Cultural differences

Money Matters

10:22 PM

Recently I came across an article on “Social Faux pas in America” namely what you should avoid discussing with people there. The one that had me thinking is the money matter because in Switzerland it’s pretty much the same etiquette: You don’t ask how much things cost and you don’t ask a person how much they earn as it is considered rude.

The reason I’m reflecting on that now, is that in India I noticed people talk about these things much more easily, I had people asking me how much I earned, I had neighbours ask how much I paid for my dog, how much the car was, how much was our plane tickets, furniture, and what not. All type of questions I actually feel very embarrassed to answer because culturally I come from a place where it’s none of your business to know how much your neighbour paid to repaint their fence or how much they pay the gardener to come trim their bushes every months. At least not in the upfront bold way I have been asked about similar things here. In Switzerland if a neighbour is looking for a gardener, they will first ask you how they work, and then ask how much you pay them if they are interested in hiring one, otherwise they will just jump to the next topic sparing you the financial inquisition questionnaire. And no one would randomly ask you how much your dog cost while you are walking in the street, unless they are interested in the breed, but then it will be first about asking questions about the breed, the breeder’s location, and then only add that they are interested in getting a dog themselves and ask if you wouldn’t mind sharing the price if asked at all.

Our former neighbour in our old neighbourhood in Bangalore was utterly famous for putting his nose in all our purchases, asking the price of everything, and then upon us telling him to exclaim “I could have gotten it for you at a cheaper price”, a practice that irritated not only me but DH as well.
Over the years of being constantly probed for glimmers of information on my finances and shopping habits I developed a series of diplomatic vague answers: along the line of “Oh I really don’t remember now” or “Hubby went to buy it, I have no idea” or “I can’t remember right now, why do you ask?” or even “It was a gift”. I also used the failure to understand look when the “How much” question came from my maids, I had one who was notorious for not only asking me the price of all purchases including our brand new bed (after years of sleeping on mattresses directly on the ground), the thing is it is never a good idea to disclose prices to your house help, they can make assumptions out of it and perhaps decide they aren’t paid enough, or tell others how much “luxury” you have which would put you at risk of getting robbed, and that same maid asking about the price of everything was also the one who went telling all her other clients in the street about my purchase, so much so my neighbours knew I had a dog, a bed, a microwave and what not and came asking for the price themselves!

Yes it is a cultural thing, money give status and one is in general prouder to show of the status money brought them in India compared than in the west were wealth symbols are more subtle in nature. But my main reason for not bragging about price tags or answering questions about the money in India are mainly safety reasons. The article states that America has a more individualistic culture, and that therefore you don’t share certain things publicly, I won’t argue that, to a large extent this is true, but India is changing, there are more and more nuclear families around, with less relatives living practically next door and no tight knit community to really back you up in cities, and to me sharing the price of your car even with a neighbour doesn’t really spell safety, a smart cookie could ask you about all your stuff’s worth over the months, and estimate the amount of the loot they could get out of having someone rob you for them (again apply to maids and house helps). Sure they probably already have an idea just looking at your stuff, but there is no point just giving the exact figures to them. Ditto with the random stranger starting by “How much did you pay for the dog” before asking for the breed or name of the canine. Why would I share such an info with them? Do they have a special status to know what percentage of my income goes into what? What is the true intention behind the question to begin with?

The Swiss in me is as secretive about money as the banks in her home country…sorry.

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