July 12, 2024

When I was growing up, my parents were very clear about what I should talk about with others in order to respect what our culture saw as being polite. There seemed to be a very long list of taboo topics that people weren’t supposed to talk about. I chuckle now as I think back to the line “and never, EVER discuss politics.” My, how things have evolved in my home culture in my lifetime! 

Another topic one did not discuss was money. Wealth (or lack thereof), debt, spending habits and amount of one’s income were all generally off limits. We should not discuss these topics with people outside of our immediate family. I observed that this was an accepted cultural attitude—your money was no one else’s business. I remember once asking my parents if one of their friends was RICH. By their response, you would have thought I swore or something. But I guess asking that question in front of their friends was just as inappropriate as using other four-letter words. 

Wealth and Piety in the Middle East

Interacting in various cross-cultural situations has challenged how I view money. Of course, there is the initial observations of what the actual currency looks like. But there is much more to learn about wealth beneath the surface in every culture. Last year I was introduced to Dr. Karen Shaw’s book “Wealth and Piety: Middle Eastern Perspectives for Expat Workers.”

Wealth and Piety

This book offers a glimpse into how Middle Eastern cultures evaluate wealth, what expectations exist of those determined to be rich, and the complexities of how wealth disparities affect societal relationships. I highly recommend Dr Shaw’s book for anyone working in honour/shame cultures, even if they are not in the Middle East. It is a very thought-provoking book. Her chapter on patrons and clients is particularly insightful.

Her interviews continue to resonate with me as I seek to understand the deeper implications of wealth in the culture around me and how it differs from my experience growing up. I will mention just two questions that I have been thinking about in the past several months. 

What does it mean to be “rich” in a particular cultural context? 

Dr Shaw reports,

In a written survey I conducted, Lebanese respondents identified signs of being rich ranging from having billions of dollars to owning three dogs.

Wealth and Piety, p.21.

Even within one culture, there were many views. I began looking around my own neighbourhood—what does it mean to be “rich” here? For sure, the number of dogs owned does nothing to boost one’s credit score at my bank! In asking others around the world about indicators of wealth, some said owning your own home meant you were rich. Others pointed to whether you had a second home in a different location. In yet other cases, owning one car meant you were wealthy. Another stated it was having a second vehicle which tipped the scale. 

Not so long ago, a Westerner working cross-culturally was asked about his paystub by a co-worker. The Westerner said he never looked at the amount on his cheque. He then realized that implied that he did not have to stress about his income. This response indicated the Westerner had more wealth than his co-workers from another culture. 

Even without sharing one’s financial information, some will automatically see those from Western cultures as being rich. It is humbling to think that someone from another country may label me as wealthy just by seeing what country issued my passport. Having connections with wealthy people can also give the assumption that there is access to additional money, power and influence. 

Why is personal wealth up for public discussion?

Whether a culture is individualistic or collectivistic will often indicate how people display, share or talk about money. Digging into this concept has helped me understand my own cultural upbringing and the wealth narrative (or money story) that has developed in my life. Growing up in a North American individualistic context, asking about one’s salary could imply that one was indirectly questioning their personal worth. Imagine my surprise when someone from another culture asked me without hesitation how much money I made! I hemmed and hawed, my face turned red and I embarrassedly gave a clumsy answer. I didn’t return the question, which was most likely fully expected. In some collective cultures, it’s not shameful to have this direct conversation. For them, one’s paycheck is not at all tied to an individual’s value.

What have I learned?

In my brief investigation of what determines who is “rich,” there were a variety of answers. Wealth is not always a physical asset, but there is usually some thing, action, or association that is an observable and culturally-acceptable marker of being rich. 

As for talking about my personal finances, it turns out there are many situations where it’s totally appropriate to share my salary amount. It will take some practice to overcome my cultural baggage, so I will start by sharing with you now. 

For the record, I have zero dogs.

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