Americans are notoriously squeamish about discussing our personal incomes. On some level it makes sense: In a society with an immense concentration of wealth within the hands of a few and the glorification of the wealthy splashed across magazine covers and TV shows, we can feel uncomfortable talking about our own earnings. And, if you’re a higher earner, you might not want to feel like you’re bragging.
But in some cases it can be productive to talk to your friends and family about how much money you’re bringing in, if only to enforce realistic expectations of operating within our rocky economy, or to share actionable tips for making upward mobility possible.
Only share when someone asks
If you’re volunteering information about your salary or income tax return unprompted, you may want to ask yourself why. Blurting out a number reflected in a job offer you just received, especially without a clear reason for revealing it, says a lot more about your need for affirmation than anything else. On the contrary, if someone is hinting towards how much money you make, it’s a sign that they might be interested for productive reasons (it’s also possible they might be making cynical comparisons between your income and theirs, but we’ll operate on the assumption of good faith here).
As an impromptu gesture, waxing about your salary only seems like an act of humblebrag unless it’s in a useful context. Somewhere in the evolution of social etiquette in the U.S., it became gauche to talk about the subject—even below conversations about sex work and religion.
Dan Schawbel, managing partner of the HR advisory firm Workplace Intelligence and the author of Back to Human, tells Lifehacker how discussions about personal income devolve into bragging when two people’s salaries are at a certain disparity.
He writes in an email:
When you know you’re making at least 15% over what everyone around you is making then you may be viewed as bragging. It really depends on where you fall on the income spectrum across the audience you’re talking to so be mindful of that.
Though mindfulness is key in discussions like this, there’s times when there’s no need to tiptoe around the issue of money.
Talk about money with colleagues
American wages have seen paltry growth over the last 40 years. The stagnation of paychecks relative to the explosion in the job market has left workers floundering, less able to voluntarily chart a course toward economic mobility than their parents were. And that’s one reason why you should be real about money with your colleagues.
It’s possible that you’re being paid less than someone at your company who does the same job as you. If you’re toiling at work and feel like you’re being underpaid—or annual raises come and go without reaching you—you should definitely inquire with some trusted colleagues.
Posing the question of salary to colleagues in lateral positions (and to those in rungs above you) can only do you a service: Knowing what to expect in terms of salary if you’re to interview for a promotion will give you an idea of how to properly negotiate. “I do see this changing with younger generations who are more open to sharing everything about their lives publicly, especially on social media,” Schawbel says, referencing a study by The Cashelorette, which he notes “found that 30 percent of Millennials shared their salary with co-workers compared to only eight percent of baby boomers.”
It’ll give you an advantage over your company
One of the more deceptive practices employed by corporate America is to intentionally keep employees unaware of salaries across an organization. In this sense, the corporate sector is one of the biggest beneficiaries of our money taboo. Salaries are seldom mentioned on job listings, and it can feel presumptuous or in poor taste to inquire about money with a hiring manager until the interview process is nearing a close.
Schawbel notes that it’s this way by design: “It’s taboo to discuss your salary at work because your employer doesn’t want you to discover that you’re making less than someone that has the same role and experience.”
Because the odds are stacked against workers in this sense, compare notes with your colleagues. Think of it this way: If you have limited information regarding what your company has paid people in similar positions in the past, you’ll have limited ammo to take into salary negotiations.
Discussing money can also help chip away at generational wage disparities between people of color and their white counterparts. According to a 2019 analysis from the workplace compensation research organization Payscale, Black men earn roughly 87 cents on the dollar compared to white men. (That pay gap often widens when it comes to women of color, as well). Discussing money adds a level of transparency that can help level playing field. And though it won’t be a panacea—to be sure, companies are always looking out for their bottom lines, often at the expense of workers–discussing money with colleagues is far more productive than ignoring it entirely.