Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Affluenza and Schadenfreude: Not a Pretty Picture

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dear Miss Manners:

My husband of 15 years and I have been responsible with our finances, and our small but nice home is well below what we can afford. We live in an affluent area with numerous high-priced homes.

Throughout the years, I have had to endure snobby put-downs from neighbors about our house and the cars we drive, etc.

With the downturn in the economy, things are tough for a lot of our neighbors. Conversations with them inevitably turn toward finances. They are worried about losing their jobs and their businesses being slow.

I simply state that things are not bad for us, and I'm not worried. The "neighbors" then state that I am being foolish and I should be grateful for having a job. I state that we have not drowned ourselves in debt and have a mortgage we can easily afford.

That usually ends our conversation, which is funny since I didn't hold it against them when they made statements I felt were unkind. Do I need to be less blunt or make up some feigned concern over finances to keep small talking with these people? My husband is able to keep the conversation neutral, I am not so glib.

See what happens when a society decides that it has the power to declare etiquette rules defunct?

Miss Manners reminds you (and everybody else) that etiquette has never rescinded the rule against discussing money under social circumstances. Doing so never leads to any good. (This does not exclude seeking private financial or shopping advice from friends; the idea is to discourage nosiness, bragging and put-downs.)

Yet, as the society grew crasser, a condition its promoters describe as "open and honest," comparing prices has became a staple of social conversation:

"I bet those shoes set you back a bundle."

"We got an incredible bargain on this flight. How much did you pay?"

"How can you afford that on what you must make?"

"Come on, you can donate more than that -- I know what that car must have cost."

And so on. You should never be drawn into such talk. If your snobbish neighbors are now telling you their financial troubles, you need only reply that you are sorry and hope things get better, and answer any impertinent warnings with, "I'm sure you wish us well, too."

You may have to practice not looking self-satisfied when you say this.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2009 Judith Martin