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Why Men Brag About Their Salaries, Part 2

Posts from our ongoing association with the wizened old gender warriors at The Atlantic. Theodore’s first salvo on salary bragging is here. Read all of our previous topics for The Atlantic here.

My six-year-old daughter has an old friend—in as much as first graders can have old friends—who is a boy who used to live in Brooklyn but moved west. He visited again recently, and after a long absence, they fell to discussing something that has suddenly become important to them: money.

“I have $75,” said the boy, a statement that his mother later verified as true.

“Oh, that’s funny. I have $68,” said my daughter, a statement that was categorically false. Even after Santa delivered that bag of real gold she asked for (ten Sacagawea dollar coins in a little satchel, as it turned out), she still doesn’t have more than $25 to her name. But the old friends just turned to each other and laughed. “We have SO much money,” they said one after the other.

The last time they saw each other, they really didn’t feel this way about money. Yes, she’s had a half-full piggy bank on her nightstand for years, but this thing of talking a lot about money, and this magical thinking (read: lying) about how much money she has is new. Watching them made me think that salary bragging might be an actual developmental step. Kids are often braggarts, which seems—if I can indulge in some armchair psychiatry—like a useful shield for them as they start to look around and see just how little they are capable of in the adult world.

The leap from piggy-bank fibbing to salary-bragging is a natural one. At an older age, it is still the defense of the braggart, particularly of men who are ever-aware that they have less and earn less and are less than others on this earth. But I’ll say this about salary bragging and six-year-olds: as with so many social and cognitive milestones, young girls are simply a little more advanced than the boys.

Why Men Brag About Their Salaries, Part 1

Posts from our ongoing association with the wizened old gender warriors at The Atlantic. Read all of our previous pieces here

Let me begin by copping to a gender-specific failing: The shopping duties in my household do not fall to me. I did not select our furniture, although I have, on occasion, been required to accompany my wife, Tomoko, on her forays to outlets big-box and small as she determines the future of our seating. I had no say whatsoever in the plates or flatware. When Tomoko first moved in with me, she banished the sheets and pillowcases (bought by my mother at the time of my separation from my first wife), replaced the drapes, and undertook the purchase of clothes needed for the children. I grocery shop, ferry our dependents to the sites of their education and entertainment; ensure the continuing good health of our cat, dog, and car; cut checks from bank accounts as directed; and am responsible for sundry other tasks, chores, and obligations too varied and boring to mention. What weight there is in our home, I pull my fair share of. But shopping I avoid.

All of which helps explain my lack of familiarity with CouponCodes4u, a consumer website that recently conducted a survey of the dynamics of female-male workplace behavior. To wit: 2,671 office-working Americans were (Fine print alert: the survey also included the mysterious labor population not toiling in-office but “an environment with other colleagues.”) asked if they ever discussed their salaries with co-workers. Fifty three percent of male survey respondents admitted to having done so, compared to only 15 percent of female respondents. Of those women unwilling to disclose the size of their, uh, salary, nearly a third said it was because they feared their colleagues earned more than they did. Oddly, another 22 percent said they showed discretion about their pay because they believed they earned more than others.

In those workplaces from which I’ve been fired (basically all of them, but for the current one), chitchat about paychecks hasn’t tracked along gender lines: Either everyone talked about it, or no one did, with the most significant correlation being the overall rates of pay. That is, the more everyone made, male or female, the less the subject was discussed. There’s much to be made of that, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll focus on one problematic observation, given what is known of female-male compensation balance in the U.S. Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show women’s earnings still reach only 80 percent of their male counterparts. The disparity decreases in the relatively educated workplaces silly enough to pay me, but does not—as yet, one hopes—approach true equity. That suggests that if women earn less, one should expect them to talk about money more, in amounts proportionate to the total pay. For example, in the offices of my more parsimonious former employers, ones in which everyone complained of their pay, women should have done with greater frequency, as they were likely earning less than the men. That didn’t happen, though, not to me, and not on the survey.

