Sex, Death, Affairs: Everything People Would Rather Talk About Than Money

Here is a small sampling of problems that were not anywhere near the scope of Emma Bushnell’s job description as an executive assistant at a law firm, yet filled her daily conversations thanks to gossipy colleagues. One lawyer’s difficulty finding a contractor for a second home. Another lawyer’s stress over planning a vacation to Colombia. The partners at her white-shoe law firm — whose salaries were at least five times her own — seemed to feel entitled to vent. Yet when she raised her own issues, about financial insecurity, they squirmed.

“They were constantly getting these questionnaires to evaluate me and I was like, ‘Any word you can put in? I’m making $55,000 a year,’” said Ms. Bushnell, 33, who left the firm last year. “They would find it gauche or uncomfortable. And I was like, ‘You know what, if you’re uncomfortable it’s because you’re making too much more money than me. And that’s your problem, not mine.’”

Ms. Bushnell’s attempts to puncture her colleagues’ silence about salary, including asking other assistants to share theirs, kept getting squelched.

That’s what happened to MaryLemmer, an entrepreneur who bounced between jobs in Silicon Valley and found some of her requests for raises were met with what she called something like “adult temper tantrums.” Being belittled has made it tougher for her to keep asking for the money she needs, creating a physiological response of flushed skin and a pit in her stomach when she has to negotiate.

“If every time I go for a run I stub my toe or twist my ankle, I’m probably not going to be excited to go for a run again,” Ms. Lemmer said. “To have those conversations go so poorly — that really created a fear.”

Like going for a run, or drinking water and getting sleep, the merits of talking candidly about money are widely acknowledged. There are T-shirts emblazoned with “pay the women.” There are Beyoncé lyrics about getting paid (“Gimme my check”). There are wildly popular TikTok accounts devoted to asking strangers on the street to share how much they make.

Money talk is in vogue, theoretically. In practice, however, those who try to make it happen in their real lives — over coffee with colleagues, over brunch with friends, over a friendly exchange on Slack — often find themselves stymied. They face subtle or outright resistance from higher-ups.

But as salary transparency becomes the law in more states, including New York, California, Colorado and Washington State, where many employers now or will soon have to disclose the compensation or the salary range for a position on any job posting, and with legislators in at least a dozen more states planning to introduce bills this year, some are hoping that the legal shift will accelerate long-awaited social and cultural shifts, too.

Alice Lemmer, Mary’s mother, has watched her daughter wrestle to get raises in recent years, and has looked back regretfully at all the moments in her own career when it didn’t occur to her that she could ask colleagues, especially her male colleagues in software, about their compensation. “I was never told ‘Oh don’t talk about your salary,’ but somehow I knew that wasn’t something you did,” Ms. Lemmer, 65, said. “It was rude. It was intrusive. I don’t know why — when you think about it logically, it shouldn’t be. But that was the hidden message.”

Alice Lemmer wishes that she had been able to discuss compensation more openly with her colleagues.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

It’s a hidden and often not-so-hidden message, one cemented by broadly accepted rules of etiquette and Americans’ financial anxieties. Middle class people are reticent to discuss money because their class status is precarious, and they are afraid that talking about debt will expose that fragility to their children or neighbors, according to Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist and the author of “Indebted.” Ms. Zaloom has found that her research subjects will divulge debts and budgeting worries with her that they haven’t even shared with their children. This secrecy dates back to the 19th century, when Americans came to view a household budget as reflective of a family’s moral worth.

Rachel Sherman, a sociologist who studies affluent and wealthy people, has found that people don’t like to identify as well-off even if they have millions of dollars in family income or inherited wealth, send their children to private schools and own second homes.

Ms. Sherman, the author of the book “Uneasy Street,” once contacted a research subject with an annual household income of over $2 million who refused to label herself as affluent. Ms. Sherman traces this in part to an American upper class that has learned in elite school settings not to talk openly about excess. The 2008 financial crisis also contributed to people’s desires to hide their wealth, along with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its criticism of the “1 percent.”

What all this secrecy does, though, is place a curtain over economic inequality, these researchers said. People don’t talk about money — especially not with numbers attached — so the scale of disparities is unclear, the chasms between millionaires and upper class and middle class and working class shrouded in ambiguities.

