On Money, Shame and Class

“Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and existence; the essence dominates him and he worships it.” – Marx

For the past year, I have worked as a math tutor to pay (some of) the bill. I worked with high school students, undergraduates (mostly calc 1 and 2), and graduate students (mostly in intro stats classes). One interesting thing I noticed this year was the variability in how people preferred to pay and, more interestingly, the affect associated with that act. For example, some students preferred to give a check each time, and had pre-filled out the check with the amounts and such before meeting. Others paid in crumpled up bills kept in a separate pocket during the tutoring session. With a larger sample, I would love to see what the correlates are, but I have a guess already: class plays a big role.

Let me explain with a key example. One of the students I worked with was a sophomore in high school in an advanced algebra class. For convenience, we met at the student’s house, and the student’s parents were often present for at least some of the time. The parents always paid in cash, but nine times out of ten they put the cash in an envelope, sealed the envelope and put my name on it. Once or twice they put the money in the envelope in my presence, having forgotten to do so earlier. Why? I’m not in any way certain, but I feel like the family’s background (they live in a nice part of town, have three cars, both parents have at least college degrees and work professional jobs with a lot of time flexibility for raising children, etc.) might play a role. There’s something dirty about handing cash to someone for providing a service, especially a sort of professional service (math tutoring) by a professional (in training anyway). So, in order to someone shroud this transaction, the parents put the money in a sealed envelope.

It’s possible that they simply do not want their child to know how much tutoring costs. This explanation seems unlikely to me, but not impossible. Still, that would not really undermine my proto-theory as much as complicate it.

That’s all I’ve got. Back to reading Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay by Charles Perrow.

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1 Comment

  1. That also reminds me of the distinct middle to upper-class distaste for haggling. Also, the tendency to feel uncomfortable tipping people if you have to give them the money in person. This can even extend to a distaste for taking cabs because you actually have to hand over the money later.