Pseudo-scientific studies, and myopic opinions based only on personal experience, rarely account for the complexities of actual human interaction. Here’s one factor I believe accounted for by neither the survey nor my sexist judgments: Most women are more polite in the workplace than men. That doesn’t make for superior employees, necessarily; nor does such propriety equate with elevated character. Women just tend to be on better behavior. Dirty jokes; sexual harassment both overt and implied; acts of violence—these are all typically (although not always) the purview of the working male rather than his under-compensated female workmate. If that is true—and who knows if it is—it seems logical, then, that men would be more likely to discuss their pay, a practice that while, if not wrong, is undoubtedly rude.

Male competitive norms may play a part. The survey, for example, found that 55 percent of men who discussed their salary acknowledged being motivated by the “bragging rights.” Bully for any dudes clearing enough to strut about it—as demonstrated earlier on this site, the brain trust of DadWagon has never been so favored. At one former job, however, I happened to work with several fellows lucky enough to have book deals, myself included. The size, heft, and dollar value of those publishing contracts was no secret, and short of whipping out our peckers and measuring, I can’t think of a clearer attempt at securing bragging rights. If women engage in comparable displays of peacockery, I’ve yet to witness it.

In truth, though, the survey indicates more about the sexism extant in our work culture than anything having to do with displaced male locker room bravado. Generally, men enjoy a greater sense of empowerment in the workplace than women. We will, I imagine, continue to feel so, until pay equity has been achieved, if ever it is. Men talk about their salaries because, like most forms of boorishness, they can. Come the day that women achieve fiscal equality with men at work, I’d wager the gender kinetics of this very slim issue will change, although in which direction—more talk or less—I’m uncertain. Until then, when it comes to workplace piggery, men will, as ever, dominate.

New Year’s, Almost

Kids can, at least, appreciate blowing shit up

I have no idea why we would be motivated to do this, but we tried to get our kids to make it to midnight. Sure, they aren’t all that different from other partygoers: like any hard-swilling hipster worth his salt, a kid might cry or wet himself during a particularly long party. But stretching a first-grader to midnight is a dubious plan, not least because of this fact:

They have very little sense of time.

I’m not just talking about 7pm versus 10pm versus midnight. Clearly the child-mind gets hazy about what clocks mean around bedtime anyhow.

But the bigger issue, New Year’s Eve as a holiday is entirely predicated on having made the developmental leap into understanding time in general, and specifically the passage of time. This makes it a challenging milestone for small kids. Christmas is easy: it’s just another birthday party. Channukah is understandable (if weird—kids who are growing up around smartphones probably can’t relate to the miracles of lamp-oil). Even death-centric Easter makes sense, at least to kids who have lost a grandparent or a pet, though one could ask rightfully what the hell a rabbit has to do with the death and also, while we’re at it, why grandma isn’t able to rise from the dead like Christ if that is really the Easter story.

But New Year’s Eve has got to be a strange thing indeed to someone who really doesn’t understand was 2012 was. So while I puzzled over how Carson Daly ever got a job working in television, my daughter chewed over the concepts of time and remembrance in her head, and ended up not really caring that much. Not yet, anyhow.

Which was for the best, in the end. Because her and her preschool son weren’t fated to make it to midnight anyway. They crashed around 10:30pm, and then slept through the fireworks and faint whoohooing from the street and the NYPD sirens and all the other things that make New York on New Year’s an assault on the senses. It was still a party—with two friends their age staying and their mother staying over with us from out of town, it was actually a monumental chocolate-eating pillow-fighting, milk-guzzling blowout. But they just didn’t trouble themselves with why they were partying, or why we didn’t care if they slept or not, or what 2013 will even be about.

I’m not often jealous of my kids, but I was last night. It’s a beautiful thing, to not be able to size up 2012 in any way or to form any anxieties about 2013. We should all be so lucky.


