I know this one is going to spark off controversy, so here comes the disclaimer: this is just my personal opinion, which I have formed from my own observations. However, I would be most interested in hearing about your experiences.
Many years ago, my friend Sue, who is one of the most precious people in my life, said to me, "Money is the most important thing in the world."
As a then undergraduate at the University of Durham department of thespian pursuits, black tie dinners, madrigals by the river, and a soupçon of academic work, everything in my mind and soul disagreed with Sue's statement. I just looked upon her as an example of the many cynical adults I would always be too good to grow into.
Now, two decades later, although I all too often find myself hating money for eluding me (let's face it – if it allowed itself to be caught by me, hatred would turn into instant love), I find myself considering money with the utmost respect. Respect, because of the lesson it imparts about my fellow humans. If we think of it, money is the only exchange currency we all – no matter which corner of the globe we come from – have in common. Whether we have excess of it, or are suffering through its lack, it binds and connects us all. Different languages, religions, climates and cultures may hinder communication, but money provides the code we can all interpret and relate to. It is the Harlequin dressed in a costume made up of a lozenge from every flag on the planet.
At this point, I am not interested in debating whether money does or does not buy happiness; or whether it is or not a root of evil. Money is impersonal, and has no power per se. It is like the magic wand which destroys at the hands of the evil wizard, but creates at the hands of the good magician. Blaming money for ruining the world, is like blaming the computer – forgetting it was programmed by a human in the first place.
We can learn so much about another person not by sneaking a preview at his or her bank balance, but by observing his or her relationship with money. Their bank balance is irrelevant. It can fluctuate, soar or plummet at a moment's notice. What will remain more steady, however, is the way this person relates to money. Does he or she treat money like a servant, or is he or she its unquestioning slave? You can form a solid opinion of an individual's character by watching his or her way of dealing with money, the same way as you would judge someone by a handshake or body language.
I once went to the theatre with a millionaire who, at the end of the show, struggled back into the auditorium against the current of the exiting crowd, because he had forgotten his programme on the seat. I assumed he wanted it either as a keepsake, or as a reference but he said, "I've paid for it, so I might as well keep it." I also cannot understand people who finish their restaurant meals even though they are either full or are not enjoying the food, just because "you've got to get your money's worth." The money is spent. You can't get it back. Let it go. No point it making yourself sick on top of it.
People's attitude towards money, more often than not, has nothing to do with whether they are wealthy or broke. I know people who earn three times as much as I do, who buy you a drink, then stare intently at their empty glass to ensure that you know it is your turn to buy the second round. I also know church mice whose automatic first words at entering a pub or coffee shop are, "what would you like?" Naturally, I also know well-heeled people who are wondrously generous, and skint misers.
I find it very instructive to watch any new acquaintances' dealings with money. They get out their wallets to pay for something. Are the banknotes all stacked up the right way up, face up? Are they tidy people? Do they hand over a crumpled note to the barman or smooth it down carefully, as a mark of respect towards the recipient? Do they count the change or just shove it into their pockets or purses? Or, do they count the pound coins and ignore the coppers? Do they pay attention to big things but cannot be bothered with detail? Do they notice if the shopkeeper short-changes them? And if they are given too much change, do they point it out to the sales assistant, or walk away feeling smug about the extra twenty pence in their hand? Are they honest to a fault, or opportunists?
When you sit down to dinner, do they inform you as soon as the menu arrives, where you can find the price list, pre-emptying any initiative on your part, not giving you credit for not taking it for granted that they would automatically pay for you? When the bill arrives (assuming your shares are more or less equal), are they happy to split 50/50, or do they pull out pen and paper and launch into complex divisions? Or do they expect to split 50/50 when they have had wine, while you drank only tap water?
If you lend them £2, do they return £2 promptly and exactly, or do they say, "Sorry, I've only got £1.50 on me. I'll give you back the rest later." (I absolutely hate that cavalier attitude. Invariably, they forget the 50 pence and, of course, you can't possibly chase it up – I mean, it would be considered far too petty to go after 50 pence. It's not about the 50 pence – it's about respect.) Are people careful with money, or do they waste it unnecessarily? Are they trying to impress you with it? Are they fearful of it? Who is the boss in that equation?
All these little, seemingly insignificant details provide an invaluable insight on how this person will ultimately treat you.
In the words of the unforgettable Dolly Levi, "Money is – if you forgive the expression – like manure. It's no good to anyone unless it's spread around, encouraging things to grow."