Talking about money

Yesterday, my Language and Society class watched John Gumperz’ Cross Talk I and II, which, because I am also now teaching the Proseminar made for an entirely different viewing experience.  I saw these interactions through a professional development lens, with an eye to what I can teach my students about what aspects of their own culture are likely to become salient in interactions as part of their job search.

In Cross Talk I, we see individuals interacting in various settings (at a bank, at a social services interview, at a job interview), and I saw many of the themes that we have been discussing in class, and which I have been blogging about here relating to the unwritten assumptions with which we operate in the job search, including the fatal flaw of not shifting your deictic center to put yourself into the pov of your interviewer, showing them that you are approaching the interview by thinking about the organization’s needs and how you fit in.  But in Cross Talk II, which portrays some of the various negotiations which take place in the work context (performance appraisals, salary negotiations) I saw an instantiation of “talking about money” which led me to a bit of a revelation of my own.  In the role-play featuring a Vietnamese employee’s salary negotiation with her boss, when the boss asked her point blank “how much of a raise are you expecting this year?” the employee had a very difficult time answering.  The narrator observed that members of Korean culture may operate with the assumption that “people in power are supposed to understand what you want and need,” and I recognized myself in that observation.  I have long known that it is very hard for me to talk about money, and that of course, it is likely a product of my cultural background and upbringing, but this was the first time that I also thought about framing it as a linguistic problem, on which we can bring our skills and training to bear, as I will now consider:

There are many reasons why it may be difficult to talk about money.  The first may well be that for students, much of our socialization involves an implicit assumption that people in power understand what you want and need.  The “boss knows best” seems particularly salient as a characterization of the relationship between students and administration in the Humanities model, and when you have been a student for years into adulthood, and have been very grateful to have been accepted in the first place, and then to be given good grades, and if you are especially lucky, fellowships, and research opportunities, you may operate within this mode of thinking for years and have been given little opportunity to examine this assumption, much less practice having such difficult conversations which may challenge it.

Money as Topic

One of the first things that jumped out at me during my first days of observing at the Business school was that money was so openly discussed.  Deborah Tannen’s classic work Conversational Style teaches us that the choice of topics to be discussed can be just as much as aspect of style as can one’s use of overlap, and I recognized that talk about money was taboo in many if not all of the cultures in which I currently operate.  Certainly in my own family, talking about money was indicative of thinking about money, which carried the meaning of in our house, admittedly an extreme one, of irreligiousity, you only need to hear “consider the lilies of the field” but so many times as a child to get the message that if you are thinking about money, you had best not talk about it.  And there are many other reasons why we avoid talking about money in everyday life.  Granted, mine is an extreme example, but when we were younger, when none of us had any, we could talk and joke about money, but as we grow up, the personal risks of such conversations may become too great.  Certainly, professionally most of us have learned to operate within a modus operandi of “don’t ask don’t tell.”  It only takes one bitter situation in which such information known cannot be unknown to learn to just avoid the topic entirely.

But we do have to be prepared to talk about money in the job interview context.  What you want, and more importantly, what you need.  If you don’t ask at the beginning, you will continue to be behind, because every subsequent increase will only be based on where you started, so to prepare yourself for that negotiation….and you will likely not be surprised to hear me say what I am about to say here….. you need to do your research!!

What do people in my field make?

Figure out what the expected salaries are for your industry.  This can be a topic in your informational interviews, it is something to ask of alum, of friends, family, your dentist, back to the golden rules of networking, but remember to always ask in terms of range (see below).  You may also wish to avoid asking what they make and instead ask “what should I expect to see in terms of salary?”  There are also a number of websites where you can research salary:


GuideStar – National Database of Nonprofit Organizations (see tax returns)

Hoover’s Online Salary Resources

JobStar Central Salary Resources

LegiStorm – Congressional Staff Salaries

The Riley Guide – Salary Resources


What do I make?

Figure out what you have been making (if you need to, multiply out the hourly rate that you are being paid times 40 hours a week x 52 weeks a year).  Figure out what you need to be making (based on your loans, your debts, the cost of living).

What am I worth?

Figure out what your skills and training are worth, not just to you but also to the organization.  Thinking about where your skills and training fit in will have been part of your process all along, but here is where you can map it out in nuts and bolts.  If they hire you, what are the measurable outcomes? Are there ways that having you on board will increase the bottom line?  Where is your value add?  What is their opportunity cost of they do not hire you?  Adopt their terminology, to the extent that you have learned it over the course of your jobsearch.

Talk in terms of range.

I have often read that in a salary negotiation, you should never be the first person to mention a number, but I have found this to be very difficult in practice.  As discussed above, I have very little experience, and much baggage when it comes to talking about money, so the advice is always to talk in terms of RANGES.  What range can they offer you?  What range can you accept?  What is your floor?

Use silence strategically

As linguists, we know how to be aware of silence and not be afraid of it.  Be silent about salary (if possible) until after an offer has been made to you, that is when you have the most leverage.  Be silent after you have stated your range and supported it with evidence for why you are worth that.  If there is silence, some people may rush in to fill it.  I have even heard anecdotally, that in cross-cultural negotiations, bosses may in fact be so uncomfortable with silence that they may rush in to supply larger numbers to fill the void.   Either way, increase your awareness of and comfort with this kind of silence, and break the kind that can impede you from getting what you deserve!!!

……and be sure to let me know how it all works out !!!!

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