Originally posted at The Atlantic

I just got back a couple days ago from a reporting trip to the Western Cape of South Africa, which included some time with farmworkers mourning the death of Michael Daniels, a young father shot dead by police during a wage protest. There was a visitation of the body, a politically charged funeral, a graveside sermon and afterwards, a traditional meal—the after tears, it’s called—back at the deceased’s house. For the adults, it was grilled chicken and rice, and for the children, it was an African version of Irish stew, which means a runny plate of boiled potatoes, carrots and peas.

“Only the adults get meat,” one of Daniels’s friends told me. “Children won’t get chicken until they’re 11 or 12.”

In the poor farmlands of the Western Cape, then, this is at least one definition of adulthood: you get chicken.Back in the States, there are few such bright lines. Children eat chicken, adults eat popsicles and drink fizzy drinks, and as Christopher Noxon pointed out in his highly entertaining book Rejuvenile, Disney World is the world’s top vacation spot for adults (that means, without kids in tow).

All this self-infantilizing, of course, has everything to do with the main difference between us Rejuveniles and, say, African farmworkers: We are wealthy and idle enough to delay adulthood, or even, god forbid, write posts on the Internet about the onset of adulthood.

Further contributors to the confusion: We have this wealth but lack any unifying customs. We don’t have something like a toga virilis, the chalk-white robe Romans wore to mark manhood after it was time to offer their childhood amulets up to household gods. A suit and tie is a close approximation, I suppose, whether you’re the managing director of Bain Capital or a shift manager at Applebee’s. But still, for those of us who eschew Jewish or Wiccan or Catholic rites of passage, and who don’t have to get dressed to work, it’s up to us to define what manhood is and when it happens.

And on that score, I have no answers. I wake, I eat, I try not to lose my temper at my lovely children, and then I travel for work to places where I’m absolutely sandblasted by the miseries and occasional joys of others. Life is full and enervating and confusing enough without trying to wedge a definition of manhood into it. Case in point: on the nearly 16-hour flight back to New York from South Africa, I spent some time going through my notes, and even more time playing a boxing game on my iPhone. Does that make me a child? A man-child? A rejuvenile? I don’t know. But when the dinner cart finally made it to the back of the plane where I sat, I ordered the chicken, whether or not I deserved it.


One recent Monday morning, I was telling a co-worker about my weekend: There had been a playdate with my daughter, Sasha, and one of her friends, and I’d been having some trouble with my apartment’s hot-water heater, and I’d gone shopping at the farmers’ market for vegetables for the week. All in all, nothing special. Just a typical Brooklyn weekend.

But for my co-worker, this was amazing. “You’re a real grown-up!” she said.

I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I’m still relatively new to the working world. After freelancing for the last eight years, I’ve only just taken a full-time job—and it’s one where I’m at least a decade older than almost everyone on my team. At the age of 38, married, with kids, a mortgage, a beard, and a receding hairline, I suppose I must really seem like an adult to them.

If only I seemed like that to myself! Though I never wanted to be one of those much-derided man-children loafing around Brooklyn coffee shops—“grups,” New York magazine dubbed them—I was never all that eager to embrace the traditional outward markers of adulthood: suit and tie, office job, lightless dead eyes. And in truth, I’d always felt like a child. The sense of smallness and powerlessness that are a child’s everyday experience had never fully left me. When I’d look at my own father, a tenured history professor, I could never imagine becoming like him. And when I looked at kids, I felt nothing but sympathy—I know what you’re going through—and imagined they were looking at me and thinking, Dude, you look older, but I see through you; you’re just like me.

Still, degree by degree, things shifted. Six years ago, I grew a beard, mostly because, clean-shaven, I looked like I was still 17 years old. I invested in some good shirts and stylish blazers—not office-drone garb, but clothes I felt comfortable in. And, of course, I got married and had kids and bought an apartment. Inside, I felt no different from before—small, nervous, new to everything—but apparently I was. Or, quite possibly, the world was different, not in its essence but in how it viewed me. My own children, for example, will never see me as anything but a grown-up, and as they age, the kids of her generation will see me that way, too. One day, my daughters may look at me as I looked at my own father, and think: How am I ever going to become that?

