Yesterday I called up a carpenter to get a quote on rebuilding the floor of the tiny terrace attached to our apartment. It's a small job--apparently too small for any carpenter to waste his time on it--consisting of cutting some pressure-treated 1" by 4" slats to 10 feet and then screwing them onto a couple of cross pieces. I could have done it myself except that I can't lift anything because of my bad back (which hasn't gotten any better from all this sitting at a desk and typing into a computer!) Anyway, the carpentar had an interesting accent, so I asked him
"Where are you from?"
"Poland," he said, "but my daughter just graduated college with a degree in microbiology."
This was probably the quickest shaming + shame management I had ever encountered, so I am reporting it here in the Shame Diaries.
I had inadvertently shamed him by making him reveal that he was from Poland, a low status country, and he had regained his status by letting me know that his daughter had graduated college and gotten a degree in a branch of science that demanded more than a little brain-power.
He said he'd send me an estimate and I haven't heard from him since.
I told my wife about this and she said, "You shouldn't have asked him about his accent. That's a personal question and none of your business." And then she added, "And there's nothing to be ashamed of in being Polish. You're part Polish. Did you tell him that?"
She shamed me in a healthy way. She considers me part of the high status group of Polite Elderly People, despite my frequent bad behavior, and she doesn't want me joining that low status group of People Who Always Say the Wrong Thing.
Of course in Poland people aren't ashamed of being Polish. But here in Southern Fairfield County, land of the Hedge Fund Managers, being an immigrant from any country EXCEPT Britain and France and Scandinavia is relatively low status, not to mention having a job that involves manual labor.
The important term here is "relative." Status is always relative, and where there is high status and low status there is invariably shame. As Karl Mark wrote:
“A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirements for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain” (Karl Marx, “Wage Labour and Capital,” trans. Frederick Engels, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1849).