Conversational taboos

December 23rd 2006

I was chatting with a female acquaintance at a house party about her family’s new car amongst other things. The conversation moved to their old car and she told me they sold it privately to someone they knew rather than trade it in.

“What did you get for it?” I absent mindedly asked, wondering what a seven year old BMW was worth. The look she shot back at me was remarkable. I might as well have asked her what her favourite sexual position was or did she just stick with masturbation these days.

“That’s none of your business.” she replied (about the car).

Earlier we had been talking about her sons entry into a prestigious university and his emotional adjustment to it. Presumably her sons education is none of my business either but she happily talked about that; so why the sudden defensive posture as soon as money is mentioned?

I can guess why this coyness originated. People must have imagined it prevented ill feeling or jealousy if they avoided the issue of comparative wealth. Also, talking about the specifics of a deal could disclose the business acumen of the speaker, thereby alerting the listener to a possible advantage should they ever do a deal with the speaker (a bit like showing your hand in a card game). But surely, talking about your son gaining entry into a top university would generate as much ill feeling, if not more these days, with other parents who’s offspring are not as academically bright – you can always get richer but you can’t make your children any brighter than they are.

This got me thinking about the taboo subjects in Western society and I came up with a short list, they are;

  • sex
  • nudity
  • money
  • the thought of death
  • fundamentalism
  • bowels
  • loneliness
  • There are probably quite a few more but these seem good contenders.

    The evenings minefield of social gaffes continued when I talked with another acquaintance and I told them the story of my mothers recent probate (the legal process after someone dies).

    On investigation we (my brother and I) discovered that solicitors charge a percentage of the estate with regard to their fees – an iniquitous practice in my opinion.

    “How the hell do they justify that!?” I indignantly demanded, warming to the task. Presumably, the same amount of work is involved, whether the estate is worth one hundred thousand pounds or two hundred and fifty thousand pounds and yet the solicitor has the temerity to charge over double the lesser fee. It is like going into a shop, seeing an item and asking the assistant how much the item is and the assistant telling you that that is dependent on the value of your estate. It’s outrageous. And people put up with it! Part of the reason is, I think, that families are understandably upset at the death of a parent and so gladly pass on the responsibility to anyone who has the knowledge to do it. Enter the solicitor. Instead of being compassionate and fair minded, our solicitor sees an opportunity to make a quick buck and takes advantage of the bereaved by employing a charging structure which, had the family not been grief stricken, they would have seen straight through and gone elsewhere with their business.

    I continued with my diatribe by telling another story of a friend of mine who had commissioned a solicitor to prosecute his mothers probate. That was over eighteen months ago and it still had not been finalized. My friend was living in his mothers house and so was in no hurry to sell it. He made the fatal mistake of telling the solicitors this and so they just sit on it until they can be bothered to get round to it (presumably they have already taken their fee).

    I defiantly continued to rage against the greed of solicitors by next explaining some of the costs involved. Typically, I was being quoted thousands of pounds to complete my mothers probate. On one occasion – because I was now ringing round – I got talking to a solicitor who was a specialist in a different field (the probate specialist was on another call) and she talked to me as best she could. I asked her what most of the costs were and she told me the probate form itself was two hundred and fifty pounds or thereabouts and then she made the mistake of giving me the telephone number of the probate office so I could check. This I did and the marvelously helpful woman at the other end told me the probate form was ninety pounds to process and that there was nothing stopping me from doing the probate myself (I like to think she was fully aware of the markup solicitors put on that form).

    Well that was it; if the solicitor is going to put a three hundred percent markup on a form what else are they going to expropriate? And the woman confirmed if we did the probate ourselves, the total cost would be ninety pounds. In total. This compared with thousands from the solicitor.

    In the end my brother did the probate as he was the main executor of my mothers financial affairs (but it took a great deal of persuasion from myself to convince him nothing could go wrong. This is where the solicitors power base is; the learned helplessness of the general public. The law is available to everyone and is not some black art reserved exclusively for the initiated). It took six weeks in total to complete the probate. Compare that with eighteen months and counting for my friend. And most of the work was just straightforward form filling apart from an interview with an official.

    When I had finished my demolition job and silently congratulated myself for brilliantly demonstrating the parasitic nature of blood sucking solicitors, I left a pregnant pause in the conversation for my acquaintance to confirm this view with his, no doubt, similar solicitor horror story but he just stared at me blankly and casually said “my son is training to be a solicitor.”

    2 Responses to “Conversational taboos”

    1. bob says:

      brilliant gaffe. absolute classic, and really thought provoking info for when I will, alas inevitably, need it.

    2. [...] My mother died several months ago. She left a little house and some money. As a joint executor I was instrumental in all the financial arrangements. My brother organised the funeral and told me he had a solicitor lined up to do the probate. I told him to hang fire with any instruction as I wanted to shop around. My research revealed all the solicitors wanted to charge a percentage of the value of the estate. This irritated me as I guessed the ‘work’ would involve shuffling papers – the same amount of shuffling regardless of the value of the estate. I’ve written in detail about this here. A bit more digging revealed we could do the probate ourselves, so I convinced my brother to do this. Nothing really could go wrong, if a form was filled in incorrectly it would simply come back. [...]

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