Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Money Manners

This topic was suggested by a friend of my son's who mentioned it at a birthday party, and it's one that has a surprisingly big role in our lives: Who gets to pay for whom and when?

Morgan told us about a Passover where she went to First Night from a convention with a group that was about a third Jewish. She said there were two guys who were dueling over who would pay, to the extent of trying moves like, "Look over there!"

In East Asian and South Asian cultures, there is status associated with paying the check. There may also be an attendant infantilization of someone who lets their portion be paid for by someone else.

Kat mentioned watching uncles in a Chinese-American family fight for the check, slipping the credit card to the waiter, but trying to hide it - or trying to grab the binder, or even leaping across the table.

There are other problems with money manners. How do you tell a friend that you can't go out for expensive food? Do social pressures put you in a position of spending money you don't have?

Talking about money is very fraught, connected with personal pride and public shame.

There are a lot of myths about poor people, most of which are held and maintained by rich people. If you are a person who is less well off, how you talk about money may reveal the status you came from. If you are poor, does it make you more honest about your financial needs and situation? It might. People will try to figure out the conditions of an invitation in advance.

It's really important to follow through when you promise to pay for something, because otherwise you can cause someone enormous trouble. If you promise to pay, other people who might do the same will think it's taken care of, and won't know to offer help if you back out.

People are often embarrassed to ask for help. GoFundMe is a help in addressing this problem.

People often avoid talking about how much they earn. However, transparency about salaries actually can help people seek justice with an employer, and the company only benefits from encouraging silence on the topic.

There is a performative expectation for poverty. Poor people are expected to look poor, act poor, not have nice stuff, etc. and they can get jumped on if other perceive them as having something they "shouldn't." The internet has seen a lot of criticism of poor people for having cell phones as a sign of unwarranted luxury... but are they really a luxury, or a necessity, in our world?

Money is often used as a way to control people. One of the problems with charity is that it so often comes with strings attached, i.e. with expectations of particular behavior.

Enacting being well off can become very important for your safety, and for you to achieve goals that will allow you to progress toward actually being well off. Someone who is poor will want to have a nice outfit that they can wear for job interviews, for example, or for interactions with banks.

Well-compensated white cis men sometimes cultivate "louche fashion," or the "adolescent slacker look," where they say they don't need a suit. This is only achievable because of their level of money. Kat observed that you can't buy yourself into this class level.

One example of performing higher class is "whistling Vivaldi," which is what one black man did to signal higher class membership for his own safety.

If you are hosting a party, what are you expected to provide, and how much? Are there birthday party rules? Is the honoree's part of the meal divided among the others? What about their partner? Or does the host have to pay for everything? A lot depends on the context and the identity of the guests.

When we go out to dinner, do we pay for what we consume, or do we divide the bill equally? Do you restrain what you order out of politeness for the person who is paying? I got taught about this early when I wanted a really expensive thing from the menu for my birthday dinner and was told I couldn't have it because that would be rude to my grandmother.

Tipping arguments are a thing, also. What happens when the person who grabs the check is a bad tipper? Would you leave money on the table? Is there a worry that someone might pick it up?

There are a lot of potential conflicts on money manners in the context of immigrant narratives, such as the collision of cultures when you take a partner to visit your parents.

What are host and hostess gifts? What is appropriate to give when you go to visit someone? Is there an expectation of reciprocity? Does gift-giving escalate? How can you stop the escalation before it hurts you financially?

When they know that some guests are facing an economic disparity, some people will write "our treat" on an invitation to prevent people from hesitating to attend.

What is reciprocity? How strict is it? Can we use an equivalence of things other than money? Is it acceptable to ask someone for service?

Strict financial reciprocity doesn't allow for changes in a person's financial status over time and could put strain on a friend relationship. Morgan said that in a similar situation her attitude is "you can accept us paying for your dinner so we can spend time together."

In US mainstream culture, males are often defined by their work and their salary. Kat explained that subcultures are more sued to fluctuations in relative prosperity. There is subtle coding of information in how people talk about it. "Joe's going to be short this month, so..."

On some level, we expect people to be employed and have comfort. You could write a story about someone trying to conceal that they are lacking employment and comfort. Musicians are open about asking if they have gigs. Writers expect everyone to be poor. Consultants might say that they got a big gig and so are able to pay back.

Sometimes you have to talk explicitly about money in order to be considerate of people's needs.

Lois McMaster Bujold's work deals with class and prosperity.

What do you do when you get invited to a house with servants? Do you read Miss Manners? Who is Miss Manners (in this world, or in yours)? How does she get her knowledge? Why is she licensed to reveal it? Are people willing to pay for the labor of someone to explain the manners of the upper class? Is that explaining allowed?

Classic stories like The Rivals by Richard Sheridan and The Canterbury Tales have characters (Mrs. Malaprop, the Nun) who are distinguished by their desire to emulate (badly or well) the manners of the upper classes.

The Canterbury Tales contains a money situation where the people on the pilgrimage have to promise to tell a story or else pay for meals for the entire party at their next stop.

We talked about an anti-cell phone rule some people use to keep dinners uninterrupted, which says that if you look at your cell phone during dinner, you pay for dinner. This is unfair to people who might have legitimate reasons to look at the phone. Are you a physician on call, or on call at work? Do you have kids with possible emergencies? Are you a caretaker of parents?

The forfeits game is fun when it's fair.

What is the monetary value of stories? Historically you would have itinerant storytellers getting hosted by a community. Paying for emotional labor is not new. We suffer partly because we have Puritan rules for what is worth money.

Are elders expected to pay, or are they to be treated to a meal? Are the young people in the middle paying? Who is paying and why?

Is there a border where you are interacting with different sets of people? It could be a physical border, or a chronological one such as when one becomes an adult. The person transitioning to adulthood is generally aware that they are making the transition. Is it a question of family hierarchy where someone dies and now you are the eldest with attendant responsibilities?

When family is staying with you, do they reciprocally take you out to dinner once?

Are you expected to feed guests at your home? Are you expected to feed family members in your home?

If X person is coming and they will want to pay for a meal, do you need to make covert arrangements with the people involved to make sure everyone subtly allows to happen as if it was unintentional?

If people bring food with them, is it communal, or is it for them alone?

Can you choose what you get to eat if someone else is buying?

How do you get people to let you pay for things they need, like an investment in education, etc.? Have you established trust that there are no strings or behavioral requirements?

Can you think of a parent or family member as making an investment in you? Can you say, "bank or me: I'll give you better terms"?

If you are having a large event like a wedding, do you have to negotiate every expense, or is there a total budget within which you can make your own decisions?

Can a group of friends have a money-pooling system that allows people to take turns taking advantage of the entire pool? This sometimes happens in Chinese-American communities. There are plenty of non-mainstream ways of handling capital needs.

Thanks to everyone who attended for this fascinating discussion. Today at 4pm Pacific we'll be meeting to discuss Temperature Control. I hope you can join us!