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Reading this question I was surprised that it seems to be common sense that people do not want to share this information and might even get upset, if someone asks them how much they earn. Is this related to culture? (I am a young German student/intern, maybe that is related to the fact that I do not get this secretiveness around earning money)

Note1: I am talking about this question being asked in a non-work-related environment.

Note2: "non-work-related environment" excludes conversations with people having any kind of relation to your job.

16 Answers 16

40

From a UK perspective it's considered rude to ask such a question (it could be considered nosy, as it's something personal to you and something only you can choose to share), but I will delve into why I feel it shouldn't be a question that is asked. It also really depends on who is asking:

Close friends and family

People you trust with such information, I would happily tell them about it. They won't use the information for their own gain, or use it in vain. My parents specifically would ask to weigh up the hard work i've put in, to the job I currently have and offer advice accordingly (if they want to).

"I think you should get a new job, you're worth more than this".

could be an example.

As @JaneDoe1337 rightly adds:

But with friends I don't really care. Money is often quite visible anyway, if I would earn a lot I would probably be driving a fancy car and live in a big house and my friends would obviously be able to see that.

Professional setting and/or officials

  • Colleagues would fall under the next section, or the previous section (depending on your relationship with them).

    How would you feel if you found out someone in the exact same position earns more than you? I would go straight to my boss and ask questions, and I would assume the same applies if you earn more than your co worker.

    With regards to the workplace, more information can be found here.

  • If I was applying for a loan for example, this information would be perfectly valid. They would need to weigh up how much you can pay back over a certain period of time and determine whether you can both cover the loan and the interest of said loan.

People you don't really know, or have just met

Using the question I asked as an example, it's directed at people who don't really know you. You have to weigh up the positives over the negatives when someone has use of such information. What can they really do with the information?

There isn't many positives when it comes to people you don't know, unless they're looking to help you find a new job and would like to know what you're currently on, to help you find a better role to suit your worth, but the chances of that happening are slim.

But, what negatively can they do with this information? A couple of examples could be:

  • They can treat you differently, if they earn more than you and/or you don't earn as much as they thought. "Oh, is that it? could be a response. (You yourself could feel inferior (or make them feel inferior) depending on their reaction.)
  • They may get jealous of your wage and treat you negatively that way.

Summary

It's just not information that should be given out lightly (especially here in the UK) and to me a question better dodged than answered, you never know how that information could be used against you, nor' can the person really do much with the information anyway.

  • 50
    It's just not information that should be given out lightly This is the opposite of true. Everyone should try to spread this information far and wide. There is a taboo about giving out that information. But that doesn't mean that the information should not be given out lightly. Ignorance about other people's wages is one of the most useful tools that exist for depressing wages and paying women/minorities less than they are worth. – Shane Aug 17 '17 at 21:30
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    @Shane Couldn't agree more. Others and the answers author should try to give this video a chance: Adam Ruins Everything - Why You Should Tell Coworkers Your Salary – Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica Aug 18 '17 at 8:31
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    I can certainly see Shane's point, which is a strong one for the benefit of all employees. I would stress that there could still be some non-trivial interpersonal consequences, something Sip was almost getting at, at least enough to make you think twice about giving this information out. Then again, you could sort out which friends care more deeply about you, or work acquaintances, anyone. Maybe it's useful just to not tell strangers as you care about the immediate interaction with them more, which could change give that information. So mix the answers together! – Pysis Aug 18 '17 at 18:51
26

People are unwilling to talk openly about their salaries because there is a social taboo surrounding the practice.

Like all taboos, there isn't necessarily a good rationale behind its existence. And the taboo can, in fact, be detrimental, as it is here.

Around the time of the industrial revolution, you were not allowed to talk about your wages. You could be fired if you did. Employers did this because discussing what you make is an obvious and required step towards collective bargaining.

If you discuss your wages, someone will find out they make less money than they should. If they make less money than they should, they will want more money. The people making money from underpaying people don't want to pay more. Your ignorance is a very useful tool in depressing your wages or the wages of others -- especially minorities or women -- around you.

So people learned from the early industrialists of old that they would be fired if it was found out they talked money. Those people told others of what had happened to them, that they had been fired for talking money. It snowballed from there. They spread that lesson on to others. So now, even though discussing your salary is a legally protected right, people are hesitant to exercise that right.

Not discussing salary is an abusive practice. It developed as a historical artefact from the abuse of the rich and powerful in the beginning of the industrial revolution that has wormed its way deep into society and is still pushed by the same abusers today.

  • 6
    Are you sure that this it the reason why? And that it applies to all of the cultures around the world? Since the OP is in Germany, the Robber Barons may not have had the same impact or influence as they did in your culture's past. For answers to be of the greatest value on this site they need to be from within the same cultural context as the question, and should have some reasons the OP should expect that the answer applies to the situation. – Witan ap Danu Aug 18 '17 at 2:03
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    In short, employers don't like employees discussing salary in part because it helps employees in salary negotiations. The principle's information asymmetry; when negotiating, the employer already knows who's being paid what, the only difference is if the employee knows. – Nat Aug 18 '17 at 7:24
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    @Shane You might mention that many workplaces have explicit rules against discussing salary. This is, it's not just a cultural taboo, but actually enforced by policy at a lot of places. – Nat Aug 18 '17 at 7:26
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    @Nat Which countries is have it enforced by policy? In US and Canada it is a codified legal right to discuss your salary. Does the UK not have the same labor protections? – Shane Aug 18 '17 at 13:57
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    @Nat Again, they're mostly exploiting the information asymmetry to gain the upper hand - the company only needs to make the appropriately weasely contract once to cover all their employees, while each employee needs to evaluate it individually (and if consulting a lawyer, at a much greater total cost). And as Shane noted, this is so ingrained in the corporate culture that most people simply take it for granted, along with many other illegal practices. – Luaan Aug 19 '17 at 22:34
17

It's a "social" thing. Comparing (or at least revealing) salaries gives an indication of where you stand in the social pecking order. That's a bit embarrassing for most people. So you don't want to embarrass anyone by asking this information unless they volunteer it.

One reason for "volunteering" is dating. There, a person, usually a man, may be willing to reveal, or at least hint at a high salary as a means of flaunting one's standing in society in order to appear attractive to someone being courted.

  • 3
    IIRC The mythbusters put fourth evidence that money makes people attractive. good thought – tuskiomi Aug 17 '17 at 15:29
  • Yes, for most people it feels bit embarrassing, especially if the one who asked pretty much knew your potency or specialty (or even your past big talk / big goals), and that you should earn higher than current. – adadion Aug 18 '17 at 11:50
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Why?

What good could come from sharing that information? Either for you or for the person who's asking?

There isn't anything, even if one asks to learn if my career path is worth following, there are so many variables (eg my negotiation skills) that my figure doesn't translate into anything meaningful.

But bad things are plenty. Feelings are not logical, and it's all about feelings here. Especially considering the phenomenon that your job usually seems hard to you, while other jobs seem easy. If you're feeling underappreciated, learning that some slacker earns more will only make you even more unhappy and jealous. If that person earns less, you may feel superior, the one who's taxes are actually funding this country.

Learning the actual figure gives nothing. As mentioned here, money shows, so most likely you already know if your interlocutor is about your level or not. Details are irrelevant.

