Large and diverse group of people seen from above, gathered together in the shape of a layered pyramid, 3d illustration
Cover Image © Arthimedes

Discussing “Hidden Rules” Among Social Classes

An old classmate (who I still consider a friend, but just establishing the relationship here) sent me an interesting image that he wanted my opinion on because he digs my social observations (awww). So, I figured I’d share that here and discuss my thoughts on the ‘Hidden Rules Among Classes’ – a framework I just learned about.

To my understanding, this is from a book by Ruby Payne called A Framework for Understanding Poverty – A Cognitive Approach. I do read some books in this realm, so I’m a little surprised I hadn’t come across this one, but it’s nice to come across surprises. Anyway, this is the image my former classmate first shared with me (click the link to see), but I found an image online that was a tad bit easier to read, a little more descriptive, and that had a few more categories.

Give it a look before we start in.

The Hidden Rules Among Classes from Ruby Payne's Understanding Poverty.

I plan to just drop a few takes on each section. Some will be short, and some may have a bit more nuance. Curious where others land with these, so please feel free to share any opinions you have on this one in the comment section below.

Let’s go!

I Think ‘Possessions’ was Overly Ambiguous

  • Poverty: People
  • Middle Class: Things
  • Wealth: One-of-a-kind objects, legacies, pedigrees.

The section about possessions almost seemed to only know anything about the wealthy side (which I actually agree with). The fact that it puts “People” on the impoverished (what the hell does that mean?) and “Things” for the middle class almost felt like they were reaching or just didn’t know. If you’re going to go as generic as putting “Things” down, then that label might as well apply to all 3 groups. Either give me more detail on the two less fortunate groups or don’t drop anything at all.

The ‘Money’ Section is Dead On

  • Poverty: To be used, spent.
  • Middle Class: To be managed.
  • Wealth: To be conserved, invested.

I think it’s missing context, though. The poor spend because they don’t have a surplus of money to manage or invest. If it comes down to buying an individual share of Apple or buying food, I’ll take the food. I understand that some will quip “oh, but the poor people will buy an iPhone instead of either,” but to that, I say, “If the iPhone is something that they’ve saved for and that’s how they choose to spend their money, who are you to tell them how to use what they’ve worked for?” I don’t know. If you actually KNOW any poor people, you know that the stories of how they’re spending their money wastefully can be inflated because they really don’t have much to spend and they have to keep a roof over their heads, etc.

The middle class do indeed manage their money, but – frankly – I feel like they’re doing that out of two motivations: Either you fear becoming poor, or you hope to be rich. Understand that I’m just talking about core motivations here, I’m not talking about goals like saving for a family vacation.

And lastly, I think the wealthy invest and so on because they’ve been lucky enough to be taught to do so by either someone before them, the circles they’re fortunate enough to run in, or societal expectations. I don’t know what it’s like to have so much money that I don’t know what else to do with it but to squirrel it away and count it, but I definitely think that situation exists for multiple reasons (good and bad).

The Part on ‘Personality’ is a Bust

  • Poverty: Is for entertainment. Sense of humor is highly valued.
  • Middle Class: Is for acquisition and stability. Achievement is highly valued.
  • Wealth: Is for connections. Financial, political, social connections are highly valued.

I know people in all of those groups who predominantly exhibit all of those personality characteristics. The twist is whether it is done as a matter of coping and navigating their social class or striving to push through to another one.

Masked woman expressing different emotions

The ‘Social Emphasis’ Portion is Interesting

  • Poverty: Social inclusion of people he/she likes.
  • Middle Class: Emphasis is on self-governance and self-sufficiency.
  • Wealth: Emphasis is on social exclusion.

This section basically makes it sound like poor people band together, middle-class people focus on standing on their own, and wealthy people only allow a select few in their graces. I don’t think poor people band together. If they did, the United States would be in trouble.

Middle-Class people aren’t on their own so much in my eyes, so much as they’re concerned about their sphere of influence. They have money, but it doesn’t stretch that far before breaking – so they worry about the social happenings of their kids, family, friends, and community. That doesn’t sound like self-sufficiency in my mind so much as “benefiting my group”.

