In Europe I have heard the claim that Americans discuss money pretty much all of the time. According to the cliché, for example, Americans exchange salary figures over coffee, over beers, in the swimming pool, on the bus. Now, I am pretty sure that I know well over 1000 Americans and have been in long conversations with more than that. Yet, I know something about the earning power of maybe (just maybe) two of those 1000 people. Incidentally, in the case of one of the two people, the European husband disclosed to me the salary of his American wife. I also never knew my parent's salaries. And I know nothing about my mother's "wealth."
So, I keep trying to imagine the basis of the cliché or at least the basis of my ignorance of the cliché.
Regarding etiology, here are some possibilities:
Possibility 1: The cliché has evolved from the overly loud conversations of a relatively small number of American businessmen who do indeed talk about money on business trips, all the while oblivious to the reality that the people around them understand English.
Possibility 2: The cliché has evolved from the fact that in many European countries the drive to discuss money is expressed in an obsession with inheritance (la succession in French), which appears to them not to have anything to do with talking about money (but which to me has everything to do with talking about money).
Possibility 3: The drive to talk about money is proportional to the transparency of salary scales. American capitalism obscures the level of income associated with a particular occupation. In contrast, the French (as one example) seem to me to have memorized the monthly salary of the different levels of university professors and elementary school teachers (indeed, of most civil servants). Thus, except during strikes, there is no reason to disclose salary. Perhaps this is a larger phenomenon and the salaries even of people who are not civil servants are also transparent to the French. This might suppress overt discussions of money.
Regarding my ignorance, there are also some possibilities:
Possibility 1: Growing up in a family with primarily farming roots (e.g., my father’s was the first generation to go to college) has isolated me from discussions with the sorts of people who actually do talk about money. That is, if you ain’t got any, there ain’t any discussion.
Possibility 2: I have that Jewish grandmother way (despite being of Protestant stock) of bragging about how little things cost (“You like my outfit? Only five dollars at St Vinnies…and just a tiny stain in the back, you can hardly see it...”). It could be that this puts people off enough that they feel that disclosures about their money, or discussions about money in general, will not get a rise out of me. P.S. They are right.
Possibility 3: Over the many years of working in a non-meritocracy-based context (no further comment) I have developed an edge, a button-to-be-pressed, that causes people to be afraid to tell me about their money because I may ask them if they have actually earned it.
In the end, as always, the data will show. But personally, I think this is another one of those cases in which culture merely obscures something that is a powerful human drive.