Do you eat at Waffle House and have friends who smoke? Do any of your close friends hold wildly different political beliefs? Has your job ever caused your back to ache regularly? If you answer “no” to these questions, you may be living in a class bubble.
At least according to Charles Murray. Murray, the libertarian who co-wrote The Bell Curve, a book that caused a mild stir in the 1990s by claiming that intelligence is the main influencer in many of life’s metrics, thinks the super wealthy are also super out-of-touch with “average white American” culture. So he designed a 25-question quiz to test his hypothesis. It aims to determine how much the test-taker has in common with what Murray refers to as an “average American.”
With scores ranging from zero (you are the third generation born on your family’s private island, surrounded by only your kin and the wait staff) and 100 (you are a construction worker who smokes, owns a truck, eats at Outback Steakhouse and communicates using only lines from “Alf”), the quiz tries to quantify your life experience and compare it with others’. The answers are, in theory, telling about the taker’s economic and cultural background. Here are a few sample questions:
- Did you grow up in a family in which the chief breadwinner was not in a managerial position or a high-prestige profession (defined as attorney, physician, dentist, architect, engineer, scientist or college professor)?
- Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest or gay rights?
- Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements?
This last question gets at a trend noticed and documented by author and founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder , Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort. People are increasingly self-sorting themselves to live around people with similar beliefs. Bishop, who lives in La Grange Texas, roughly between Austin and Houston, likes the quiz but thinks it could use some work when looking at people from rural areas. “I thought of three things,” Bishop, who got a 40 on the quiz, says:
First, [the quiz] got at what we saw in Austin, that liberals like to live around other liberals. Progressives are isolated in their sorted communities. I thought it was good on that.
Second, it had a lot of consumer/pop culture references that seemed kind of tired. I don’t drink and there isn’t a movie theater within 40 miles, so a lot of that didn’t apply. I thought that part was weak.
Finally, the part about work I understood, but so few people work in factories these days that it seemed misplaced. I liked the idea of trying to get at that aspect, but kids who farm or mine coal would score zero on that test.
We could all add our own questions: Do you hear a train whistle at least once a day? What is the ratio of pick up trucks to Priuses in the grocery parking lot? Do you subscribe to a weekly newspaper?
Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies and publisher of the Daily Yonder, takes exception that eating at a chain restaurant should be considered a working-class outing and thinks that living in rural but traveling to urban often requires a good deal of cultural code switching.
“It’s kind of a clodhopper/briar-jumper test. It takes a mostly metro, somewhat fancy pants view of those who are outside the bubble and what they experience,” says Davis, who scored the highest out of everyone in the office. He lives in Whitesburg in Eastern Kentucky.
Movies, TV shows, Waffle Houses. Around here there are a lot of people without cars, phones, even television sets. I see them every day. Getting to a picture show 40 miles away or dining on Waffle House hash browns scattered, smothered, peppered and chunked would be a special treat. Not slumming.
I got a 73. Mostly that’s because I’ve lived in a small towns. It’s also how I disguise myself. I don’t want to be in a bubble with big shots, hot shots, and hipsters. But really I’m in there all the time for my job, for my inclinations. It’s like being bi-lingual. Except it is what you’ve seen, not what you say.
From my informal survey of officemates, it seems like the best way to ensure your not in too-big of a bubble is to have been raised in a small town, where it’s harder to escape connections and other people’s experiences.
Whitney Kimball Coe comes from Athens, Tennessee, and has fairly recently moved back there, and credits that upbringing with her score.
“I scored a 48, which I think accurately reflects my experience as a lifelong resident in an overwhelmingly red state in the South,” she says. “I grew up and still live in a small town in a county that is socially and politically conservative and also has a high child poverty rate.
Many of the questions seemed geared toward my experience, from my associations with Christian Evangelicals to the restaurants available in or near my town. It was particularly hard to calculate how many times I’ve eaten at Waffle House in the past year. My score would likely have been higher if my parents were not part of the professional class (community banker and nonprofit executive, respectively). But when you live in a small community, it’s hard to be ignorant of the struggles and challenges of your neighbor, particularly if you sit next to them in the church pew every Sunday.”
Like most of the folks in the office, my score (53) was padded by having been raised in a small town and wasn’t hurt by my refusal to totally give up chain restaurants or junk television shows and movies.