Crossing the tracks for love

Dear colleagues,

Ruby Payne was a middle-class woman who happened to marry a man from what she calls "generational poverty". This led her into a journey of exploring the lives of three groups in the US: the extremely poor, the middle class, and the extremely wealthy.

Her book Crossing the Tracks for Love might appear on the surface to be about love. Actually, it's about class. It gets down to the nitty-gritty of attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and automatic reactions. It covers gender identity, food, appearance, the house, in-laws, child rearing, achievement, money, social activities and religion. It gives practical advice about dealing with partners from a different class, especially by understanding the hidden rules among classes.

Payne draws on personal experience, interviews and research. She has a PhD, but she writes to be practical and helpful. I can't say how much translates to Australia, but certainly everything about academic life comes across as middle class, not least the emphasis on achievement. For her purposes, Payne doesn't distinguish between working class and middle class, but rather with starker contrasts. Wealthy means seriously wealthy, with an annual income of at least a million dollars.

This book is quite engaging to read, even if you never intend stepping outside your class origins. The extract below gives a taste of her approach. For Thanksgiving dinner you could substitute Christmas dinner with the relatives.

Brian Martin
30 September 2007


Extract from Ruby K. Payne, Crossing the tracks for love: what to do when you and your partner grew up in different worlds (Highlands, TX: aha! Process, 2005), pp. 69-71.

Contrasting Scenarios

You finally meet the family. It's Thanksgiving dinner. It's loud and chaotic, and there's nearly a fistfight. The table isn't set, and there is little room on it for food, as it's overflowing with papers, bills, open bags of chips, and so on. Family members grab paper plates and fill them straight from the stove. They wander in over a two-hour period to eat. People eat while watching the football game on TV. Everyone talks at the same time.

You finally meet the family. It's Thanksgiving dinner. The table is set. Everyone brings a side dish for the dinner, which begins at 1 p.m. The entire family is there, seated at the table. The dinner begins with a blessing. Food is served in dishes and passed around. When one person talks, others listen - at least most of the time. Children who interrupt may be reminded not to.

You finally meet the family. It's Thanksgiving dinner. The table is set. Cocktails begin at 7 p.m. Dinner will be served at 8. Guests dress for dinner. Dinner is served either by household staff or a caterer. Conversation is mixed. Sometimes you speak one on one with the person next to you, sometimes everyone speaks as a group, each listening to the other. Name placeholders are used to designate seating.

In Your Life ...

If you come from a middle-class background and marry into wealth, food preparation, food presentation, and adherence to a theme are very important skills to develop. Learn about extended silverware and silver settings and the different pieces of crystal used to drink different beverages - and take cooking classes. Never, but never, make fun of yourself as a deficient cook. Be extremely knowledgeable about wine. This is essential. Even if you don't personally imbibe alcohol, you'll be required to serve it.

A friend of mine is a chef who gives classes to wealthy women on cooking Thai food (he lived in Thailand for many years). He tells the story of a "trophy" wife who came to cooking classes with her husband. Midway through the first class, the woman stood up and said to her husband, "I'm leaving. This is why we have the maid." Both walked out. When they were out of earshot, one of the older wealthy women in attendance said quietly, but loudly enough so that everyone in the room could hear, "Retread."

By sarcastically equating the woman who walked out to the new-looking cover put on an old, bald tire, this critic was not only commenting on the woman's social faux pas but also on the man's poor taste in marrying her and the nature of their relationship.

Another friend of mine tells a story of a dinner party where the middle-class hostess served white rice with paella. As she said, "We laughed about that for days!" In short, white rice is never served with authentic paella.

If you are moving from poverty into middle class, it's important to learn how to set a table properly and how to decorate it for holidays. Food is to be served in dishes and not off the stove. The table is to be set before anyone is seated.

If you grew up middle class and marry into poverty, understand the issue with food and love. Don't serve alcoholic beverages at extended-family dinners unless you want to increase the likelihood of a physical fight. The kitchen is generally the family meeting place. Women are expected to cook, and men expect to be served.

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