Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Etiquette of Mammon

Have you ever noticed that in our culture, at least in the United States, there is a unique little system of etiquette surrounding how we talk about money? We Americans pride ourselves on being very open when it comes to discussing any topic whatsoever; nothing is taboo, and this sometimes even becomes a fault of ours. When I lived in Austria, the local Austrians remarked on how "talkative" Americans were on a whole host of subjects. Americans are an extremely opinionated people who thoroughly resent being told to curb their language, for good or for ill.

Yet, in the past few years, I have noticed that there seems to be certain taboos in our society regarding how we talk about money with other people. I noticed this first some years ago, when I was just hired at a job. I was talking with another employee (an employee who had a completely different job than mine) and asked them how much they got paid for doing that job. They answered cordially at the time, but later I was rebuked by my boss; I found out that the employee had actually been offended by my question and had complained to the boss about it. The boss told me in no uncertain terms that it was "not appropriate" to talk about money with other employees.

Why? Perhaps it is something management prefers to keep in place so that workers don't become envious of each other in situations where there may be merit based pay? That might be so, but here it was the employee, not the boss, who was first offended, and we did non-competing jobs that weren't in a similar pay-bracket anyway. The employee was offended that I had asked about money, and the boss agreed. It is not just something fostered by employers; rather, it is something about the American workplace in general.

Okay, so we are not supposed to talk to other employees about how much we make. Other taboos: Issues relating to money can only be discussed in private with your boss. It is not appropriate to speak about money in a letter or email. It's not polite to ask a friend of yours how much he makes at his job, nor in social settings should you talk about your own income, especially if it is on the larger side. If you cannot participate in an event, it is wrong to say, "I don't have enough money to do that"; you are supposed to offer a more tactful excuse that doesn't involve money. If somebody owes you money, you can only ask them about it in person. And, speaking of "asking about money", it seems to be an unwritten rule that people who owe you money somehow end up making you feel like a jerk for asking for the money you are rightfully owed!

At any rate, I can probably think of more, but you get the picture. There are a lot of social taboos in place that seem to suggest that money is a topic we simply do not discuss in social situations. 

This doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. Just because it is etiquette, or "good office manners" doesn't mean it is correct. The way I see it, surrounding money with these taboos and aura of unspeakability tends to raise its importance in our lives. We almost treat mammon like God, someone whose name is only to be used in certain contexts and never lightly. Should money have such a place in our society that even how to talk about it is hallowed by all these guidelines?

I think this comes from our own cultural delusion that we are a classless society of equals. In old Europe, for example, there was an obvious class system that was by and large accepted. There were rich people and everybody knew who they were - this was evident from their dress, homes, manner of living and even their speech. Moreover, their incomes, largely rent based, were a matter of public knowledge, in many cases. Think, for example, about the depiction of the wealthy of Georgian England in the Jane Austen novels. Everybody knows that Mr. Bingley is worth £5,000 per year; likewise, everybody in the whole village and presumably the whole county knows that Mr. Darcy is worth £10,000 per year. Their wealth, and even the degree of their wealth, is common knowledge, because they live in an aristocratic society where divisions based on wealth and prestige are public and an acceptable part of society.

Now take the United States, where we "threw off" our aristocracy and established a government ruled by the people and based not on wealth and privilege of birth, but common citizenship. In our society, we don't like external characteristics that remind us of wealth distinctions. It brings to mind the unhappy reminder that we are not, in fact, a classless society, but a society of great disparity of wealth. We do lack, however, many of the cultural trappings of external wealth that old Europe had. Nevertheless, to maintain the illusion that we are all just citizens who are by and large the same, we negate the issue of monetary disparity by refusing to discuss it. That's my theory, at least.

I didn't even realize how deep these taboos ran until this summer I took a temporary job with the company of a friend of mine, a very good Catholic and a very open, and frank man who lacks any of the monetary taboos I have been talking about. Well, there came a day when I was supposed to ask him about how much he was going to pay me for a certain job.At my previous job, I could never discuss such things easily or openly; they required private "meetings", sometimes much more than one and were always discussed in a very delicate way. but, to my surprise, my friend just said, "So, how much do you want?" I said, "Do you think we should talk about this in private", as we were in front of several other employees. He said, "No, we can talk about it right here." Then, and only then, did I realize how unaccustomed we are to asking for money or speaking about it openly in the company of others. Nevertheless, I did what he wanted and blurted out an amount, which was basically agreed to immediately. It was so easy. Money was really no big deal to him, at least as far as talking about it is concerned.

I think we ought to not have so much
sensitivity in the way we speak of this subject; it just gives it more importance than it needs to have. If you need money, ask for it. If you can't afford it, say "It's too expensive." If someone asks you what you make, why not tell them? And don't get offended if somebody asks you. Don't get all touchy is somebody wants to discuss money; it's really not that big of a deal. And, if you owe somebody money, don't try to make them feel like an idiot for asking; you are the one that needs to be humble because you are the debtor; the creditor can ask for his money any way he wants, by letter, email, phone call or in person. I'm not against manners, but I am against stupid taboos that are propagated under the auspices of etiquette.


Anonymous said...

When your first example started, I knew it was going to be about salary.

I live in Sweden and I've had the exact same experience. Here, though, we're very open about the fact that you just don't talk about what people make. It's considered very rude and personal information. "Good [those with class] people don't talk about earnings" is the saying. And if asking what someone makes is bad, bragging about what you make (or anything) is hit the breaks, going over the cliff, "what are you doing, man", trainwreck, now-the-entire-neighbourhood-hates-you, worse than cancer, terrible!

So, as you see, it's very much the same. The one difference I could spot would be that it isn't wrong to say that you can't afford to go to this or that social event, but instead a very acceptable excuse. Sort of like you're telling them something very personal to excuse yourself which makes them appriciate your honesty. Even if it's just a quick "Hey, wanna go to the bar?" - "No, money's tight right now."

But that may just be me. I have had to be rebuked several times for talking about salary. When a friend of mine gets a job and talks about how good it is, I used to ask as a reflex how much he makes. I try not to do that so much anymore.

As for the rest: I agree completely! Money should be something we shouldn't care about at all except for providing for what we need. When someone brags about a six figure yearly salary we shouldn't feel as if someone just laid the biggest. most stinky fart of all time, but instead just nodding him off as a bit tipsy and going "Well that's nice for you."

Anonymous said...

Hello, I know sometimes people hide how much they make because people will be critical of them. I know, I make 60K a year but I live in California in a 3 bedroom single bath home in the middle of a major city with a Wife (who stays at home) and two children. We have enough to make ends meet but even in the Catholic community I found when we tell people how much we make they will criticize us if we don't donate a certain amount to this or that charity because we had a tough month and people are less likely to be understanding when we can't embark on certain endeavors like criticizing us on why our home doesn't look a certain way or wonder why we don't have internet and check it at our in laws house because "I should" be able to afford it. They have an inflated sense of how much money I have. This is why I don't like to tell people what kind of money I make becuase they just assume I am a money bags and don't consider the hospital visits for my children as well as taxes and the other costs I had this year. I know this is not right that people judge me in this way but it does happen. Normally I don't care what people think but I try to protect my Wife from such criticism and that is why I don't like people knowing what I make.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:30 PM,

I bet the same people making those kind of remarks (judgments) are the same who quote Matthew 7:1 ("Judge not, that you may not be judged") when one speaks about mortal sins.

I'm sorry you have to face that.

Anonymous said...

This last line of this story seems to confirm your thesis: