Most people are uncomfortable discussing how much money they make — among friends, among coworkers and even among family. In some contexts it makes sense: Employees fear retribution from their employers if they’re caught discussing sensitive information. But when the audience is friends or family, this kind of backlash shouldn’t be a concern.
So why are we so hesitant to discuss pay, even among those we love?
When I was growing up, my father was an active member of Carpenter’s Local 620 in New Jersey. He believed collective action was the key to a thriving economy. My dad would have heated arguments with our uncle that, while all in good fun, never failed to rile him up. My dad could never understand how people were so against bettering themselves. And he was vociferously opposed to trickle-down economic policies, which he believed only resulted in people like him getting pissed on by those with money.
But despite all of these economic discussions, I can’t remember a single instance when he talked with my brother and me about how much money he made, let alone how much money my mother made. As a telecommunications manager, she had steadier employment; she was often the primary breadwinner. But, like my father, she always kept the financial details vague.
I’m still not sure why this was the case. Maybe it was a generational thing, or maybe my parents just felt it was inappropriate to discuss with children. Interestingly, though, my parents have asked my brother and me about our salaries whenever we’ve considered new jobs. And while we’ve both been candid with them, they’ve still never offered us any information about their own finances.
When I told my parents I was planning to create #talkpay, an initiative I began about a year ago to break down taboos surrounding discussions of pay, they were immediately concerned. They worried that my employer at the time would retaliate against me for publicly disclosing my salary and that the sluggish economy might mean it would be difficult for me to find another job. And they kept worrying even when I told them that wouldn’t be the case.
For some reason it’s easier to discuss the consequences of losing a job than it is to talk about what a job pays.
But in an economy where more than half of us would struggle to handle even a relatively small emergency, this is untenable. Our families are supposed to be our biggest source of connection. So why is it that we shelter them from our finances? Shouldn’t we be leaning on them during the tough times? Or celebrating our successes with them?
That’s really why I started #talkpay in the first place. Sure, it’s about balancing information during negotiations, but it’s also about breaking down the barriers between us. To help us find a hand when we’re stumbling around in darkness. Or to help us understand the value of a dollar.
To that end, I would have appreciated seeing how my parents afforded things like family vacations. Understanding the costs of those trips might have made them all the more special because I would have had a better sense of the sacrifices my parents made to make them happen. And talking pay with kids could help them to develop reasonable expectations about what kind of lifestyles a given salary affords, potentially helping young adults avoid debt.
So much of this has to with letting ourselves be vulnerable. A discussion about our salaries, whether we’re struggling to make ends meet or not, opens us up to criticism. And because many of us define ourselves by our work, that vulnerability cuts to the core. But we’re not our jobs. We’re not our salaries. We’re defined by the people we care about. Which is exactly why we should be as transparent as possible with them — even when it comes to money. I keenly felt my parents’ anxieties when discussing #talkpay with them. But explaining to them why I was doing it — even in the face of backlash from them and everyone else — bolstered my confidence in going through with it.
That said, I was still nervous about getting up on a stage in front of 300 people and telling them how much money I make. It was, in fact, the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt in my life. To alleviate some of that vulnerability, I asked the audience to stand up and do the same. And many, many people took me up on that offer. I was floored. It was a simple, but important lesson: Human connection isn’t created just when we make ourselves vulnerable, but when we put ourselves out there and encourage others to be vulnerable, too.
So, in the spirit of collective action, human connection and family, I encourage you to have conversations that make you feel vulnerable. Talk about pay or your financial pain with your partners or your kids. Open yourself up to being judged, and then encourage those we hold dearest to us to do the same. Enjoy a moment, even if it’s just one, where you and those you love can be yourselves, without fear of judgement. Because, in the end, that’s what family should be.
Lauren has been a developer for over a decade. Growing up, her father was a union carpenter who imparted a strong sense of community and workers’ rights to her at a young age. It was because of her experiences of being underpaid and her father that she started #talkpay last year on International Workers’ Day.