Contrarian: Dollars and Sense

Many Americans are reluctant to talk about how much they make. Does it have to be that way?

Someone looking at their paycheck

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Sometimes when I’m in a social situation that’s kind of plateaued, I try spicing things up by blurting out my salary, mid-conversation. It’s never a brag. Most of my friends make more than I do. But it is enlightening to watch others react, forced to consider our comparative lifestyles and wonder whether I’m drunk or having a meltdown.

Here in the Land of the Free, it is considered rude to bluntly approach matters of finance. A Wells Fargo survey found that Americans find it more difficult to talk about money than about death, politics, or religion. But that isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere in the world. In China, Vietnam, Israel, and many other cultures, the open discussion of money is part of everyday conversation.

While hitchhiking in Romania years ago, I was picked up by a delivery van driver who immediately asked about my earnings. At the time I was a part-time pizza delivery boy back in the States, and the wages we made were about the same — a pittance. “F@#& Romania!” he said. Everyone he knew was poor, and, to him, the number reflected nothing more than the sad state of the economy in eastern Europe.

So why, in America, is salary tied to self-worth? Obscuring our financial status — in the interest of politeness — is tedious and alienating. The amount of money we earn has nothing to do with our capacity for compassion or humor, or even our work ethic.

Being open about money can have practical value. A while back, when I found myself in a hole and finally shared my situation with my older brother (who teaches personal finance), he helped set me up with a plan to get my money in order. Similarly, when we discuss our salaries with our coworkers, everyone is in a better position for negotiating. Pay transparency in the workplace can even help companies avoid unfair gaps in compensation and increase worker morale.

If we can shed the guilt and shame associated with our conversations about money, we stand to gain a deeper understanding of one another as human beings. Plus, aren’t you just dying to know what your neighbor’s vacation house in the Florida Keys is going for?

—Nicholas Gilmore

This article is featured in the November/December 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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