Let’s have a discussion about not discussing money, okay?
So, I was raised to believe in “etiquette” which had many outdated tenets, but among these was the notion that certain topics are off-limits. Politics and religion made for debate and education, but it was verboten to ask anyone their age, their weight, how much their house cost and how much they earned at work.
I still believe this! There is no reason to ask someone their age unless you’re struggling to make conversation with a toddler —
(Holds hand up) CAN YOU SHOW ME HOW OLD YOU ARE??? HOW MANY ????
— or you’re a bouncer at a club near NYU. And weight? Who cares! And just this past week, I was horrified when a colleague at the Poll asked me how much I paid in rent, told me it was too much, and informed me that if I moved somewhere less expensive I could afford to have a baby. Um, clearly not everybody was raised with my form of etiquette.
But why then, are we obsessed with knowing how much someone makes??? Look, unless you’re that person’s accountant, it is absolutely none of your business how much or how little a person is earning. And I still firmly believe it is Rude As Fuck to ask.
I bring it up not just because this was a topic on Twitter recently, but because I made the mistake of asking a friend about a big deal they’d just landed. Look, I think I do alright, I make money. But after I opened the discussion of pay, things just got awkward. I was acutely aware of the difference in class between us, and it felt weird. Weird, like when I dated a really rich guy once and he bought me clothes when we went shopping and paid for dinners without asking. I knew I was poor and I felt poor, even though he wasn’t trying to make me feel poor. Between friends, money should remain out of the conversation.
So why in the hell would you feel entitled to know how much money a stranger is getting paid? It doesn’t take a genius to know that these are not innocent queries but rather an opening through which to assert that such a wage is well above what they’re worth — like when people snicker at minimalist modern art and say “I could do THAT!” Particularly with famous women, sometimes with athletes, we thirst to know how much someone is getting paid only to screech that it’s more than they deserve: “Can you believe she makes thousands of dollars just to show up at a party??!” we scream of celebutantes. Well, someone is paying her that much, so obviously, that’s fine. Are you paying her thousands? No? Well then, shut the fuck up.
This is why the question, “How much do you make?” is so off-limits. When I hear someone inquire about another’s salary, it instantly makes me think about my own, with like, Imposter Syndrome. “Do they think I’m being overpaid? What would they say about how much I get paid?” Is it too much, am I not worth it? Or the opposite: am I One Of The Poors, and will they pity me for it?
You’re probably sitting behind your laptop thinking I’m reading too much into an innocent question. People need to know how much other people are getting paid, you’ll argue, so that we all know what a fair wage is! Sure, I’ll grant you that. I can even see a situation in which you should absolutely know what someone else takes home in their paycheck: when you’re a woman among male colleagues checking to make sure you’re getting paid the same. And you know when we should be critical of someone’s salary? When we’re paying it, as with public employees — you hear me, Congress? I’m paying your salary, so stop trying to take away my health care!!
But the question just shouldn’t come up in conversation among two ordinary people. That’s why etiquette exists. That’s it. Financial discussion is just none of your business.
Take, for example, this True Story of a conversation I had with an ordinary person who was not paying my salary: we were comparing neighborhoods, and she asked how much it costs to live in my neighborhood. I gave her a ballpark figure based off what most apartments ranged 2 years ago, when I moved here. She Gasped. Actually GASPED! And asked me how I was going to afford to have a baby. WAIT WHAT??? She told me if I moved to a cheaper place, I could afford to have a family. SAY WHAT??? Yeah, then she asked me why I haven’t had children yet, and when I plan to settle down and pop out some kids. WOAH WOAH WOAH. Majorly uncomfortable! How the hell did we even get here? Is this what happens when a human doesn’t have an internal monologue??? This is why you don’t ask strangers how much they make or how much their rent costs – because NOTHING GOOD can come of it. I mean, I certainly did not see it going in this direction.
But in hindsight, I should have: rudeness up front usually means rudeness is lurking behind. And while it might not seem that rude to ask someone about money, it usually means there’s a ruder agenda back there. So aside from fighting for a livable minimum wage which you should absolutely do, try not to concern yourself with how much other people make unless it is directly affecting your life. Don’t ask strangers how much money they make. The End.
cash money photo via Wikimedia Commons