Two Sides of One Coin: My Cultural Journey Being Asked About, And Asking For, Money
THE GUILD PROMPT #1 : MONEY
Money, it’s a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.
While satirical, these Pink Floyd lyrics embody a quintessentially American energy. The song brims with the facile nature of individualism and a sense of excitement about tackling the American Dream — building up one’s personal wealth and finding pleasure in it, too. Though I don’t relate much to these words, they bring into question how I feel, think, and have talked about money my whole life — and how my cultural background had for so long affected how I navigated the topic in the public sphere.
I grew up surrounded by the mores of a more private and pessimistic culture — France — where money is the last thing anyone wants to talk about. If stereotypes are to be believed, the French would rather tackle the intricacies of sex than have to discuss how high a salary they make. Sometimes, stereotypes ring true. In France, it is customary that one never asks how much a friend’s house cost, how much their yearly earnings are, or the price tag of the bag hanging off their arm. “C’est gauche”. Taboo. Tacky. Awkward.
Apparently, this mutual understanding dates back as far as the days of French peasantry — where superstition reigned and many believed that earnings reported meant earnings swiftly stolen away. This trend continued into the Marxist era, and has maintained its stronghold until today.
Though neither of my parents grew up rich, my sister and I were lucky enough to have been graced with a privileged upper middle class upbringing. Money never seemed to be an issue, nor was it ever discussed at the dinner table. It was only when I moved to America that my relationship with money, and the conversations around it, drastically changed.
I remember my first week of school or so in Berkeley. I was wearing one of those plain American Apparel sweatshirts everyone owned at some point in high school. Some redhead next to me pointed at it, and boldly stated: “Wow. You have one of those sweatshirts? Your parents must be rich.” While I sat there, slightly taken aback by her comment, she went on to ask me what street I lived on. “Grizzly Peak,” I innocently answered. “Oh, that makes sense,” she replied with an eye roll. Little did I know that Grizzly Peak was considered the yuppie top of the hill in this area, and that I’d suddenly revealed, by “mistake”, that my parents may have been slightly more well off than hers.
A decidedly uncomfortable feeling swept over me, and I felt flush and slightly embarrassed. But why? What did I have to be ashamed of? I barely knew this girl, and she was judging me because of where my parents had chosen to buy a house. In that moment, I felt even more like a foreigner than the first day I’d arrived.
Almost 10 years later.
I’m sitting on the roof of my office in San Francisco, eating lunch with a few colleagues I consider good friends. We’re shooting the shit, not talking about anything too serious, and one girl lets slip out that she recently asked for a raise, and got it. She unabashedly volunteered the amount her salary had been raised to, and my ears perked up. We held the same position, but I was making less.
That upset me. Here I was, taking an all-American mindset, and thinking: I want more money. I work hard, and I deserve it. It’s wasn’t fair that she was making more.
For years, I’d squirmed at questions about money. None of your business, I thought. But now, it was my business. And if I didn’t dare ask for what I thought I was worth to this company, I wouldn’t last another day in this dog-eat-dog world.
So, I entered the lion’s den and did what any well-meaning Millennial paying exorbitant rent in the Bay Area would do: negotiated for more.
Long story short, my efforts fell flat. I had not prepared my case and entered my manager’s office with hearsay on my lips — both which worked to my detriment.
It’s not a total sob story. A few months later, I got promoted and got the damn raise.
But, I’ll never forget the lessons I learned that day: that gossiping about money never works in your favor, but that standing up for what you think you deserve usually ends up paying off.