And I kinda’ think the exclusion thing is something that’s (kinda’ sadly) forced on some wealthy people. There are genuinely those in that group who distance themselves from society. They have the means to do so, so why not? But there are others who I think are more ostracized and made lonely by their wealth for various reasons. So, the exclusion isn’t so much a driving desire or anything unto itself, it just happens as an effect of their wealth. I am doing a terrible job of explaining this succinctly, but if someone is getting what I’m trying to say and can say it better – please do.

‘Food’ is Funny

  • Poverty: Key question – Did you have enough? Quantity important.
  • Middle Class: Key question – Did you like it? Quality important.
  • Wealth: Key question – Was it presented well? Presentation important.

This doesn’t sound like something people think about food themselves, so much as something it’s suggesting a person at a restaurant ask someone from that social class about their meal. Is that the intention here? Sure feels like it.

‘Clothing’ Dresses the Middle-Class as Sheep

  • Poverty: Clothing valued fo individual style and expression of personality.
  • Middle Class: Clothing valued for its quality and acceptance into norm of middle class. Label important.
  • Wealth: Clothing valued for its artistic sense and expression. Designer important.

The poor and the wealthy get to be expressive in their clothing while the middle-class just tries to conform? Hmmm… I think it depends on the context of the situation, maybe. I do think it’s true that a middle-class person is more likely to adhere to a dress code at some point in their day-to-day (most likely at work), and I do think that would impact your overall taste in clothing and all that. Hmph — maybe they’re onto something here?

Marching Clones on white background, Studio Shot

I Think ‘Time’ Mixed-up Two Classes

  • Poverty: Present most important. Decisions made for moment based on feelings or survival.
  • Middle Class: Future most important. Decisions made against future ramifications.
  • Wealth: Traditions and history most important. Decisions made partially on basis of tradition and decorum.

I would swap the middle-class and the wealthy here. I think the middle-class does more around tradition and history and it’s part of what keeps things moving along there. Even with everything else that’s been described up to this point – it always sounds like the middle-class is managing something against a set of expectations. Sort of shackled to it, if I’m being honest.

The Wealthy, in my past impressions and even now, seem focused on the future. And it makes sense, right? The brightest future going to the people with the most resources to make those futures materialize doesn’t sound too outrageous to me.

‘Education’ is an Odd One to Discuss Lately

  • Poverty: Valued and revered as abstract but not as reality.
  • Middle Class: Crucial for climbing success ladder and making money.
  • Wealth: Necessary tradition for making and maintaining connections.

In the United States, I’m really questioning the value of education because of the choices I see us making. We couldn’t possibly revere it as the document says about the impoverished – otherwise, more people would blindly follow science and we wouldn’t be dealing with vaccination issues for this group in the current COVID pandemic. I do think the middle-class once viewed it as crucial, but I think those days are dead and gone. Now it’s more so tolerated but would be tossed away if possible. I say this because we seem to educate our population about the wrong things. And lastly, I do think wealthy people see it as necessary, but I would’ve just said “to maintain control” vs. the niceties that they chose. It feels like the smarter we get as a people overall, the dumber some of the decisions we’re collectively making feel (e.g. “about the environment” or “about health” or “about voting processes” and so on).


  • Poverty: Believes in fate. Cannot do much to mitigate chance.
  • Middle Class: Believes in choice. Can change future with good choices now.
  • Wealth: Noblesse Oblige. (‘Nobility Obliges’)

Never thought I’d see “Noblesse Oblige” outside of some of the Anime I watch. I think everyone that I’ve met from these social groups strongly believes they have choices in life. I have met some who just don’t think they have much of a choice, but the majority do feel that they are steering the ship of their life — they just know they don’t control the waters.

Business people choosing different directions

I Didn’t Understand the ‘Language’ Section

  • Poverty: Casual register. Language is about survival.
  • Middle Class: Formal register. Language is about negotiation.
  • Wealth: Formal register. Language is about networking.

