25 February 2019
In ‘The Class Ceiling’, the authors’ argue that there are three primary forms of capital – economic, social and cultural. The economic and social advantages are obvious. The more subtle one is cultural capital which seems to inhibit working class people from breaking the class ceiling at the height of these professions.
In one accountancy firm, the key cultural characteristic was termed ‘polish’. It is what people needed beyond the technical competency which would have led them to be considered as partner material. And in what does this polish consist?
Polish is multi-dimensional. It involves expectations around a person’s accent and style of speech. It’s about appearance, dress and etiquette. It’s about ‘a particular style of communication’. The authors describe it as ‘interactional poise, understatement and embodied ease’ and argued that the power of polish was more influential than what would be required to get a person into the firm in the first place.
Of course, the trouble with ‘polish’ is that it is an indeterminate quality. You cannot pin it down. It not only lacks transparency, it lacks identity. The trouble is that people in these places know when you’ve got it. But no-one knows how to get it!
It begs many questions – and two in particular. Why should the highest positions in an elite company like this be guarded by such an elusive quality which is probably the fruit of a particular way of nurturing children from a privileged background?
Why should the ethos at the highest echelons of the company be determined by polish rather than something else like empathy or friendliness or even thoughtfulness or happiness?