Volume XVII, Number 1 Spring 2020
Many times I have had clients tell me that their friends and acquaintances know nothing about their financial resources or their family backgrounds. This includes their wealth creators, their yachts and jets, their family properties in exotic locations, their personal lives and net worth of family members, etc., etc. I’m told that their friends know nothing about all of this because they have told them nothing. They are wrong. Friends and interested people use the internet to search. They read; they talk. People figure stuff out and make assumptions. They make a lot of assumptions. These assumptions are mostly not even really about the client, but about financial wealth in general. It just seems like they are talking about the person who is the subject of the gossip. The assumptions reveal a lot about the gossiper, but it is almost impossible to remember this when you find out they are talking about you.
Here is a story that has just happened to me. I understand that assumptions may be made by those who know me, but I have just run right into a slew of assumptions made by someone who didn’t know me. (Some names and details are changed to preserve anonymity.)
About a year ago I started learning to play golf. Last summer I was finally able to play in the 9 Hole group at the club where we belong. If you have not organized to play with others, they put you in a foursome. So one day I found myself in a foursome playing with three ladies I didn’t know. One of them, Marla, and I both hit shots that landed right in front of a bunker along the front of a green. She said, “I used to jump horses, so I’ll just jump right over this bunker. It’s the same thing.” In response to which I asked, “Where did you jump horses?”
Then, after lunch I happened to be walking out to the parking lot with her. She said, “You mentioned your work. What kind of work do you do?” I told her, “I help wealthy individuals and families with their psychology; you know, better identity, relationships, communication, family dynamics.” “Oh,” she said, “wealthy individuals like Caroline Wright, who everyone from the horse world knows. She’s got tons of money.” I responded, “I don’t know…” because the name she dropped was one of my best friends even to this day, and I was shocked. I had never met Marla before. How did she pick that name out of thin air? She continued with, “Well, I know what you’re talking about.” To change the subject, I just asked her what kind of work she does, and she told me she sells a line of skin care products and would I like for her to show them to me? I agreed, and we set a date.
I thought about that conversation as I left. Caroline jumps horses and has for a long time. She also has had some visible and dramatic challenges in relationships. So, I guess that was how Marla made that leap, but still it seemed like a wildly inappropriate piece of gossip to share with me, or anyone.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and Marla came over to my house to show me her products. As we sat down, I asked her about her comment. How did she happen to bring up the name “Caroline” on that day when I met her? She started to explain, “Well everyone knows how much trouble Caroline has had in relationships and marriages. And it’s obvious there’s plenty of money; she spends it without a care in the world. I knew her when she was married to Bill and she had that ongoing affair with her horses’ vet. That’s one way to get an on-call vet 24/7. Everyone knew about that. She had a lot of marriages and affairs before that, too.” (Now I’m starting to get uncomfortable knowing that she doesn’t realize she is talking – no, gossiping - about my friend, and has no idea that it’s my friend.)
She went on, “She and some of those jump riders from years ago – they were all trust funders….” Here she pauses and I am speechless since I am one of Caroline’s friends from years ago, a “trust funder” myself, and she has no idea. She interprets my speechlessness as failure to understand the term “trust funders.” “…You know, trust fund babies. Their fathers were some big – I don’t know, railroad or lumber or something, they were in all those industries that built this town – one of her friends, her maiden name was Cheatham….” (Now I‘m wondering how to stop her; this has gone too far. She is talking fast.) She continues, “Yeah, one of Caroline’s friends has a non-profit where she helps people like them.”
That’s enough. I interrupt, “You don’t realize, do you, I am Caroline’s friend – the one who helps people like them?” Big pause. “No!” She says, “You’re wiggin’ me out! What?! Is your business a non-profit?” “No….” I considered clarifying but having gone way beyond the extent of my curiosity and with her realization of what she had just done, we both abruptly and uncomfortably abandoned that conversation to focus exclusively on her products.
Assumptions. Gossip. People talk. Don’t ever doubt that for a second. They talk. They will use the internet to figure out where you came from, and a lot of stuff about you in the present that may or may not even be true. But they think it’s true. And they don’t hesitate to tell all of this to others like it’s valuable information. Sometimes when they gossip they embellish, too, so the story gets more dramatic.
Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it - Jonathan Swift
By the way, when I asked Caroline about the woman who told me so much about her, and supposedly even me, she had no idea who this was, and had never even heard of Marla.
Does all of this privilege and wealth show? What shows without our even realizing it? One day I said to a client, “You have a certain kind of ease in the world and it shows.” It shows in miniscule ways at times, an offhand comment or the fact that you didn’t ask what something costs – a cost that someone else without money would definitely ask about. It doesn’t take an internet search for people to make assumptions about you; it can take just one small expression to reveal a privileged background. Not that a privileged background needs to be a secret, not at all. What’s important is to be aware of how you come across to others.
How about you? Do you honestly think no one knows anything about you and your family because you haven’t told them? If that’s what you think, you are fooling yourself. A more useful and effective practice is to manage your presence in the world. Get really good at exemplifying who you are and how you want to be perceived. Let the gossipers deal with that. Be aware and intentional. You can’t make anyone stop gossiping, but you can win by becoming exactly who you mean to be. Your greatest defense against gossip and your greatest offense in avoiding gossip’s stain is to live your life intentionally. Live the life you want people to talk about.
© 2020 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.