A strangers query: How much do you earn?

The magnet that attracts strangers to me is a sweatshirt that I own. A month after I moved to Oklahoma, I bought, as a gag, a University of Texas sweatshirt. The Sooners and the Longhorns were playing football that weekend, and the sweatshirt was a prop in a roasting of Sooner fans. We had some laughs, but the truth is that I have no sentimental feelings for the University of Texas, the city of Austin, or that breed of cattle. But I spent $30 for that shirt, and - despite the burnt-orange fabric

Mark Hartley, Editor

The magnet that attracts strangers to me is a sweatshirt that I own. A month after I moved to Oklahoma, I bought, as a gag, a University of Texas sweatshirt. The Sooners and the Longhorns were playing football that weekend, and the sweatshirt was a prop in a roasting of Sooner fans. We had some laughs, but the truth is that I have no sentimental feelings for the University of Texas, the city of Austin, or that breed of cattle. But I spent $30 for that shirt, and - despite the burnt-orange fabric and the imprinted steer`s head and related slogans - it`s a well-made garment.

So, when the weather`s cool, I`ll slip into it before heading out to run errands. However, I underestimated the sentiments that Oklahomans have about that football game every October in Dallas. Invariably, a Tulsan - strangers always - will ask something like, "What`s the deal with that shirt?" I politely explain that I purchased it as a gag that occurred four years ago and that there`s no cause for alarm about this stranger wearing the enemy`s color in their midst. Their confusion over my explanation always seems to lead to an expression that says, "Yeah, right. Whatever you say."

When I wear neutral clothing, strangers seldom talk to me. I wonder, though, about the discomfort we would feel if strangers were to ask questions that are a little too personal. Let`s assert that the stranger is not a sleazy character that only Quentin Tarantino would love, a toothless fool guzzling coffee while plotting small crimes. The stranger is not a frightening character that only Steven King would love, that freak of nature whose eyes turn solid red when you`re not looking.

The stranger is merely someone you don`t know that well. Yet circumstances draw you together for the exchange of a few harmless tidbits of information casually tossed back and forth. What if the stranger were to ask:

* "Can I borrow your car?"

* "When was the last time you had sex?"

* "How much money do you make?"

All three questions likely cause some degree of discomfort. I tested some colleagues with this scenario of too-personal questions. As a group, a stranger`s interest in our sex lives appears to cause the most discomfort. Apparently, a stranger`s interest in our cars and incomes causes an equal level of discomfort, according to my tabulations. These are questions that a stranger should not ask.

So, having arrived at this understanding, I, as editor of RDH, have a question for you: How much money do you make?

Regardless of how long you`ve subscribed to RDH, I`m still a stranger in your house. You don`t know me that well. I`ve got a lot of nerve, don`t I, to ask you about your income? I could probably write a book about why you should turn to page 27 and fill out the 1999 Salary & Benefits Survey. Instead, let me just quote from a recent issue of a national newsletter for dentists:

"We`ve long recommended using part-time employees (less than 20 hours per week) to maximize productivity per hour while eliminating fringe benefits and retirement plan costs. ... [Approximately 30 percent of doctors] reported that they used job sharing in order to have two individuals employed part time in a single job and realize greater productivity and cost-savings from part-time employment."

The recommendation for job-sharing prompted me to frown. I`m aware that many readers strongly desire the flexibility of working part-time so they can pursue other priorities, such as children. I`m delighted that the profession has worked out so well for them. But the implication that the hygiene profession should be viewed as a part-time vocation (by a third of dentists), just to shave staff overhead costs, is annoying. Dental hygiene is a career, not a part-time job.

With this in mind, I have no qualms about showing up as a stranger at your house, asking the questions posed on the salary survey. Given the circumstances, it`s important to examine the trends in salaries and benefits among hygienists. Please consider responding to the survey.

Editor Mark Hartley can be contacted at markh@pennwell.com

More in Personal Wellness