I won’t comment on this one because I genuinely didn’t get what they were going for here. I would probably need to read the book or research some quick notes on this one before commenting (and that’s not happening this morning). It was interesting to me that the middle-class and the wealthy had the same register. Observation here: Poor people talk differently?

‘Family Structure’ Shows the Age of the Text

  • Poverty: Tends to be matriarchal.
  • Middle Class: Tends to be patriarchal.
  • Wealth: Depends on who has money.

I would love to see what this would look like with more modern inputs looking across different racial groups. I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as they’re presenting it here now.

‘World View’ Makes Sense

  • Poverty: Sees world in terms of local setting.
  • Middle Class: Sees world in terms of national setting.
  • Wealth: See world in terms of international view.

I think people tend to be concerned with things they know vs. things they don’t, right? Not too many poor people have traveled internationally like their wealthy counterparts, and what’s happening overseas may not impact anything they know or are directly invested in. And middle-class people definitely at least travel nationally. They may not be able to tell you what country has the best coffee, but they can probably share an opinion with you about what state or city has the best [insert whatever food item your heart desires]. And there’s that old stigma that Americans (meaning those from the U.S.A. in this case) only care about what happens in their American bubble. I really think that stigma is rooted in the middle-class and those less fortunate than anything else.

I also think it’s peculiar that everyone but the wealthy has something determined by their setting. In this case, the wealthy have a view and the others don’t. Sorry, I’m sensitive to subtle word choices like that because I think they show the subconscious bias of the writer.

‘Love’ is (Clearly) Conditional – LOL

  • Poverty: Love and acceptance conditional, based upon whether individual is liked.
  • Middle Class: Love and acceptance conditional and based largely upon achievement.
  • Wealth: Love and acceptance conditional and related to social standing and connections.

None of these people know how to love unconditionally!

‘Driving Forces’ Lack Humanity

  • Poverty: Survival, relationships, entertainment.
  • Middle Class: Work, achievement.
  • Wealth: Financial, political, social connections.

The part pertaining to what drives people is a little too cold for me, even in the context of the generalizations this chart is trying to convey.

I feel bad that impoverished people are merely trying to survive or be distracted, and not really live. It is a little insulting and reveals the root of a lot of our societal ills that the middle-class is just seen as being driven by work. And the wealthy are just heartless machines of industry according to the breakout above.

None of these, with the exception of “relationships” for poor people, feel like human aspects to me. No mention of family. No mention of happiness. Geez. If this IS true, I’ve had people all wrong in my head for years. Clearly, we’re all meant to be comic book stereotypes or something.

The ‘Humor’ Row Doesn’t Get It

  • Poverty: About people and sex.
  • Middle Class: About situations.
  • Wealth: About social faux pas.

I don’t know what this section is basing its take on, but I feel like plenty of people laugh about all of these if they’re presented correctly. There are situations and social faux pas that poor people can laugh at. Who doesn’t think that people and sex are funny (if you don’t – you haven’t lived, my friend)? The wealthy don’t just sit around giggling about bad table manners. Yeeeeah — this one just doesn’t feel all that correct to me.

Comedy Microphone on Stage of Comedy Music Show in Club with Lights and Colors

If you got this far, you made it! And if you know me (even a little bit), you know that I don’t believe in generalizations all of the time, but I appreciate the attempts.

I felt like this document was a solid attempt at explaining cultural norms in the United States, and I’d love to see what this looks like based on more updated and researched inputs. I genuinely felt like some of what was shown was just the author’s opinion or based on hearsay. I would be curious how someone from each social class would fill in the sections. That would be more interesting. Have 50-100 people from each group fill things in for their class and then mention the things that bubble to the top.

Anyway, I’m musing now. Again, curious what you may have thought of some of the sections as they were presented. Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Peace, and thanks for reading.


The soundtrack for this post provided by…

Image Credits:
– Cover Image © Arthimedes (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 1 © The Salvation Army
– Body Image 2 © pathdoc (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 3 © Matthias G. Ziegler (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 4 © (Shutterstock)

– Body Image 5 © 7713 Photography (Shutterstock)

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