Many of us spend a fair amount of the day wondering what makes people tick. It is an amusing spectator sport, the stuff of daydreams, and hard to avoid in a world of inexplicable human behavior.
Here’s a little help in performing this pastime.
If you understand how a new acquaintance deals with money, sex, time, and food, you capture a lot about his essence. The same is true of your boss, your date, a co-worker. Anyone.
Let’s begin with MONEY. The dollar takes on layers of meaning beyond commercial exchange. I had a tall, thick-wristed uncle who lifted large checks off a restaurant table with ease and was always first to get to them. He wanted to be the “big guy,” the successful man with a reputation for generosity. He had a wad of bills in his pocket, as you see in a “man’s man” who wants to leave an impression. No pencil-necked, uncertain male need apply. Nor a “coupon-clipper” who, as Mike Ditka famously said about his boss, George Halas, “throws around nickles like (they are) manhole covers.”
Not coincidentally, Uncle Sam had been a poor kid during the Great Depression. I have a photo of him as a young man, banknotes pasted all over his body. Financial independence from his family must have been the making of him, his transformation from a boy to the man he wished to be.
To this good guy, money was about more than money.
Money and security turn up in the same sentences; so do money and risk taking. If you need a safety net woven out of greenbacks, you won’t take much risk. At least about your finances.
Financial transactions tell you about trust. Will you repay a loan? Can I trust you to manage my money? If I buy your car, will it perform as well as you say?
Dollars are used to influence and control. Will money make you do what I want if your salary bonus depends on it? Might I purchase your vote by making big contributions to your campaign? May/December romances — one spouse younger and the other much older — are sometimes barely disguised financial transactions.
Money has been known to burn a hole in one’s pocket, or so my dad used to say. Can you delay gratification? Are you a spend-thrift or a miser? Money, money, money.
Then there is the question of whether you give any of it away: to the homeless or to charity or even to others in your family. I’ve known parents who stole their kid’s college money, the opposite of a give-away. And then there are the mom and dad who fund a university odyssey long enough for the “child” to get two degrees, but ends without achieving one. The parents wanted the sheepskin more than their not-so-little lamb.
Currency tells you what you value: a big house, building a business, your children’s future. Or maybe a fast car and some nice clothes. Or making the world a better place. Money also tells you how much you value other things in comparison, especially the time it takes to earn it and the activities you prioritize above or below working for your wages.
Riches are a metric to gauge one’s relative standing in the world. We hear a famous athlete saying he is being “disrespected” when his team offers him a salary of only $10,000,000 per year. Objectively, there is no slight. But, if comparable sports heroes are getting $13,000,000 for the same work, perhaps he is on to something.
Money is a tease. At least in the USA, it promises happiness once you have enough of it. Yet most find there is never quite enough to reach this point. They keep looking for more, working for more. Perhaps money, then, is a kind of practical test of your wisdom and understanding of its real value. Johnny Carson said, “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.” Happiness will take something else. Carson, by the way, was not a happy man.
Larry Adler, the 20th century’s most famous harmonica player (a contradiction in terms) said, “You should always have enough F… YOU money.” In other words, enough money to allow for the freedom to say what you please — end a relationship with a boss or anyone else, no looking back. Too little gelt and most of us experience constraint of our actions; too much and we might believe we own the license to do things others won’t.
SEX! Beyond the biological urge to procreate — pushing, dragging, and demanding we get naked — sex takes on much extraneous meaning. I’ve already implied some people marry as a thinly disguised exchange of beauty and passion for money and status. Kind of like trading baseball cards, isn’t it? Of course, an older man with a “drop-dead-gorgeous” younger woman also acquires higher standing from her presence in his company. Perhaps this supports Wallace Stegner’s comment about romance not being of much concern to the “60s generation: “In their books, and perhaps in their lives too, love is about as romantic as a five-minute car wash.”
Now think about sexual allure as a measure of control. Some men envision sex as a kind of test — an encounter to determine whether he can bend a woman’s will and dominate her — get her to do what he wants. At the extreme such brutes seek humiliation, homage, and submission — sex that is in no way about love, but something else entirely.
Just as well, for more than a few women the allure of sexuality and the act itself are ways of manipulating men.
Victims of sexual abuse, once well past the violence, sometimes learn to use their attractiveness to control males. The goal is to dictate if, when, where, and how any physical contact will occur, so as to avoid assaults. They are trying to master the terror of their history.
No wonder we read about “sexual politics,” the likeness between political negotiations in the non-sexual world and those in the sexual marketplace. Sometimes sex is about sex, sometimes love, but sometimes resembles two sides across the bargaining table, looking for an agreement — a social contract.
Then comes the matter of intimacy and adequacy. Are you comfortable and unselfconscious in a sexual encounter, or closed off, fearful, deadened and inhibited?
There is a very old joke about the importance of sex in any relationship: if you put a coin into a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a match, and then remove a coin each time you have sex thereafter, you will never empty the jar! An exaggeration, of course, but the sexual candle tends not to burn with the same intensity late as it did early. Those who can’t imagine this need to spend a little more time on the planet. The process is called “hedonic adaptation,” meaning pleasure usually wanes, whether it is the delight of a new Christmas toy, a new car, or the consuming passion of lovers for whom the cellophane of freshness has not yet been broken.
Withholding of conjugal relations is not unheard of as the pages of love yellow, a passive-aggressive method of expressing anger; a way of conveying, “I’m unhappy,” slighted, or taken for granted.
Regarding adequacy, sex is a “performance” issue. We wonder if we are “good enough.” Too much focus on this, of course, makes performance impossible, especially for the man.
Sex*, like money, takes on a tape measure quality, evaluations and comparisons betraying insecurity and fear of rejection. In other words, self-esteem concerns are intermingled with the reproductive act.
There are people (women more often than men) who want intercourse daily to confirm their spouse still finds them attractive. Again, the fear of rejection or abandonment weighs on the sexual encounter.
Like money, sex morphs into things non-sexual. A shape-shifter.
I’m at a loss for TIME, which is the next topic on my list of items that tell us about personality. I’ll address TIME and FOOD in the coming essay. See you then.
*For additional psychological forms sex takes on, please read this: Sex and Its Functions.
The above image is Sexy Mouth by Nyki m. The final illustration is a Sex Stub from sexualni-pahyi.png: Akton. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.