Cabs, Culture, Class

January 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Where to, Guv’nor?” It was my first cab trip in London, and the man asking the question was at least twice my age.

I mentioned this to my friend after I’d gotten to her flat. “The cabby called me guv’nor,” I told her, somewhat bemused.

“Well, you are a governor, aren’t you?” she said.

I wasn’t a governor, I was a kid in my twenties. I wasn’t someone in authority giving orders. Nor did I think of the relation of cabby to fare as one of governed to governor or servant to master.

I remembered this incident Sunday as I was reading Geoff Dyer’s “Letter from London” in the New York Times Book Review.
The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered.
Dyer, a Brit, attributes this to two aspects of American culture – politeness and informality – and he contrasts it with the “rudeness in British life.”

But “sir” and “thanks” also stem from our ideology of equality. We Americans feel uncomfortable with the idea of social hierarchy. Those who call attention to class differences are accused of inciting “class warfare,” in other words, of being un-American. And since, according to this same ideology, we have unlimited social mobility, a person’s social position is not at all fixed or permanent. Our Constitution prohibits titles of nobility, those immutable and inherited designations. In a European aristocratic system, if you are born an earl, you remain an earl no matter how incompetent and immoral you may be. Not in America.

Our belief in equality makes for some contradictions. We treat bus drivers and cabbies not as servants but as equals doing a job. But at the same time, we recognize that it is not a “good” job. Who would want to be a servant? Yes, people do service work – cleaning our houses, pouring our drinks, driving our buses and cabs – but we expect that they are striving for a better occupation. People are equal, occupations are not.

In the British tradition, “service” was* an honorable occupation (at least in the picture we get from “Upstairs Downstairs” or “The Remains of the Day”). The British did not treat servants as equals; servants were clearly not the equals of their employers (masters), and it would have been silly to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British ideal was not equality but fairness. Rather than apply the same norms to everyone– if the bartender calls me “sir,” I should call him “sir” – the British recognized a hierarchy, each level with its own expectations and obligations. Since individuals were not all judged by a single standard, occupations did not carry the same moral connotations.

“Where to Guv’nor?” depends on the rules of civility making for fairness between people who are unequals because of their unequal positions. In the American cab, there are no gov’nors. Just as in all those old movies, it’s “Where to, Mac?”**

*I use the past tense here because I have no idea how these ideas have weathered the Thatcher and post-Thatcher years, and for all I know, I am referring to an England that has faded into history and is preserved only on film and videotape.

**Caroll Spinney, who does the voice of Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, “says he modeled Oscar on the Bronx taxi driver who drove him to the old Muppet Mansion the first day he played the character, greeting him with a gruff, ‘Where to, Mac?’” (Washington Times)

1 comment:

Josh said...

I'm glad you put things into perspective. I've always felt uncomfortable when my foreign (and sometimes wealthy American) friends treat cabbies or waitresses as service providers rather than people who happen to hold that job (Does that make sense?). I think you've nailed it on the head with the idea that American ideology is responsible for this.