  • 12
    What good could come from sharing that information? Either one of you could learn that your are being underpaid. That leads to making more money. More money is good. This is rather obvious, no? – Shane Aug 17 '17 at 21:47
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    @Shane OP explicitly excluded work environment. I explicitly explained how learning how much other jobs earn brings nothing but suffering. If that was not clear to you, how can I improve my answer? – Agent_L Aug 18 '17 at 8:13
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    @immibis Sharing other personal information or experiences may find you a common ground with the other person, a topic to discuss and share problems and solutions. However, salary alone means nothing, so it does not create common ground. Eg, I make X, you make X. I'm single, living with my parents, you're sole provider for 5-person family, paying your house mortgage. Earning same gives us nothing common. – Agent_L Aug 18 '17 at 8:15
  • @Agent_L on the other hand, earning different amounts for the same thing means one of you is being underpaid or overpaid and may be a justification for asking for a pay increase. However sharing your salary could only possibly help the other person that way, it can't help you. Game theory sucks. – user253751 Aug 19 '17 at 4:01
  • @immibis No 2 jobs are exactly same thing, that's the problem. Even if we both sweep streets, one is busier than the other. Plus, how well you negotiate is just as important on how well you work. You can't demand more money because I am a better negotiator, you must learn to negotiate yourself. – Agent_L Aug 20 '17 at 11:20
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First, once you share your salary, you don't have any control on the information. It might spread like wildfire to someone you might don't want him to know.

Of course, this may include your coworkers, which lead to breach of work ethic, or worse, contract (some companies want to keep salaries confidential as to prevent jealousy and such).

Second, they don't have business on knowing a private matter. It does not benefit any of you to know your salary.

The rest already covered in other answers: they might judge you because you don't earn as much, or earn very much. I've ever seen a friend got dumped in a conversation straight after the stranger learned that he earned just the minimum wage.

  • 1
    ... or you might realise that others are making twice as much for exactly the same job. Think of how much profit your employer would lose! :P In any case, all the negatives you note also apply to rumours of your wage - which I see circulate all the time about people who decline to share their actual wage (and some who do as well, obviously - rumours tend to be like that). After all, lots of people buy silly things just to prove to others they can afford them (even if they can't!) - that's pretty much the same thing, while also subtly (or not) lying about the reality. – Luaan Aug 19 '17 at 22:38
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Key points to consider: What could the person do with the information? How could that be beneficial or detrimental to the person being asked? Unless the questioner has the ability to use the information to help the person being asked, and the person being asked knows this (e.g. bank officer evaluating a loan application), it is often against the person's best interest to answer.

Doing something that is against a person's best interests is at a fundamental level a breach or negative of trust, which is experienced as offensive. "Doing something" includes verbal moves that encourage the person to do something that is not in their own best interest. So, even if people do not consciously process or explicitly identify all this, these elements may be shaping their experience and reaction.


What are potential detriments?

I've seen it happen where once someone revealed a considerable earning potential (not even with detailed specifics), they became a target for overcharging, scams, and serious crimes by people who wanted that money.

This could be in the form of simple robbery, or a more detailed extortion scheme. If a scammer knows that you make X as salary and knows exactly what kind of false accusations or other actions the scammer could take that would cost you your job, the scammer can demand that you pay some amount less than X (ceiling may be reduced by some deductions for taxes etc.) and an economically rational person would probably pay it. Of course, it depends on the amount and credibility of the threats, but the scammer knowing the salary figure is purely helpful to the scammer and detrimental to the earner.

Further, those with higher earnings might be willing to pay more for the same thing than what a person of fewer resources would pay, and might be less likely to try to negotiate down, or not work as hard to seek lower prices. Thus, a person known as being richer can become a target for perfectly legitimate pricing discrimination, charity solicitations, telemarketing, etc. and the time/frustration/money costs of dealing with those adds up. If you want an example of price discrimination, check out tourist markets in developing countries and note the prices they charge Westerners who are perceived as rich (especially folks coming from a cruise ship) compared to what they charge locals.

If one person in a group makes even just a little more than others, s/he may be asked to make a disproportionately larger share of contribution to communal expenses that all benefit from equally (or that the more well-off person might even benefit less from). Being expected to do this with every group one is a part of (and facing social distancing/isolation for not doing so) can wind up making that person actually in a worse position financially and personally. Those issues can be avoided if salary information is not shared.

