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Posh is not the same as clever

Step Outside Posh Boy: the Guardian's 2010 spoof for a Labour poster campaignI would like to say that on my better days, I’m reasonably socially adept. I have a good handshake and normally manage to maintain eye contact, even though we all know this is not dissimilar to staring into the sun. Once I even managed to hold a perfectly pleasant conversation with someone who opened proceedings with the line: “You! Oh, I haven’t seen you since you were this (hold hands apart at a distance which suggests we were in utero together) big! I suppose you remember me and my family.”

I read somewhere once that the most interesting conversations are when people talk about the things that most interest them and, finding it to be true, I have a few familiar topics at hand for when I find myself at a loss. Most are predictably literary or political: I do love a fluent piece on why we should ditch the monarchy, and an impassioned feminist rant. They’re topics on which I can speak well, stuff I’ve put some thought into – essentially filler until I think of something more interesting. However, this has been met on more than one occasion with narrowed eyes and the response “you’re a bit posh, aren’t you?” or even worse “you’ve got a bit posh, haven’t you?”.

It happens surprisingly often. The answer is a categorical “no, I’m not” – or “no I haven’t”,  which isn’t any more interesting. What this reveals about society, however, is very interesting. We think that speaking well is the same as being posh.

Feats of knowledge, particularly smooth oratory or matriculation into certain universities, often inspire the reaction that the speaker must be “posh”. This is not the case. Evidence of intelligence or education are just that, they do not necessarily points towards social class.

The mental association between “posh” and “clever” is such that we tend to think if someone sounds like they’re forcing their words out through a mouthful of marbles, that they’re being very clever. Or indeed, that if they’re making obscure and scatty references to schoolboy Greek, that they’re being very clever (step forward Boris Johnston). They’re not. They’re making their claim to a certain social set or background. There’s a sharp distinction to be made. The way in which words are pronounced should not affect how seriously we listen to them.

The two are not the same and mixing them up can have serious implications.

If we think that being posh is the same as being clever, we’ll let idiots govern us because they’ve got nice accents, but a plummy vowel is not the same as a well-educated brain. There is nothing wrong with having some of the best-educated people in the country in charge of it, but these are not necessarily the ones with “received pronunciation”. There is everything wrong with giving people privileged positions because of the way that they speak. It’s like a mass sense of being inferior to people who sound like they’ve stepped out of a Noel Coward play. But that sounds like a joke – this is real and can’t go on.

This works in the other direction as well. Associating speaking intelligently with speaking “poshly” will lead us to diminish contributions which are not delivered in the voice we expect from our intelligentsia. Sense spoken in a Brummie brogue as thick as pea soup – a “Noddy Holder accent” as our friend Andrew Pakes once snobbishly called it – should be given more weight than burble brayed loudly from a Surrey boy. We shouldn’t dismiss the contributions of people who speak in regional accents, just because their vocal cords aren’t made of cut glass.

The easy association of intelligence with poshness leads to both a sense of entitlement on the part of those who have such voices, and a sense of inferiority on the part of those who do not. You can be well-spoken, sharp and educated with any accent. It is not the preserve of the country’s social elite, and we should not treat it as such.

One Comment

  1. Robert the cripple says:

    So what is this about then Miliband being posh, well maybe people think he homes which are worth millions, his attitude to those not hard working or squeezed middle class may have more to do with his stance.

    Cameron is posh we know it, Miliband is posh because he is and we know it.

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