Faux-Shame Game: Men Who Mumble About Their Work

There is only one profession in Manhattan that is shyly professed, with downcast eyes. Those who practice it often issue a disclaimer: “Oh, me? You don’t want to know—I do something that’s not so interesting.”

They are not sex workers, or undertakers, or even criminals.

They are in finance. The higher their real or perceived income, the greater their bashfulness. Commercial bankers admit it outright; investment bankers lower their voices. And those in private equity or hedge funds are the most reticent.

“Well, I work on Wall Street. Finance.” (Nervous laugh.) “It’s boring.”

“Where?”

“Oh, it’s a small place—you wouldn’t have heard of it. Private equity.”

In my 25 years’ experience of New York life, there’s always been a bit of this profession evasion—but as the incomes of Wall Streeters have soared, bashfulness has too. For 18 months in 1980 to ’82, I worked as a lowly analyst in corporate finance at a second-tier investment bank. When I met other people in banking, there might have been a bit of mutual hesitation to ’fess up. But less than now. It’s possible that this was because, at that time, I still hung out mainly with other recent Harvard grads, who tended to go into banking, law or medicine.

This bashfulness, come to think of it, reminds me of the famous reticence of Harvard students and grads. When I entered Harvard in the fall of 1975, I quickly learned to tell outsiders that I went to school “near Boston.” Harvard students didn’t put Harvard stickers on their cars (not that having a car was even remotely an option for me), or wear Harvard T-shirts or athletic clothes in the outside world. And as even a hick from provincial New Jersey like myself realized, this reticence was pure snobbery.

As is the Shame of Finance. The job mumble is really a signal, like a trendy watch or a country home, that the man in question is very important: No man expresses faux shame about status indicators that don’t matter to him.

Guys who simper about having gone to high school “in New Hampshire” drive me especially crazy—this was high school, after all. If he’s over 40 (as, regrettably, he sometimes is), I snap: “Which one? My brother went to Exeter.” As with Wall Street, the only way to get the revelation is to mention one’s own insider status. I’m less and less eager to do that with the Harvard connection, because it means revealing my antediluvian graduation year. But I can usually get away with: “I used to work on Wall Street myself—you can tell me what you do!”

At first, I thought that these men—and the faux-shame people are almost always men—were reacting to my being a woman. Maybe they were trying to impress me. Or maybe they were afraid that I might be a gold-digger. I decided to ask my friend John, a managing director in corporate finance and a man about town.

“Maybe we feel very conscious about doing something which is very lucrative but which will not appear sexy to a woman,” John said. “You don’t want to appear boring.”

But aren’t interesting people found in all kinds of occupations?

“People in capital markets really are boring,” he said. “The guys who are hunched over a computer screen all day looking for market inefficiencies are not the best conversation in town. People who do M&A work have better people skills.” (John does M&A.)

I wanted to know what the reaction of most women was when they found out John’s little secret.

“They’re quite happy, because they know you can take them out to dinner!”

How cagey is John when he meets another guy socially whom he suspects might be in finance? In my experience, there is nothing quite like the mutual embarrassment of two men who discover—especially on a beach or in an unlikely overseas destination—that they are both in private equity.

“It depends,” he said. “You can usually sense that they’re in finance. I don’t know how this is, because lawyers and bankers, for example, don’t dress that differently. Maybe it’s in the body language. And you want to be careful how you present yourself, because the man you’re meeting might turn out to be the head of investment banking at Goldman.”

“Someone who’s a financial success has an ego which is easily recognizable,” a young hedge-fund V.P. says. “Although today in New York, what’s so different from saying, ‘I am in production or film?’ But let’s not fool ourselves—people in production and film conjure up sexy images for the girls and are inherently attractive.”

The shame is false, but sometimes there is real guilt underneath—guilt about not doing very much to justify one’s enormous income. Or so the close cousins of these bankers—corporate lawyers—seem to think.

“These people are not necessarily very smart,” one female lawyer I know observed. “What they earn is out of proportion to the effort or risk they take.” Another, herself at the top of her profession, was more acid. “Snobbery, perhaps, for those that convince themselves they’re actually worth all the Monopoly money they’re paid,” she said. “But for some, there’s also a certain discomfort with trumpeting oneself as Willy Loman writ large. I find that the dumber they are, the more sure they are they’re worth every penny, while the smarter ones—especially the women—are embarrassed about what they earn.” (That raises a lot of other issues: For women, it’s not necessarily sexy to be perceived as very high-earning.)

A much older male friend offered what might be the best explanation for the dance of the managing directors. “The evasion is meant to motivate you to ask the next question,” he said. “And they don’t take that long to get to the point. If you don’t recognize the name of the firm when they finally spill the beans, it means you’re not worth talking to—you don’t know who they are.”

So, gamesmen to the core, they play a not very lengthy game to see if you will be impressed enough with their earning power to do whatever it is they want you to do. It’s one of those maneuvers that work best when you start training for it young, like telling people you went to boarding school “in New England.”

Ann Marlowe is the author of two memoirs, How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z and The Book of Trouble: A Romance, which was published in February.