Either talk about money or don’t.

Either talk about money or don’t.  

I was once at a BBQ with three friends.  One of us had recently got a new job and was quite proud of it. The conversation proceeded thusly. 

Alice: It’s interesting actually, because even by the industry average, we are very comfortable at X
Bob: oh I don’t know, over at Y we have a really excellent package. 
Alice: oh I’m sure it’s very good for your sector, but obviously our benefits are honestly very good.
Bob: -no, really we do have excellent
Alice -and particularly when you count signing bonus
Bob: actually when you include the pension deal it’s really quite superb…


…and the conversation continued for some time.  Unhelpfully, the other people were: me, who as a relatively impoverished academic doesn’t compete on salary but does reap the many rewards of doing what I love, and another friend who works for a hedge fund, and who thus could comfortably buy all our houses and covert them into a selection of private ping pong rooms…

(EDIT an early version of this post missed the word ‘relatively’ from the sentence above, for which I received no small amount of abuse.  The sentence is intended to reflect that I earned less than half of what anyone else in the conversation did.  Not that I think I’m poor. I’d also like to point out that as a result of this post – my annual income is £0).

And the problem was that this terrible conversation and general waste of energy (and I have witnessed many similar) was not caused by rudeness but my misplaced politeness.   There are many good reasons not to talk about money in general conversation. They include: 

  • It’s the wrong thing to measure about someone’s life – money is no better a way of measuring someones happiness than resting heart-rate is.
  • Flaunting status (or perceived status) causes anger and ill feelings(helpfully illustrated by reddit’s reaction to this post – a useful lesson for me there…. )Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 17.28.12 Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 17.27.31 Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 17.26.33
  • It’s pretty boring, there are much much more interesting things to talk about.
  • It’s very backward looking – your salary is about who you were and where you were, rather than where you are going.

All of which are true, for varying values of true. 

So society developed this rule of ‘avoid talking about salary in general conversation’, which is perfectly reasonable, if a little old-fashioned.  

The problem comes when you get people who really really want to talk about how much money they make. For some reason they still want to obey the ‘avoid talking about salary’ rule so you get lots of bizarre insertions ‘of course, my salary is now considerable enough that we can afford to…’  or of course ‘yes we have an excellent incentives package’. 

Here’s a solution: if you want to talk about it, talk about it.  if your salary is that important to you then JUST SAY THE DAMN NUMBER. 

It’s easy, I’ll go first. Here’s my most recent payslip (click on it for full size).  I’ve sometimes been paid much more, and I’ve often been paid much less. For the next year – I expect it to be much less…


So there you go, now if you really want to tell me how much you earn, then you can just tell me the number.  I can say ‘Okay, thank you for letting me know’ and we’ll move on to talking about something much more interesting. 


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