The secret (which is only a secret to those still too young to have experienced it) is that adulthood is not something we consciously embrace, a set of rules we one day agree to follow. It’s a set of perceptions and assumptions that everyone has about us, though we may still feel like children inside. How the hell did I become an adult? It’s because the young people at my office decided I was. And one day, 10 or 15 years from now, it’ll happen to them, too. We all grow up, whether we want to or not.


Life with my second wife began not with a cinematic meet-cute but a brisk phone call, during which I explained that ours would be a part-time dalliance. I was divorced, or nearly so, at any rate, and had a child who lived with me half of every week. (Joint physical and legal custody—a phrase only a divorced father could love! My son was young enough to fall under the so-called Tender Years Doctrine, which presumes that fit mothers are entitled to full custody of children under five, a judicial bias that supposedly no longer exists, but that my attorney assured me most certainly does, and which my ex, to her credit, never attempted to exploit.) Because I didn’t introduce casual dates to my son, Tomoko would have to be comfortable with an amorous schedule governed by the my night/her night dichotomy under which I lived.

These terms, I added, were non-negotiable, and it was up to her to accept them or not. Question her sanity, if you must, but she consented, and so we strolled in the park when I had time, explored the city when I was free, caught movies on the nights I wasn’t needed as a father.

Eventually, Tomoko invited me to meet her friends, a group of childless, 30-something singletons with whom she shared a summer home on Fire Island. They came each Sunday for an early dinner, and Tomoko warmly and maternally fed them, sat for their tales of dating woe, and provided a focal point for their lives.

It was a tricky occasion. I would be offering myself up for inspection by a clique of protective and well-meaning independents, all of whom, I imagined, would expect copies of a recent resume and credit report, a list of references, my genetic particulars, plus a non-refundable application fee, before deeming me a suitable match. I decided that I wouldn’t have it. A grown man, with a child, ex-wife, mortgage, dog, car, and an attorney vacationing lavishly on his $50,000 in legal fees, need ask for no one’s approval.

The night went well. The friends proved fine people, funny and harried and acerbic in the way of New Yorkers, and not nearly as scrutinizing as I had feared. And it was true: I didn’t need their approval—they needed mine. Tomoko and I shared that sense of mutual possession that comes with falling in love. She was with me, we were alone together among people, and I was entitled to resolve their value rather than the other way round.

What does any of this have to be with being an adult? Well, that night after dinner I entered into a lengthy discussion with one of Tomoko’s friends about his efforts to purchase a couch. He was a finance guy of some sort, successful enough, with money to waste on a couple of sports cars and an apartment in Manhattan. It turned out that he’d been at this for months. He just couldn’t decide—what style, what fabric, which size, never mind color—the whole thing, he said, was bedeviling him no end. This commitment, this furniture, represented a stark and binary choice (sectional or no?) that would irrevocably alter the course of his life. He could not, in good conscience, take it lightly.

The conversation spun me from the room. I nodded with sympathy, but my mind was with my son who was spending yet another night without me. As Tomoko’s friend wrestled with the vexatious dilemma of a two-pillow or three-pillow existence, I obsessed over babysitters and pediatricians and the punitive costs of daycare. I wanted to grab him by throat and shout, Grow up! It’s just a couch!

Which it was, and I didn’t. Wouldn’t be the adult thing to do. Instead, I sipped my wine, slipped an arm around Tomoko, and with self-congratulatory condescension, surveyed him from the remove of what I will allow myself to call the real world.

It wasn’t long after that I introduced Tomoko to my son. Soon, we moved in together, commingling our lives in ways that made irrelevant whether it was “my night.”


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