So how much do you make? What's your home worth? What did that jacket set you back?For more than 80 years, the correct response to such rude money questions has come from "Etiquette," the 1922 bible of proper manners written by New York author and bon vivant Emily Post. Today, her work continues through the Emily Post Institute, a multifaceted etiquette empire for which Peggy Post, Emily's great-granddaughter-in-law, serves as spokeswoman and author.Post recently completed the 17th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette," a complete update and rewrite of the original that covers such modern topics as cell-phone and e-mail etiquette. She has also written "Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette" and co-authored "The Etiquette Advantage in Business," with brother-in-law Peter Post, and "The Guide to Good Manners for Kids," with sister-in-law Cindy Post Senning. We went to the source for a lesson in good manners on how to discuss the touchy subject of money.
Question: Is it gauche to talk about money?
Peggy Post: Sometimes. In the financial world, you definitely have to talk about money, so in that realm, of course it's OK. In personal life, the question is, how far do you venture into talking about money? Try to remember what the British call "reserve": Use a lot of common sense, and think before you speak.
Q: Most people are uncomfortable or embarrassed when the talk turns to money.
Post: Yes. Some people like to talk about money all the time and brag about how much money they have, and especially in the social world, that turns a lot of people off. I think it's really important to choose your subject wisely. It used to be totally taboo to discuss money, religion or politics, but these days, in some cases, it's OK to discuss these things. In religion and politics, if things get heated, you want to be able to say, "Let's agree to disagree." But when it comes to money, if somebody just wants to brag to impress other people, I would say most people don't want to hear about it.You make what?
Q: What is the appropriate response if someone asks you, say, how much money you make?
Post: The answer is, first, you don't have to answer. Two, you don't need to get rude in return; you can simply let the person know that you consider this to be an inappropriate topic. Some people are able to use a little humor, such as, "Well, my boss thinks I make too much, but I don't think I make enough." It's the same way you deflect questions like, "How old are you?" You might say, "29 and holding." Or if asked, "Why aren't you married?," you might answer, "Well, I'm waiting for Prince Charming."
Q: Here's one that makes people uncomfortable: How much did you pay for your house?
Post: Those are all public records so that's quasi-private, but still, it's a turn-off for lots of people. You may answer or not, depending on what you feel like doing. Or you can say, "You can check it out at the tax records downtown." Just don't get bullied into discussing things if you don't want to.
Q: Why are we squeamish when someone asks us how much we paid for something?
Post: I think a lot of people feel they're being evaluated because of it. It's a personal question, how much someone makes, how much someone spends. People have different philosophies on the topic, and it's really a private matter what their net worth is on a monetary basis.Where to draw the line
Q: Is there an appropriate way to ask about money without offending?
Post: You have to really know who you're talking to, first of all. If it's somebody you know really well, you might feel comfortable, and it might be appropriate. Instead of asking directly, "What did you pay for your son's tuition?" you might approach it more generally, "Gee, college tuitions are so high these days," and see if they volunteer information. Or you might offer first, "College costs are so high these days. I can't believe I'm paying $45,000 a year for my daughter's tuition, room and board." That's usually the most graceful way of doing it. But it may be a conversation that nobody else cares about. You have to be very careful when you're only talking about yourself. That's a whole other taboo in polite conversation.
Q: So where do you draw the line?
Post: Usually, discussing costs of living, housing and tuition are much more public issues than salaries and raises; those are taboo unless you happen to be the person's boss or the human resources person in the company. A lot of people don't like to be judged on how much they make. My worth is who I am, not what I make. Even asking, "How much did you spend?" puts a lot of people on the defensive. It's that whole judgmental issue, people evaluating.
Q: You always have the feeling that if I say I paid $300 for my iPod, they're going to know somebody who paid $250.
Post: That's true. We're such a deal-oriented society these days and then you feel silly because you didn't get the deal that the other guy did.
Q: Could you just deflect the question by saying, "Why do you ask?"
Post: That's one of the ways to handle these nosey questions. Of course, it's the old "answering a question with a question."Q: Not proper etiquette, huh?Post: Well, I'd say that is. Instead, you could say, "None of your business" or "I'd rather not talk about that if you don't mind," and then change the subject; those are the most gracious ways. But when somebody is really just digging in and digging in and asking, that's when it's the last defense, and I'd say that is perfectly fine.