If you think about all your closest friends and family, how many of their salaries do you know? Of these people — the ones who know your secrets, who’ve seen you in your darkest hour — how many of them know how much you earn?
Only one-third of American married couples can accurately report what each other earns, while a shockingly low 15 percent could explain their partner’s employment status. Many of us find the idea of talking about pay raises, house prices, savings, or salary scales as distasteful, if not offensive. Along with sex, religion, and politics, talking about finances gets shuffled under the great carpet of social faux pas, hidden behind awkward coughs and smiles.
But why is talking about money such a taboo? And how do people differ in their approach to discussing all things money?
The making of a taboo
To understand how different people approach talking about money, we should take a closer look at how taboos are made. Taboos are those social no-go areas and conversational untouchables.
The culture to which we belong gives us our values and beliefs. It’s what tells us that family, loyalty, national pride, kindness, competition, or financial success are the best things in life. These cultural beliefs form the basis for social norms and acceptable behaviors. If nationalism is a cherished virtue, then burning the flag is a taboo. If family is the center of all life, then there’s intense social pressure to care for your parents as they get older. Over time, certain conversation topics that violate or challenge social norms become taboo.
As Chaim Fershtman wrote in an article for the American Economic Journal, “The typical anthropological argument is that the origin of taboos is cultural experience. […] Every time an individual’s behavior diverges from a norm, this act impacts on the other members of society, who then punish the deviant individual. […] Taboos are enforced by social punishment.”
That punishment usually takes the form of ostracism. Imagine you’re at a party. It’s a respectable kind of party, with finger food and a pianist in the background. Everyone is happily talking about the latest episode of “The Bear” or the outfits at the Met Gala. Suddenly, you interrupt (another taboo) and say, “Did you and your wife have sex last night? Was it good?” Into the gawking silence, you decide to double down. “That watch looks mega expensive, what are you earning? You must be pushing a million a year.”
What happens next is ostracism. People will probably move away from you to talk to someone else, or they might laugh awkwardly and change conversation topics — shutting you out. Or, even drastically, they’ll simply stop inviting you to parties. Probably your partner, too. Who wants to invite that weirdo who keeps talking about private matters like sex lives and pay scales?
I’m worth more than you
What, then, is the reason for the taboo against talking about money? One explanation is the belief (right or wrong) that wealth equals value. It’s the idea that the more we earn, the better or more important we are. So, to ask someone how much they make in their job is akin to asking them what their social place is. If I earn more than you, I must be better than you.
In Sweden, there is an old and deep-rooted Nordic code known as Jantelagen. It’s the idea that you should never see yourself as better than anyone else, and that it’s wrong to put yourself in a position where you might be perceived that way. As such, Swedish society is intensely private in their attitudes to wealth and money.
Another theory is that talking about salaries and wealth helps to smooth over any grievances we might have with the system. In an article for The Atlantic titled Why Americans Don’t Talk About Money, writer Joe Pinsker says:
“…taboos around money — among haves and have-nots alike — exert a sort of stabilizing force, blurring how much people actually have and giving them one fewer reason to be upset with their place in society.”
Because inequality is a great source of social and personal conflict, societies have developed strategies by which to hide or ignore those inequalities in the first place: Don’t talk about money!
Pinsker and the Swedes might be onto something. A lot of the discomfort that comes from talking about money is closely tied to guilt — the pull of conscience that you might be living an easier life than someone else. So, talking about money can make us all feel uncomfortable, especially when those differences are glaring. People might feel awkward talking about their new swimming pool when their colleague works double shifts to feed the family.
I actually don’t mind talking about it
Taboos are highly sensitive to context — they change from culture to culture and person to person. Talking about money is no different.
While the majority of countries have some kind of social taboo for talking about money, it is by no means universal. In China, for instance, it’s generally considered much more normal to talk about salaries, rents, and bills with your friends.
There are also noticeable differences between high earners and low earners in their willingness to talk about money. As Pinsker wrote, “In working-class communities, meanwhile, the money taboo can be weaker.” Citing research done by Jennifer Silva at Indiana University, Pinsker notes how working-class communities “didn’t hesitate to disclose specifics about their income, rent, or expenditures.” They tend to be quite willing to discuss the hardships of living on a budget and supporting family on minimum wage.
According to research done by Intuit Inc., people’s willingness to discuss money varies by age. The study found that 71 percent of respondents in their 20s or early 30s were comfortable talking about money with friends. Compare that to only 31 percent of the Baby Boomer generation, who are in or approaching retirement age. It would seem that the older you are, the less comfortable you are talking about money.
Talking about money more
What is lost or gained in being more open to talking about money? There’s some evidence to suggest that the less we talk about money, the worse off we are. As Scientific American noted, talking about money with your spouse in order to make joint decisions “results in fewer financial risks” and could make you “less susceptible to behavioral biases such as framing effects.”
But there is a larger societal problem that could also be tied with not talking about money: handing over too much power to corporations and employers. As Kate Morgan wrote for the BBC, “Companies are motivated to promote pay secrecy, either covertly or overtly, because it often saves them money.”
When you don’t know what a good starting salary is, you’re open to accepting far less than you should. If you don’t know that your colleagues are earning twice as much as you, you’re less likely to demand a pay raise. If you don’t know that everyone else gets bonuses regularly, you don’t even know what you’re missing.
Pay secrecy is often a smokescreen behind which to hide more pernicious discriminatory pay disparities. For example, research shows how greater transparency reduces the gender salary gap. As the study noted, being transparent about salaries “reduced the gender pay gap between men and women by approximately 20 to 40 percent.” It seems that not talking about money benefits employers much more than the employed.
As we have seen with the origin of taboos, speaking about money is about a clash of values. It’s about privacy, self-worth, and dignity set against equality, transparency, and fairness. But the pendulum is shifting. Millennials are much more open to talking about salaries, and in many countries the attitudes and laws are changing. Last year, the EU agreed to draft new pay transparency legislation under which “representatives have the right to request and receive information on their individual pay level and the average pay levels for workers doing the same work or work of equal value.” The motivation behind the bloc’s new law is the recognition that transparency and openness empowers workers all the more.
How to talk about money
So maybe you want to try to break the taboo. But that’s no easy feat. How and where do you start to have a conversation about money? Try these three steps.
First, pick your punches. Few people are going to talk to strangers or colleagues about the minutiae of their budgets. Instead, find someone you really trust and open the conversation in a quiet space. This might be your partner, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it might be easier to talk with a friend or someone a bit more removed from your daily life.
Second, be honest. We all know that talking about money is a taboo and that others might not be comfortable about it. So say that. Starting a conversation with, “I know people don’t usually talk about this, but I’d really like to try” or “Tell me if you’d feel uncomfortable with this …” makes the rest of the conversation much easier. Be as honest as you can.
Third, leave your judgments at the door. The problem people have with talking about money (and opening up, generally) is that they fear being judged. If you talk about money, be willing to accept different people do things in different ways. Of course, there are definitely better or worse financial behaviors. But shaming others will just shut down the conversation.
So, how often do you talk about money? What are you missing out on if you don’t? Maybe it’s time to give it a go.