“Not talking about numbers allows us not to talk about inequality,” Ms. Sherman said. “It allows people to move through the world without having to openly acknowledge to themselves or others that they may have a lot more than other people.”

No other clunky topic rivals the money taboo, not even sex and death. “People tell me about really profound intimate details of their lives — they tell me about all kinds of fantasies, affairs, sexual escapades,” said Matt Lundquist, 46, a psychotherapist in New York City who works with many wealthy clients. “The one thing that has historically persisted as outside what people will open up about, even in the context of long-term therapy, has been mentioning salary.”

The pressures to keep quiet, and the stakes of doing so, are heightened for women of color, who are told in subtle and unsubtle ways that they will face consequences for breaking from social conventions. Kristen Egziabher, 41, for example, who works in financial technology and lives in Texas, recalled that her parents, who had both graduated from historically Black colleges in the 1970s, taught her to avoid asking questions in the workplace that might cause her to stick out. Get noticed for quality of work, they told her, not for stirring up trouble. As a result, Ms. Egziabher rarely talks about salary negotiations with her teammates.

On top of the stigma surrounding money conversations, there’s the constant thrum of expectations to keep up with the Joneses or Kardashians — expectations that people have the newest sneaker brands and are taking weekend trips with friends, all while juggling student loans and the strain of inflation.

Terrence Shulman, a therapist who runs a program for people with financial problems including overspending and compulsive theft, has seen the way shame, guilt and childhood trauma merge to form pernicious habits, such as hiding debt from family members. Mr. Shulman experienced this himself. Growing up, he watched his mother take on debt when his father stopped paying child support. As a teenager, he buckled under the weight of trying to be a good son, and he started rebelling by shoplifting. Mr. Shulman later sought therapeutic treatment for his financial anxieties, and he has now offered it to hundreds of patients.

Even as a person who thinks and talks about financial honesty all day, Mr. Shulman struggles to speak candidly to friends about his salary. Five years ago, a close friend asked him how much he made and he balked.

“He goes ‘Do you mind my asking how much money you make?’” Mr. Shulman recalled. “I didn’t know what to say. If he’d asked me ‘How’s it going with your wife?,’ I’d tell him all the details.”

Slowly, though, cracks in the social surface are appearing, which career coaches are eager to wedge open even further.

When graduate students visit one of the career counseling offices at the University of Colorado, Molly Thompson, 44, a counselor for the masters of the environment program, asks them to calculate their “survival number”: the minimum amount of money they need to get by, taking into account rent, food and student loans. They account for inflation by adding 15 percent. Then they calculate 20 percent above that baseline number. That’s the figure they use to anchor their salary negotiations, as they apply for their first jobs out of graduate school.

When Ms. Thompson first started offering salary negotiation workshops, she couldn’t get students to show up. They told her they were too scared and would accept whatever compensation was offered to them.

Colorado’s salary transparency law, which went into effect in 2021 and is similar to New York’s enacted last year, has been a boon. Although the law requires companies to share a pay range with job candidates, not all companies are following it in good faith, Ms. Thompson said. Some employers are posting ranges as large as $25,000 to $200,000.

But at least students aren’t feeling as if their negotiation process means bumping around in the dark, hoping they won’t stub their toes.

Even in states without sweeping salary transparency laws, workers are learning from the model created by these laws and protecting themselves from being lowballed. Keren Gifford, 38, who works in health care analytics in Pennsylvania, said that when her previous employer asked her to share how much she had made in a prior role she refused to answer, sidestepping by saying how much she wanted to make in her next position. The human resources team chided her. She didn’t care.

Other workers are ratcheting up their efforts by calling on friends, relatives and even strangers for information about how much money they should ask for at work. Alexis Kirton, 29, was recently on a date with a white man who worked in her industry — gaming. Aware, as a Black woman, that in many industries, hers included, women of color are often paid the least, she shared her salary to see whether he thought she was making enough. They later called it off, but she still hopes to contact him for advice before her next salary negotiation meeting.

“We didn’t end it on bad enough terms, so I will probably reach out,” she said.

His response last time was instructive, after all: “He told me I should be making so much more.”

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