How do we talk about money (and debt) everyday?

When I first received the wonderful book The Language of Money and Debt, I was struck by the title.I’ve been thinking aloud about the language of money here on Enrichmentality since mid-2016. But I’d never considered the language of debt separately.

Debt, globally, is an enormous issue. In the UK, Kinloch, Little and Morawiec estimate that over 16% of the population are over-indebted. (At least three months behind with their bills in the last six months, or feel heavily burdened by debt).

Talking about money and debt

How we talk about money – and not having money or being indebted – is very important. Yet as Liz Moor points out in the same volume, sociolinguists still do not have a clear idea of how and why people talk about money, and, to what extent this talk of money and debt shapes their beliefs and behaviours.

Watch your language!

As a society, we tend to be preoccupied with the rich and the famous. We seem to believe rich people are ‘worth’ more than poor people.

Consider how we say a person who possesses a lot of wealth is ‘worth $5 million’. Yet, actually obtaining, building and holding on to wealth is ‘distasteful’.

As we discovered in the previous post in this series, being wealthy is often associated with generosity, and generosity with goodness. Meanwhile, poverty is associated with meanness, and meanness with badness.

Our language is important. As Sally McConnell-Ginet, and one of my former colleagues, Farzad Sharifian, highlight, we use language as a ‘cultural storehouse’ for our cultural cognitions and conceptual baggage.

Remember, rich people aren’t better than poor people

To explore these concepts in relation to money, debt and language, Mooney and Sifaki examined data from the Historical Thesaurus. They concluded that the word ‘mean’ was associated with small things. Small amounts. Closed or clenched body parts. Lower class. Poor/dirty appearance. Taking, keeping and holding.

Consider terms like ‘narrow hearted’, ‘tight arse’, ‘wretched’, ‘meany’ or ‘muck-raker’.

They contrast with much more positive terms like ‘big hearted’, ‘open handed’, ‘generous’, ‘bounteous’ or ‘handsome’ associated with wealth.

The authors conclude that

‘Being careful with money is not, for the most part, positively regarded. In contrast, being generous is associated with large amounts of matter, open hands, high birth and class, a positive appearance and moral character and the willingness to give rather than retain.’

Or, as they rephrase it ‘the collective conceptual baggage here suggests that to be rich is to be good and to be poor is to be bad’. This, Mooney and Sifaki suggest, is seen in the ongoing demonisation (and criminalisation) of the poor.

How much money you have is not a reflection of your true worth

Of course, as we know, neither poverty nor wealth is a guarantee of ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’. Nor is ‘meanness’ a more typical trait of the poor, or generosity of the wealthy. In fact, as The Millionaire Next Door and numerous social experiments reveal, the very wealthy can be among the meannest of people, and as multiple studies have shown, the poor tend to give away a greater portion of their money.

Many of us value ourselves relative to how much money we have. Often we even use talk about money as a metaphor to discuss other things. This includes our relationships, and our estimations of others. As Liz Morrish demonstrates, Neolibral thinking has  invaded so many spheres of everyday life – including the education system – that it is now taken-for-granted ‘that all conduct is economic and all spheres should be monetized’.

As many of the stories in the the children’s books in my previous post in this series seem to indicate, we tend to view those with money as good. Those without are supposedly bad. One study carried out by Maxwell and Aggleton, showed that privately educated young women refer to their parents’ wealth (and whether their families were ‘old money’ or ‘new money’) in order to distinguish themselves.

Nor is how much you don’t have

At the other end of the scale, Moor’s examination of the Mass Observation Archive (a repository of written observations of daily life by ordinary people) reveals that the opposite can be true too. Children can interpret a lack of parental spending as a lack of their own value. Especially where child support is concerned. As one respondent wrote

‘I think my father sent 10/- a week for my keep. I obviously wasn’t worth much – he never acknowledged me’.

Many parents try to hide their money worries from their kids, and even avoid discussing money with them entirely. However, research shows that children do often hear their parents arguing about money, and know when there are financial concerns in a family. These findings suggest children receive important messages about their own value (and that of others) from their parents’ money talk and behaviours. Worryingly, they may carry these views – whether of inflated importance, or self-depreciation – throughout their teens and even into adulthood.

Social services and money talk

The notion of debt, also, is deeply tied to ideas of morality. The discussions we have with bank employees or financial planners or welfare officers are unlike other institutional conversations in this sense. It is easy to feel judged when talking to others about money – and especially about debt. Hydén, quoted by Moor, highlights the moral sensitivity of money talk, emphasising that social workers should ensure interactions do not ‘result directly or indirectly in a questioning of the client’s moral character.’

Creditors and money talk

Anna Custers’ examination of debtors’ emotional reactions to communications with creditors highlights just how stressful indebtedness can be. One respondent, Elly, reported that the mere possibility of receiving a threat is stressful:

There is nothing more frightening than some day, you hear all these horror stories don’t you, about people knocking on your door, people ringing you up for money and, you know, getting into that trap.

For some people, Custers argues, it doesn’t even matter if they open an envelope or not. The mere arrival of an envelope in the mail (especially one with a window or red text, I would guess!) is enough to trigger the emotional responses associated with their debt problem.

Pressure from creditors evokes a range of emotions, from anger to worry and anxiety in debtors.  Precisely the emotions unscrupulous debt and money-managing services leverage to entice new clients. I remember seeing TV ads for one popular service in Australia which even used the sound of a phone urgently ringing to simulate the panic one might feel when expecting a creditor to ring. Even unburdened by consumer debt, the ads made me feel anxious. I can only imagine how they might make someone expecting a threatening call at any moment to feel.

Bringing it all together…

If you work in social services or finance or for creditors, remember the mere presence of an envelope with shouting red text or a clear envelope, the ring of a phone, or the mention of the word ‘debt’ can set a debtor into a downward spiral of negative emotions. Be careful with your language, and work towards a payment plan that works for both parties.

If you are a parent, consider the messages you are sending your kids not only about money, but about themselves through discussion of finances. Make it clear that how much you spend on them (a lot or a little) is not a judgement of their value. Children who receive more at Christmas are not inherently better than those who receive nothing. (Contrary to myth!)

If you are in debt, remember that there are many not-for-profit debt management and financial counselling services. Always check these before deciding to sign up for a for-profit service. While some customers of debt management services are happy, many end up worse off after paying all of the  associated fees and charges.

Furthermore, while any service which requires you to hand over control of your income and bills to another company may sound tempting to just forget about it all, you’ll never be in a position to learn if you never try it yourself.

If you’ve been avoiding your finances, check out this post. In the next post, we’ll take a look at the hands-down best way to pay off your debt. And it very likely isn’t what you think it is!

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2 thoughts on “How do we talk about money (and debt) everyday?

  1. Hi Sarah,
    Excellent post, as usual! If not done yet, a comparative study with other languages /cultures would be amazing, e.g. meaning of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in indo-européen langages vs. Asian, Arabic languages, etc.

    1. Thank you so much Nadine! That sounds like a very interesting study indeed.
      In a forthcoming post, I’ll look at some more research (published in the same volume) which examines the meanings of words close to ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’ in Kenya.
      The type of comparative study you suggest sounds fascinating!

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