Don’t step on the crass I was driving with a friend in her newly acquired used car. She was proud of the low mileage and so I said: “It’s really nice. How much did you pay for it?” She missed a beat or two and I understood I shouldn’t have asked. Then, in a slightly altered voice, she told me what she’d paid. A week later I was talking to a 15-year old boy who was moodily strumming his guitar as we spoke. It was just before Christmas and we were talking about saving money. I asked him how he would feel if I asked him how much he had saved. “I’d have to tell you because you’re a grown up,” he said, “but I’d rather not.” Why would he rather not, I asked? “I’d feel uncomfortable,” he said, “because it’s so little.”
Hmm, I thought. By being crass, I’d stumbled onto something. What was this secrecy all about? It seems to be at its most acute when it centers on specific numbers. So, I wondered, when is it permissible to mention actual numbers, to ask or tell how much, and when would I be in danger of social rejection for coarse and uncouth behavior? Searching for the answers, I interviewed seven people, some rich and some not so much, at various stages of life, living in east, west and middle America and in Europe. They told me without hesitation what the rules are–and why we have them. Mostly, I learned that no matter who you are and where you come from it is almost never acceptable to ask the question:
Know the rules There are times you can ask “how much” without penalty–for example, if it’s objective, a parking fine or property taxes, the question is not considered personal or intrusive and therefore falls within legitimate asking and telling boundaries.
Mostly though, It’s the intention that counts. If I ask how much something costs because I may want to buy it myself, the question is deemed relevant and I will probably receive a civil, informative answer. BUT, If I’m asking out of nosiness, I shouldn’t be surprised if I’m told to mind my own business.
Upstairs, downstairs If it weren’t human nature to want to know how we compare with others, Forbes and People Magazine would not rely on an eager audience for their annual lists of the top 400 or 100 or whatever richest people in the world. However, this curiosity is relative–we only want to know about people whom we perceive to be worthmore than ourselves. Those we see as worth less are also worth less of our attention– not just on lists but in everyday life.
Where angels fear to tread In the end, what is the secret really truly all about? What do people get out of keeping the secret? Why do we think the rules are so important and why do we honor the taboos so strictly? The answer seems to be: because the secret protects us.
Not asking or telling “how much” protects us on three levels: first, it allows us to control a certain mystery about who we really are; second, it keeps our relationships intact allowing the illusion of equality; and third, not revealing how much we earn or own or spend keeps the wheels of society oiled by staving off the chaos that the truth might bring, not least for employers who are well served when employees don’t tell each other how much they get paid.
Let’s play code No wonder everybody wants to ask the “how much” question and no wonder nobody wants to answer it! We fear being judged and exposing our entire self for evaluation. How much you earn, how much you spend and your net worth are really code for how much you are worth, how valuable you are. Curiously, we seem far less concerned about over sharing our medical lives which to me at least seems far more intimate!
The taboos we’ve grown up with are likely to stay in place for the foreseeable future. We like the rules, we like keeping money under wraps so we can manage the face we present to the world. The taboos serve us well so don’t expect a cultural revolution any time soon!
Thank you! To Dave, Gordon, Gwynn, Mary, Matt, Susan and Tim–my gratitude for really getting into this subject and for sharing your thoughts so generously.January 11, 2011