THE way it began was with a call from a magazine reporter who asked me, after the appropriate introduction, how much I made for a living. She said she was compiling a list of the kind we have all read and the kind I love to read and that she had decided to include me. There was this pause during which I sort of imagined her wetting the end of her pencil and then I said something tentative like. "I don't think I'm going to tell you." It was a terrible mistake.
She sensed she had me, which she sort of did, and so she asked me why I would not tell her, and what was I trying to hide and things like that. I tried to answer her questions, tried to think on my feet, tried a few jokes, but the fact of the matter is that I couldn't think of one good reason then and there why my salary should be a secret except that I really preferred it that way. That, of course, was no reason at all, and so I told her that I would think things over and call her back - a sort of "the-check-is-in-the-mail" type of lie.
But I did not lie about thinking things over, and in fact, I spent the next two days talking to people about salary secrecy, wondering why we do it and wondering why we consider this to be the most intimate of all details - the last taboo now that sex has become a topic for dinner table conversation.The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that the whole thing was silly and that I woudl write a column in which I would boldly reveal my salary. It turned out though that I could not bring myself to do it and it turned out also that I couldn't quite figure out what there is about salaries and money matters in generalt hat so upsets people.
But for a time I presevered and one of the things, I would up doing in my role as a reporter, was simply going up to people and asking them what their salaries were. The reactions were interesting. I generalize, but suffice it to say that women were more likely to respond to the question that men, but those who were most likely to respond were people whose salaries were set by law or regulation of union agreement. They gave you a sort of the-matter-is-out-of-my-hands answer, but even here the men seemed uncomfortable about the question and they would say not what the amount was, but rather that it was covered by, say, a union agreement. But men, especially men who were deep into their careers, looked at me like I was crazy when I popped the question. Some of them joked with me, putting me off with a stream of patter and some of them gave me ridiculous figures. I never got the true answer, but you could see that either the question or something about the answer made them feel uncomfortable.
The thing I noticed is that they all acted pretty much as I had with the magazine reporter. In other words, they felt a certain obligation to entertain the question, pretend to mull it over and answer it in some way that would take the edge off their refusal to respond. What none of them did was tell me simply to buzz off - to mind my own business. I had not done it with the reporter, either, although, believe me, that phrase made it to the tip of my tongue several times before I yanked it back.
Instead, I felt somehow compelled to come up with an intellectual reason for not answering the question, and if truth be known. I finally told her in another phone call that revealing my salary would sorely complicate matters for my wife at her office. It was not one of my better lies, but it seemed to work.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I had to conclude that I and the people I had questioned were victims of the let-it-all-hang-out ethic, the notion that there is something very unhealthy about keeping matters to yourself. You see this sort of thing all the time and the way it most often manifests itself is in discussion of sex in which you are constantly being told things you have no desire to know. Sometimes people do it about religion or politics (the other formerly taboo subjects for dinner table discussion) but more and more it is sex and more and more it is nothing but noise - a phony intimacy in which you're told much, but learn nothing.
The thing about this intimacy, though, is that it is not about fears or weaknesses or that sort of thing; it is merely about something that was once considered personal. Salaries, however, are a different story. You have only to see the reaction you get when you pop the question to sense right off that there is something about the subject that makes people believe they will have opened themselves up too far - that they will appear weaker or worth less or silly or something like that. They might also fear that they will become an object of jealousy. Whatever the reason, the point is that these are perfectly good ones to keep your mouth shut.
So now I've thought things over and now I'm really sorry I lied to that reporter. Revealing my salary really might complicate matters for my wife at her office, but that is not the reason I didn't respond to the question. I had another reason.
It's none of anyone's business.