Ruby Payne’s “Hidden Rules of Class” describes the behaviors of three segments of society–those living in poverty, those in the middle class, and those who possess wealth. Her descriptions focus on elements like food, clothing, time, and education; for example, she writes that for those living in poverty, clothing is valued for its ability to express style while quality is the primary objective of clothing in the middle class; and, for those who possess wealth, clothing is judged by its designer label.
Similarly, Payne claims that for those living in poverty, education isrevered but often exists as an abstraction; in the middle class, education is a means of increasing income; and for the wealthy class, education is a way of expressing traditions and maintaining connections.
Payne’s description of education could feature a sub-category for one aspect of education: what’s funny to students.
I’d like to change the first of Payne’s three levels–those living in poverty–to those in the working-class, the population among which I was raised, educated, and that I initially taught: in that class, humor tends toward disparagement,;and while it is often playful, the humor is almost always at someone else’s expense (the put-down, the mocking imitation, the sarcastic comment). Humor as a wary circling around subjects that can be approached but not breached.
Students in the middle-class school in which I next taught were less likely to rely on sarcasm for humor; instead, the middle-class students were more open to self-deprecating humor, making themselves the butt of a joke, telling stories in which they made mistakes that they barely survived with their dignity intact. Middle-class students told stories that would have puzzled working-class students who would wonder why anyone would want to make fun of themselves when there are so many others lining up to do that job.
In the private- chool that was my third teaching experience, the humor was coded, a matter of unspoken experiences and understood values. Something seemingly innocuous would be said by a student about which others would laugh and glances would be exchanged but never explained. To know what was funny and what wasn’t funny among private-school students, permission to enter was required, and no one seemed interested in granting that permission.
If working-class students used humor to make a space for themselves, and middle-class students laughed at themselves as a way of signalling a willingness to cooperate, private-school students seem to used humor to emphasize the closed-nature of their environment.
While Ruby Payne did not address humor among high-school students, she did list a category for humor: she wrote that humor among the poor focuses on sex while in the middle class the jokes are about situations, and the wealthy laugh at social faux pas. Ms. Payne would have, I think, seen in high-school humor the reflection of adult values.