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THE TABOO AGAINST TALKING ABOUT MONEY
Culture determines how we talk about money or whether, in fact, we talk about it at all. We are so used to the cultural taboo regarding talking about money that we are hardly aware of it. And yet that taboo undermines women’s relationship to money.
With the taboo in place, there’s not much to say to one another about money. Our financial conversations tend to be about where to find good deals and the high price of groceries, child care, housing, vacations, credit card interest, and gas. Perhaps we talk about being broke or money being tight. We don’t share the dollar figure of our debts or assets. And if we do talk, we heavily censor what we share. A Chinese American friend visiting China was surprised when her Chinese dining partner asked the waitress, a complete stranger, how much money she made. The waitress very matter-of-factly reported the sum. In the United States, most of us don’t even have a clue of what our best friends’ salaries are.
And in our families, conversations about money rarely take place. Anxiety and stress may be thick in the air, but given the taboo against talking about money, actually talking about the money situation at hand might never happen. We want to know if our aging parents have enough savings to take care of themselves should one of them require more care, but when we mention the word money our dads change the topic.
In Elisabeth’s case, a simple conversation with her father, which never took place, would have been enormously clarifying. She described, “I started to receive an annual gift from a trust my grandfather left me when I was twenty four. It went directly into an investment account that my father invested. I was living poorly on my salary in Manhattan, and that annual gift would have definitely made my life a lot less difficult. The irony is that years later I discovered my father would have been fine giving me the money to use, but I had no idea at the time. It was so taboo to talk about money that my father never explained the trust to me and I couldn’t ask him about it. Money was never spoken about in my family, even though my father was a banker. The only thing I ever heard him say about our finances was, ‘We’re comfortable.’”
However, when we are given permission and encouragement to share our personal experience of money, we have lots to say to one another. An exercise near the beginning of an Emotional Currency Workshop illustrates how hungry we all are to talk about money. I give participants two blank index cards: on the first, I ask them to write something in their money lives that is causing them difficulty that they would be able to share with a few other women. On the second, I ask them to write something that they are struggling with around money that they would not want to share with anyone else because it causes them too much shame or pain to talk about. When they are done, I tell them to put the second card away securely in their notebooks or purses, that there is no need for them to share what it says with anyone. With permission to keep their money-secret to themselves, the participants feel freer to breach the cultural taboo and begin sharing with one another. Although they are never asked to, often by the end of the workshop, several women have shared what felt too hard to talk about when they began.
Ask yourself what you would write on your cards:
What is something in your money life that is causing you difficulty—something concrete that you can explore and talk about?
What is another difficulty with money that you feel too ashamed or embarrassed to share with others?
I tell women in my groups that talking about money will inevitably cause each of them to feel shame, either before they speak, while they are speaking, or after they have spoken. Breaking the taboo against talking about money evokes shame. I encourage them to share their stories, despite their feelings of shame. I promise that, if they can tolerate the embarrassment, humiliation, or shame, good things will come from it emotionally. I make the same promise to you as you read this book. Even if you only share your stories with yourself—it may be the first time you are aware of many of your feelings about money, and some of them may be uncomfortable—opening yourself up to them will bring positive results in the end.
In the groups, the women then go into pairs and take turns talking about what they wrote on their first card. The energy in the room electrifies as they share what for many are long-held secrets and hidden places. Whatever shame is there is only fleeting. The relief of sharing is palpable, as is the gratitude. Being listened to with respect and caring provides the support needed to explore this long-forbidden subject. This is what is denied us when we comply with the taboo against talking about money.
Other questions about this taboo:
Were money matters discussed in your family?
If so, in what manner were they discussed?
Did your parents retreat to discuss money in private, or did such discussions take place openly?
Who do you talk with about money?
Who don’t you talk with, but need to?
Who don’t you talk with, but want to?
What comes up for you when you think about talking with friends and family about money?
Reprinted with permission from Emotional Currency: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Healthy Relationship with Money. Copyright © 2011 by Kate Levinson, PhD, Celestial Arts, an imprint of Ten Speed Press, a division of the Crown Publishing Group, Berkeley, CA.