Thursday, February 28, 2008

postal scrotum: Max on the fear of income-related questions

My buddy Max writes in:

Hi Kevin,

Reading through your blog, I noticed the theme of you expressing surprise at people's reluctance to discuss or even their fear of discussing their salaries and workplace benefits.

I myself have been scratching my head with regard to this issue for a long time. I'm not a very private person, so I'm willing to talk about my salary, and I often tell people what I make, especially my students. And I mean, it's not like what I make is some big secret. You can pretty much guess what someone is making if you know the industry they're in. (Note that when I tell my students how much/little I make, it's just to juice up the conversation and make self-deprecating jokes about how poor I am; by no means do I ask my students outright how much they make.) Anyhow, I know how sensitive people are about this. Especially Americans and Canadians.

Which is funny, because Americans are so open about other things. Like when I was showing Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me to my class the other day, I was momentarily shocked when I watched a minute-long scene in which the director's girlfriend spoke about their sex life (in a nutshell, Morgan was eating so much fast food his performance in bed was suffering, which meant that she had to be on top). I couldn't see this kind of airing of one's sex life happening in the mainstream Japanese media.

After rereading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed--a great read by the way, if a little outdated, but it's yours if you want it; just let me know and I'll lob it over your way across the Sea of Japan (yes, read that and weep, Korean patriots!)--I came across an interesting passage which provided some explanation to the issue at hand. It seems that Americans are afraid to discuss their income because they are so status conscious. Correction, make that lower-income Americans. We all know what rich Americans make, you can see it all over the news, viz, jaw-dropping retirement packages for nonperforming bankers and the like. The rich love for us to know what they're making. The little guy, though, is too ashamed to let you know how much he makes. Moreover, interestingly, it seems that the average large American company actively discourages employees from discussing their income, even with (or especially with?) co-workers. Basically, this is in the interest of the corporations as it allows them to keep wages depressed.

Anyway, thought my little anecdote could shed some light on the subject. Lemme know if you want that book.


Americans are often a disgustingly confessionalistic people, as the freaks on our daytime talk shows can attest. We're also pretty weird about divulging salary figures.



John B said...

I can't supply evidence, but I do recall hearing of a survey that found that Americans are more willing to discuss their sex lives than their incomes.

In my days teaching Korean adults (EFL), incidentally, I discovered a small class of ajeoshi will discuss their sex lives in uncomfortable detail, particularly discussing prostitution (in one instance, even trading notes on the best places for sex tourism). This can be very disconcerting for the instructor, or at least it was for me.

Unknown said...

I'm like your friend; I don't mind telling people how much I make. I'm neither proud or embarrassed by the numbers but when I was a contractor, it was an unwritten rule that you could discuss almost anything under the sun with other contractors EXCEPT salary. I always found that odd.