Nathalie Olah 6th December 2017
I can pinpoint the exact moment I first questioned my confidence. I was sat among people my own age but taller than me with far clearer skin, wearing gowns at the long dining table at the Oxford college where we had all recently been accepted to study. I was 18 and in a world far removed from the one I had grown up in. The product of a working-class family, I had been carried through school by a confidence that none of my much quieter and self-effacing relatives could really explain. Certainly it wasn’t the product of the state school system or the CofE primary school that had furnished me with feelings of penance and guilt instead.
Earlier that day my tutor had told me that my accent – the hurdy-gurdy register and the upward intonation – was unlistenable
A boy called Lancelot (yes Lancelot) had dropped his fork, spat out his food and with a laugh so hard it was a miracle his bowel didn’t prolapse, raised his hands to cover the tears that were streaming from his eyes. The reason? I had mispronounced a word on the three-course menu, which to my mind always seemed ludicrous extravagance for a bunch of undergraduate students, but caused my peers to scoff – sending their food back often and complaining about the quality of the meat. He hadn’t dropped his head or shovelled his food into his mouth like the others, but instead kept repeating the word for the benefit of anyone else that happened to be in hearing distance.
Earlier that day my tutor had told me that my accent – the hurdy-gurdy register and the upward intonation – was unlistenable. That I would never be taken seriously unless I learned to temper the melodic quality, flatten out those rounded “I”s and extended “e”s. And so I left his office that day determined, as I had always had been, to do whatever it was I needed to do to get on in life, questioning every word that left my mouth, while creating new, unthinkable arrangements of syllables in an attempt to sound posh.
Myriad intersecting factors play a part in confidence, including race, gender, sexuality and age; and besides being working class, I suppose I benefited from the security of being white and straight, both of which made being confident far easier for me than it was for many of my peers. And those are just the social factors. Research suggests that a person’s biology also plays a part in how confident they are, and from the day I was born it was apparent that I was louder, more open and assertive than the rest of my family.
[I] was faltering in the face of true, unadulterated confidence as taught by the public school system and upper-class society
After my experiences at Oxford however – and the dining room was only one of many humiliating episodes – I began to feel some sympathy for my classmates at school whose uncertainty had always prevented them from raising their hands, or venturing an answer. More importantly, I came to see that what I had always mistaken for confidence in myself was something far closer to bravado, the swagger and raised voice of someone who was trying to convince those around her of how strong she was. Had I not had it, I might not have got that far, but now it was faltering in the face of true, unadulterated confidence as taught by the public school system and upper-class society.
These were people who would never experience failure. Who over the coming years would open businesses and drive them into the ground; become reckless hacks and politicians who were sacked for sexual harassment and misconduct; who were bought houses in central London while trying and only in some cases succeeding, to become actors, composers or singers.
When dismal reports are published about how few working class, state school and PoC candidates are accepted into places like Oxford and Cambridge, I’m always reminded of these experiences. As easy as it would be to assume the admissions staff all are raving bigots – and I’m sure very many of them are – there is the added factor of confidence and the role it plays in even getting you to order the prospectus, let alone turn up and excel at an interview. It’s through no fault of their own that working class kids rarely possess the self-assurance of their middle-class peers, and when asked questions, probably present far more prosaic answers through years of being taught not make a fuss, to be risk-averse and to play it safe – good qualities, in my opinion, that we are absolutely out of our minds to down-play or discourage.
[There] are ways of weeding out working-class imposters to maintain systems of power that have existed for centuries
The same goes for job interviews and those embarrassing stories about McKinsey and Goldman Sachs recruiters posing far-out questions that only the most precocious answer will satisfy. These aren’t tests of suitability or even intelligence, but subliminal ways of gauging someone’s fluency in the language of confidence – their understanding of the idiom of middle-class obnoxiousness. They are ways of weeding out working-class imposters to maintain systems of power that have existed for centuries, reluctantly policed through quotas, but beyond that, rotten to their core. Leaving working-class candidates with the correct sense that it is a world not meant for them, or if they don’t at first realize, then having the burden of eternal failure lumped on their shoulders for having not been able to successfully mimic the same brazenness and bullish mentality.
For years I resented my background for these reasons. A common insult flung around the school playground that still frustrates me – “she loves herself” – summed up everything I thought was wrong with working-class culture (for what it’s worth, this wasn’t directed at me, but celebrities usually, or newcomers – whoever us kids could identify as a common enemy). Self-respect wasn’t rewarded and a lot still needs to be done to promote better mental health and self-worth among those who can’t afford to pay for it privately.
But in my case, the resentment I once felt has long faded. In its place, I now believe the confidence divide is being framed in the wrong way: a deficit on the part of the working-classes that needs to be redressed through better parenting and schooling, as opposed to the ruling classes having defined the qualities that engender success.
We cannot hope to change Oxford and Cambridge, the public school system, the banking and management consultancy sectors
We read opinion pieces all the time about the need to overhaul and strip out prejudice from these hulking great, prestigious institutions, without realizing that even by conceiving of them as prestigious, we are perpetuating their power and ability to wield elitism. What will it take for us to realise that the idea of confidence is one fixed and defined by reigning powers that need to be dismantled through ridicule and loss of respect? That humility, being good at listening, observant, fastidious, caring and concerned are far more important than one’s ability to confidently handle a job interview or reel off names on a menu?
Because the prejudice being reported isn’t incidental to, or separate from, the institution, but paramount to its continued existence and success. For this reason, we cannot hope to change Oxford and Cambridge, the public school system, the banking and management consultancy sectors. All we can do is boycott them and change our acceptance of their wildly outdated and absurd modes of success, on which these ideas of preordained superiority are built.
Nathalie Olah 6th December 2017