Kate Fox
Watching the English

The English find 'doing business' awkward and embarrassing at least partly because of a deep-seated but utterly irrational distaste for money-talk of any kind. At some stage, business-talk inevitably involves money-talk. We are comfortable enough, allowing for our usual social inhibitions, with most of the other aspects of business discussions. As long as boasting or earnestness are not required, we'll talk reasonably happily about the details of the product or project, and pragmatic issues such as objectives, what needs to be done, how, where, by whom and so on. But when it comes to what we call 'the sordid subject of money,' we tend to become tongue-tied and uncomfortable. Some cover their embarrassment by joking; some by adopting a blustering, forthright, even aggressive manner; some become flustered and hurried, others may be over-polite and apologetic or prickly and defensive. You will not often see an English person entirely at ease when obliged to engage in money-talk. Some may appear brash and bullish, but this is often as much a symptom of dis-case as the nervous joking or apologetic manner.

A frustrated American immigrant told me that she had 'finally figured out that it is best to do all the financial negotiating in letters or emails. The English just can't talk about money face to face, you have to to do it in writing. In writing they're fine—they don't have to look you in the eye end they don't have to say all those dirty words out loud.' As soon as she said this, I realised that this is exactly how I have always managed to get round the problem myself. I am typically squeemishly English about money and when negotiating fees for consultancy work or trying to get research funding I will always try to put all those dirty words—money, cost, price, fees, payment, etc.—in writing rather than say them face to face or even on the telephone. (To be honest, I don't even like writing them, and usually try to cajole my long-suffering codirector into doing all the negotiating for me—with the feeble excuse that I am useless at maths.)

Being English, I had always rather taken it for granted that this avoidance of money-talk was normal, that everyone found it easier to discuss the taboo subject in writing, but my well-travelled informants were adamant that this is a peculiarly English problem. 'I never got this anywhere else in Europe,' said one. 'Everywhere else you can be up-front about money. They're not ashamed or embarrassed about it; you just talk normally, they don't try to skirt round it or feel they have to apologise or make a joke out of it—that's it, with the English you always get that sort of nervous laughter, someone always tries to make a joke out of it.'

The joking is of course another coping mechanism, our favourite way of dealing with anything we find frightening or uncomfortable or embarrassing. Even high-powered City bankers and brokers—people who have to talk about money all day long—are affected by the money-talk taboo. One merchant banker told me that some types of dealing and negotiating are OK because 'it's not real money,' but that when negotiating over his own fees he suffers from the same squeamish embarrassment as everyone else. Other City financiers echoed this, and explained that, like everyone else, money-men cope with embarrassment about money-talk by joking. When things go wrong, one of them told me, 'you'll say, "So, are we still on your Christmas-card list?"'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.