Money Talks, So Why Can't We Talk About It?
Quick, folks, what's the last taboo? What's the one thing in America nobody wants to talk about, even when they've told you the most intimate details about their marriages and their sex lives, their diseases and compulsions, their addictions, their abortions, their depressions, and so on? What's the one thing Americans are still ashamed of? If you answered " money", you're right on the button. I don't mean money in the generic sense. I mean your money , the size of your bank account, your personal worth. Last week, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her roving photographer phase, I went out on the street to ask the question, "Why are people so reluctant to talk about their finances?" Here are some of the responses, in no particular order: * From a woman at the Grand Union check-out counter: "It's none of your business." * From a retired executive, currently living at Wake Robin: "I'd rather not say." * From a Burlington woman who has risen from the welfare rolls to the pinnacle of success: "Because if you talk about money with men they think you can't know anything about it, and if you talk about money with women they think you're showing off. Frankly, I don't ever want to talk about money again." * From a yuppie matron browsing the stacks at Chassman & Bem: "Well, you don't talk about money, do you? I mean, do you?" * From a well-known local stockbroker, Republican, wearing what looked like a vicuna coat: "How's the writing, Pete? Come and see me, come and see me." * From Bernie Sanders, who happened to be sitting at Uncommon Grounds: "Oh, look, well, that's uh, I'm not, of course, this isn't the appropriate, uh, as a congressman, I mean, I'd have to decline, I think..." * From Jane Sanders, bewildered, to Bernie: "What? We talk about it all the time. We have to disclose." * From a wait-person, male, at a Church Street eatery: "Because it's like talking about the size of your penis. If it's big enough, you don't need to, and if it's not - well, you figure it out." After about 10 minutes of this, I realized I wasn't going to come up with a unified theory of Financial Phobia in time to meet my deadline, so I decided to run it by some experts. My brother, for instance, Mr. Richard P. Kurth, who until recently was an investment banker in New York City. For years Dick has been telling me that money is entirely imaginary, "just numbers on paper spoken through the air," and that everyone's attitude toward it is based, at some level, in fear. "Money is the only measurement of worth and success that Americans are willing to accept as being meaningful," Dick says. "It's the only marker we use to judge each other and ourselves. So people are insecure. On the one hand, they want you to know that they're familiar with the system, that they're on to things, they've got a place at the table, they're doing okay. On the other hand, they're scared shitless, because they know that none of it's real and they could go down the tubes at any minute." In the business world no less than any other, my brother thinks, people have no real idea of the value of money, only its supposed value , and so they're always comparing themselves to the next guy: "What's he doing? How much has he got? There's an awful lot of lying." I said it sounded to me like the penis thing all over again, and Dick said it was, only worse, because it wasn't confined to men, and while all of these business honchos were sneaking peeks at each other in the corporate shower, millions of people were starving to death. (I'm glad to report that since he left banking, my brother has developed one of the sharpest social consciences in Darien, Connecticut.) Penises put me in mind of psychiatrists, naturally enough, so I next got on the phone with Dr.Todd Mandell, who examines heads at the Brattleboro Retreat, and who informed me that "even in a theraputic setting it's harder to get people to talk about money than most anything else." "I think it's probably tied in with self-esteem, " said Mandell, "but if you ask different people, you'll get different responses." I said I knew that and what else could he suggest. "Well, I'm not the one to say," he replied. "No therapist is. People have to pay for their therapy, after all, so it's awkward. I know there's something in the literature about it, but I can't remember what." I'd like to assure you all that Dr. Mandell is a consummate professional, my personal favorite among shrinks world-wide, but I'd obviously caught him at a busy moment. He said he'd check with one of his colleagues to find out "what we're telling people in med school about this," but in the meantime he thought the question was academic, because the only people who worry about money enough to conceal it are the people who have plenty of it. The rich are different, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed. For the record, I checked with Fitzgerald's granddaughter, Bobbie Lanahan, who assures me that nothing has changed since her grandfather delivered himself of this famous maxim. "Having inherited money is no different than winning the lottery, " said Bobbie. "Every relative you've got comes out of the woodwork. It's best not to mention it." "So I can assume it's still regarded as bad manners to walk into a dinner party on Park Avenue and ask the hostess how much money her husband makes?" I said. "Yes, but you might ask your dinner partner, just to be shocking." In the spirit of the hour, I refrained from asking Bobbie for sales figures on our joint publication, Zelda: An Illustrated Life, and she in turn thanked me for not asking her any probing questions about the Fitzgerald estate, whereupon we both kissed the air near our respective receivers and agreed to catch up soon over lunch. The moral of this story: Don't ask, don't tell. You'll fit right in.