The recipient of salary information may also believe themselves to be an authority on what the salary recipient should spend the money on. These may be different priorities than the salary recipient's, and may not be as disciplined. For example, consider a teenager who knows his family's total income and decides to take actions that cause a large share of it to be spent on things like parties, clothing, electronics, trips, etc. or who grows upset when those things are not permitted, when the teenager might lack a good understanding of family financial obligations or priorities (e.g. housing expenses, saving up to be prepared for large necessary expenses, planning for retirement, contributing to college tuition, etc.). Trying to avoid such discussions may or may not be the best course of action within a family, but is more often a good idea outside of it.

If others don't know how much you make, it's harder for them to express strong opinions about how you should spend your money. Any of these discussions that still do happen must focus on whether or not the benefit of the expenditure is worth the cost, instead of how small a percentage of someone's total income something costs and how any specific "suggested" expenditure shouldn't be experienced as a material difference in financial capacity. Comparing marginal cost to marginal benefits is a much more useful focus.

On the other side, if someone doesn't make much, they can also be targeted for crime (on the suspicion they probably don't have a very good protection system in place) as well as scams, frauds, and overpricing that preys on weaknesses and vulnerabilities. People don't like feeling vulnerable. They also don't like signaling how precarious their situation is because that turns people off: they are seen as potentially less dependable, less able to bring benefits to interaction partners or groups, and less of a good choice for spending time with.

Finally, unless everyone earns the same salary, answering the question creates a social distinction between people, dividing them at least a little bit. Often, a good conversation aims to bring people together, to find common ground and points where interaction can be mutually beneficial (even if people are sharing different viewpoints that might provide insight toward a common goal). Someone asking this question communicates (even if unintentionally) an intent to create more differences and division, and as a conversation move this can be somewhat offensive.

Even if you don't think the person you're talking to directly would cause any of these detriments, what is really the benefit of providing that information? What about detriments that might result from anybody who is overhearing, or anyone any of them tell? It's just usually not in one's best interests to answer so casually, but people don't like violating social norms (e.g. by not answering a question) either. Answering or not answering, one is probably at least a tiny bit worse off than if the question had not been asked, and the question-asker gets the blame along with any resentment that may accompany the blame.

4

Saying

"hey, see how much I earn, much more than you"

sounds rude, even when it is true. The person hearing these words feels bad during the conversation and may not want to meet again. The reason why saying so feels good is you are making an insult on another person. You can earn as much as you can imagine, he does not need from you this money. Nothing honest to remind.

Groups where members start comparing salaries, and who can buy what, tend to become the source of stress rather than a place of recreation, and such groups eventually dissolve. When only somebody earning more or less same as you can make you a company, this seriously restricts the choice of friends. It just feels better in a group where members leave they social status at home unless all members have this status (say all students).

3

While there are valid points in the other answers, I have a different POV.

Personally, I've found quite often that as soon as people learn what I earn (or more to the point since I never share that information - how I live and that I'm able to pay for it without a traditional job), they frequently try to latch onto me to "teach them how to do it" - as if it were that simple. I actually tried a few times but it never went well. Since then when this has happened, no amount of explaining how many years of struggle it took for me to develop the knowledge and skills I now have, and no amount of explaining just how much actual risk there is around my income model(s), will deter them. All they see is that I live a certain lifestyle, in a certain place, without having to "work" (as they understand work to be), and they deserve that too. Entitlement seems to play a big role here.

This has really never ended well. At best, it's made things uncomfortable when I try to politely tell them that not only will I not "teach them how to do it", I couldn't if I wanted to because it's not a single teachable thing (they have not generally believed me on this point). And at worst, it has resulted in pretty much the termination of certain relationships because they just can't let it go.

Frankly this has a fair amount to do with why my partner and I are happy to have very close to zero friends (the actual definition of friends, not the modern social-media-age warped definition of friends). Colleagues, associates, and acquaintances aplenty... yes. But friends? They have kinda proven to be mostly incompatible with our lifestyle largely because we have moved outside the norm of incomes and lifestyles that they enjoy. People are strange and often get envious, jealous, and bitter. We are genuinely much happier with fewer of them in our close circle!

3

Depends on context, really.

I'm not sure why, but it's possible that people would judge you and treat you differently based on your income.

