of the fact that the lines crossed were invisible to the outsider, and therefore one needs to put up barriers, because they do not have the self restraint or the ability to see gentler lines. Maybe they were in a different dance class 😀

Each one of us has a ‘class’ of our own, often family, where the signals are equally subtle but clear to us because of the high context nature of the gathering. These have been repeated so often in different ways that they are deeply embedded, therefore comfortable and invisible at the same time. We would not even realise that they are not apparent to an outsider, unless we are that outsider. (In a traditional patriarchal household the newly wed bride is often ‘outclassed’ in this manner, and our television serials bear enough witness to the joys of this when used as a game, as it can be). The hashtag #Iamsomiddleclass is a signal too, an assertion of shared codes. Is it in response to any other class and their behaviours? Possible, maybe? We let this pass for now.

On moving from a small town to a big city I remember feeling hurt by distant greetings from people I had spent hours with just the previous day. As we do in small towns, I had included them in my circle, the new one I was forming in this vast and unfamiliar place, but clearly this was not so in fast paced big cities where often individuals pass by in just a blur. This is an experience that has been validated by many small town people who come to cities, the immigrant experience (not going to talk about race here) and so much more. Was this rejection an affront to my ego? (Duh, no) Was I not in their ‘class’? When I now ignore others am I playing a ‘class’ game? Not really, it is just about pace, place and signals. The town mouse has learnt a set of signals that country mouse cannot like at first. But the town mouse, the (upwardly-downwardly-laterally) mobile mouse and others must realise, this is not always about ‘class’ in the sense of better or worse but about class in the sense of shared codebooks.

Oh, and if you want a peek at the other codebooks all you have to do is watch the behaviours and model them. There are courses available too, but there is nothing smarter than a nimble mouse, be it town or country. One who watches and learns the ways of the invisible maze, learning not to cross the line unless signaled. Yes, this is the nub of it: class is about consent.

(This really should be a proper essay, maybe oneday….. )

(Postscript: Will this be misunderstood? Sure it will. I think that is the point it is making. As long as the responses are civil, we are in the same room and can talk)