Why Can’t We Talk About How Much Money We Make?


photo: volcom



You’re out with your friends, sinking a few cocktails, conversations are flowing left right and center. They’re your BFFs, you know everything about them pretty much – even their sex lives.

Ask a friend about their sex life – nobody bats an eyelid, but ask a friend about their salary and everybody loses their minds!

But how and why did the subject of earnings and wealth become so gauche?

Is discussing wages really such a negative thing?

Last year, Pittsburgh-based software programmer Lauren Voswinkel started the hashtag #talkpay, which asks people to tweet their salary, job title and experience level, in the hope that employers might start to address pay inequality and wage discrimination.

The hashtag which has generated more than 100,000 tweets has not only exposed the pay rates of people who work at Google and Facebook, but it has uncovered deep-seated presumptions that speaking openly about wages is still considered inappropriate: Mainly boastful from those who earn a lot.

The Twitter handle talkpay_anon, which allows you to anonymously post to #talkpay, proves that despite the fact that Obama signed an executive order in May last year prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who publicly disclose their compensation, many are still too afraid to be so transparent about their incomes.

People feel sensitive about how much money they are making, they feel there is an overwhelming concern that they’re going to be judged by it.

“There is also a strange wealth guilt some people feel if they make more money than other people, and an awareness that they could make others feel uncomfortable by letting them know how much money they have,” explained Dr. Ryan T. Howell, an Associate Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

It seems that people are generally afraid that if they reveal they make less than one of their friends they’ll be regarded with pity, while if they reveal they make more they’ll be treated with resentment.

Money is tough to talk about because so many other things are wrapped up with it: Notions of personal value, power, success, prestige, intelligence.

So how did money become so emotionally charged?

Deeply rooted in politics and passed down through generations, America’s competitive and capitalist ethos of the Protestant work ethic shaped how our parents and grandparents think and feel about money, but it’s still very much present in millennials.

There was one time where a former colleague of mine was buying a property, she brought in some print outs of the place – and then, dum dum dum! I asked how much she paid, shock horror! (It was scribbled out so maybe I shouldn’t have asked), I was only asking out of interest as I am also going to be a first-time buyer. But, I obviously and unintentionally came across as rude – she didn’t tell me after I asked and it was super awkward.

According to Dr. James Gottfurcht, the president of Psychology of Money Consultants, a lot of money issues are trauma carried forward from how you were raised around money, and whether your parents gave you a lot of negative messages about it.

He told Harpers Bazaar: “Whether it was fear or insecurity, or criticism and judgement—as in, ‘You’re only as good as how much money you make’—when we get those money messages growing up, there is a lot of emotional angst associated with it.”

But how can discussing your salary with others be a positive thing?

Well, one man recounted how mentioning his salary helped his female coworker get an immediate $20,000 raise since she marched right into her boss’ office and demanded to be paid equally to him. Too right!

As the experts said, it’s basically all down to culture and upbringing, not every country recoils with horror around the subject of money. Take a Dutch woman on a Facebook thread about this topic, she said, “This is totally an American thing. My relatives in Holland all ask about money.”

But maybe we should all just be more open about wages? Then it wouldn’t become such an awkward subject because it would just be the norm thing to do – like the Dutch woman’s family. Plus it can lead to more woman being about to march to their boss’ office and demand to be paid equally to their male colleagues – it’s the 21st century and we’re STILL being paid less? I just don’t get it.


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  • Stephanie Hartley

    It’s very similar over here in the UK – wages are all kept hush hush – I don’t even know how much my parents earn! It’s a very touchy subject, which annoyingly allows employers to get away with unfair pay. Hopefully one day we can be more open and expose issues with wage differences

    Steph – http://www.nourishmeblog.co.uk

  • Camille Beygui

    Great post

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