If it’s the holiday season and I say “miser,” what name comes to mind? (No, not your cheapskate Uncle Joe, we’ll get to him later.)
I’ll bet it’s Scrooge.
Misers have been some of the most despicable characters in literature, with numerous warnings about not becoming one even found in the Bible and the Koran.
“Reggie,” a Chicago attorney, emailed, “Dennis, you are something like the Dear Abby of the legal world, and I have a real doozy for you. A new attorney has just been hired in our small office. If we all go to a restaurant, she refuses to leave a tip, swipes packages of Equal from the table and once brought her own food! She will never pick up the tab even though the rest of us take turns treating.“She earns over $200,000 a year, yet refuses to participate in our financial support of a homeless shelter and boasts of not giving to any cause. When the office caters lunch, she is the first person in line, taking enough food to feed three people. This is creating a toxic atmosphere. Have you got an idea on how to deal her? What makes a person become a miser?”
Just as Dear Abby has her consultants, I’ve got mine, and to answer Reggie’s question, I turned to a friend of this column, Dr. Art Markman, professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.
“While we think there is some genetic influence, life experience — learned behavior — has a great deal to do with it,” Markman points out. “Just think of the whole generation who went through the great depression as children. Many of them were very anxious about money for the rest of their lives, terrified of not having enough no matter how much they actually had — then transmitting that anxiety to their children and on it went generation after generation.
“When you have a strong anxiety like that it is natural to engage in a behavior to keep those feelings at bay. For some people, knowing that they have money is more important than spending the money on anything.
“These behaviors do not make sense from the outside, but they make perfect sense from the standpoint of ‘If I don’t do this — if I don’t save, save, save, ‘then the level of anxiety I experience could really be debilitating.’ ”
Reggie’s email clearly revealed a huge amount of resentment being brewed by this new attorney’s behavior. I got the feeling that before her arrival, Reggie’s law office was like a family where no one kept score of who paid for what, but now, everyone was and they do not like it. Markman agreed.
“Families and small offices have a lot of very positive things in common. But where you have a user, a taker, a miser as in this Chicago law firm — just as you would in almost any family — her behavior would create a huge amount of resentment.
“Families are interesting because it’s the place where you are not supposed to keep score. For example, parents do and do and do for their kids and never send them a bill.
“However, as the family gets extended — uncles, aunts, cousins — and there is a member who consistently takes stuff from other people and doesn’t give despite the fact we know they can give — it becomes a big problem and causes a lot of tension in the family. You don’t want to keep score, but can’t help but keep score.
“So, your Uncle Joe and his wife drive across the country to spend winter in Arizona, staying with relatives along the way for two or three days at a time and there is never an offer to take them out to dinner, or to bring them some kind of a ‘Thank-you for hosting us gift.’ When a frustrated relative calls them out for their stinginess, Joe says, ‘What do I give to someone who has everything?’“This shows a level of disrespect and a lack of acknowledgment for what’s been done for you. When you have the resources it is disrespectful not to contribute in some way towards the overall situation.”
What can Reggie do?
I asked Markman, “So how can Reggie keep his cool and tackle this problem?” He set out three options:
1. Start keeping score. If they go out to lunch together, just hand her the check and say, “It’s your turn to pay.”
2. Stop dealing with her altogether on anything social — quit inviting her.
3. Just accept that she is wacky and ignore her behavior.