Money spelled out in Scrabble pieces

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When (not) to Talk About Money

In this piece, Sarah Ford examines the process of socialization in to norms about money.

Recently I was at dinner with my family and a friend’s family. During our weekly family dinner date, my daughter’s friend Mister T[1] crowed,

“… and my grandma also gave me fifty dollars!”

His mother glared at him. He, like a typical nine-year-old, was oblivious until she asked him, “Why am I upset with you?”

He hung his head. “Because I was talking about money.”

“That’s right. It’s not polite to talk about money. We don’t do it.”

Inside this little mother-son exchange we can see a lot of socialization taking place.

Socialization and Developing Your Generalized Other

Socialization is the process through which we learn our culture’s values and norms (the ways that we translate those values into behavior). The process of socialization begins at birth, if not before, and goes on throughout our lives. The first “agent of socialization” that we come into contact with is our family, and they take primary responsibility for making sure we can get along in society.

Many of the lessons of social interaction that we learn from our families and other early agents of socialization are relatively concrete. We learn not to hit people when we don’t get our way, we learn basic table manners, and even infants understand turn-taking in conversation.

According to George Herbert Mead, one of the key components of socialization is learning to “take on the role of the other”. This means that we learn to see situations from the perspective of other interactants, and to anticipate and respond to their interpretations of our actions. When we teach children not to hit each other, for example, we make this explicit by pointing out to them that hitting hurts their friends and asking whether they would like to be hit in a similar situation.

George Herbert Mead

In the discussion above, however, “getting along in society” means knowing when it is and when it isn’t appropriate to talk about money. Money itself is an abstraction, something that many adults, to say nothing of fourth-graders, do not have a really good understanding of. As a result, the norms related to discussing money are harder to grasp.

If we continue to apply Mead’s theory of socialization, Mister T needed to be able to understand the generalized other, which is our culture’s entire system of norms and values, in this case about money. Understanding the generalized other, according to Mead, is the ultimate goal of socialization because once we have that understanding, we can apply it in any social situation.

Over time, and over many interactions both with his parents and with others, Mister T will learn that there are situations when it is acceptable to talk about money and others where it is not. Until then, his parents can look forward to more awkward moments and giving Mister T more reminders when he breaks the norms.

Dig Deeper

  1. What values and norms did you learn from your family?
  2. Which of those values and norms were taught to you explicitly, and which were simply “modeled”?
  3. What happens in interactions when one or more people don’t understand the “generalized other”?
  4. Why is talking about money considered “rude” in American culture?

Photo: Money by Philip Taylor via Flickr

  1. I sincerely hope it goes without saying that my friend’s son is not named Mister T. That’s a pseudonym to protect his identity.  ↩