Or at least it's the fear of that happening that puts people off when asked about their salaries.

I for one discuss my income and expense with my close family and friend circles. I'd not share this information with anyone else. Just me, and my two cents.

2

One point that I think is worth highlighting: contrary to some comments, a person's salary and net worth are not necessarily transparently obvious.

In addition to salary, folks may have other resources that affect their spending power. One obvious possibility is family money or some other non-salary source of wealth. An even more likely possibility is credit. The Telegraph reported in May that household credit card debt is expected to hit an all-time high in 2017, and

The average household had unsecured debts amounting to £13,200 at the end of 2016

Importantly, that's an average figure, so some households have far more and some far less or none. What that means is that a household's spending does not necessarily correlate with their disposable income.

Moreover, not everyone spends their cash or credit on the same things—some people will prioritize good food, others nice clothing, still others travel or charitable giving. In other words, just because someone drives a flash car doesn't mean that he makes a huge salary; it could just mean that he is privately living on ramen and/or credit—or that his rich grandparents left him a trust fund.

On the flip side, many wealthy people live far more modestly than you might expect (the common quip is "that's how they got to be wealthy"). The media loves to report on these folks, like this story from the Times Union about a New York woman who

wore frumpy house dresses, drove a beat-up old Chevy Cavalier, lived modestly in a two-family house on Washington Avenue across from Albany High School and . . . left an estate worth more than $6 million.

And wealthy folks as diverse as investment guru Warren Buffett, the Queen of England, and Ikea mogul Ingvar Kamprad are highlighted in the press for their thrifty ways.

People on both sides of this coin might have reasons for wanting to maintain their financial illusions, and asking directly about their income is a direct threat to that privacy.

  • I wouldn't be too surprised to see that most of the people who gradually built their wealth are relatively thrifty - "that's how they got wealthy" indeed. The luxurious extravaganza is usually associated with the various "get rich quick schemes" like The Wolf of Wallstreet, or getting some exclusive rights that allow you to be free of competition (e.g. the typical European decadent aristocrat before the industrial revolution, trading companies...). On the other side, plenty of "poor middle class" people are that way because they can't control their spending, rather than having a low income. – Luaan Aug 19 '17 at 22:47
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I am not sure if this is due to a culture thing alone. As your neighbour from the Netherlands (similar culture) , I've had conversations about this. While some don't mind, there are others that do find it insulting. I found out the majority here just doesn't like it. Myself included.

The point is: Why is it relevant to know someone else's salary? What point does it make? The only reason why I think people want to know, is to self-reflect and compare.

"Is the person richer than me?" Auch.

or

"Is the person poorer than me? Phew"

In both cases it's very negative. People that are being asked are aware of that and they just do not want that.

I always respond with "Enough."

1

I don't know the situation in the UK but this probably applies to many places.

If someone knows your salary, they may estimate how you value your time according to your salary. For example, they may prefer not to bother you for something that they think you could simply pay someone else to do. They may also think you would be more willing to pay for such things. In other cases, they may think you don't lose anything for doing something they want. Or they think you received some help that is very important to your life.

But real people estimate the value of their own time differently. They might be willing to take much time to do some kinds of things even if not necessary, and not willing to take time for something else even if it is obviously beneficial. They help other people not for having nothing better to do, but to expect other people give them or someone else similar help for other things, or sometimes help people understand their works or themselves better. And if someone is not willing to help, they first try to walk away and find someone else, instead of begging for that. As long as it is not related to their jobs directly, they usually only estimate other people's time according to the salary. So unless you already know each other well, someone may not want to add the unwanted implications at first.

Think about it. Do the richest person in the world play video games? It's difficult to know. It's not strange if they do, but people usually don't assume it's a good idea to talk with them about video games. They'll have trouble to make friends that could talk about video games.

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I've been in the workforce for about 30 years now (sigh, used to be the young guy in the office and now I'm the fourth oldest).

From my experience, when I talk salary with my peers, nobody really minds sharing. We don't necessarily care about exact numbers but we tend to discuss ranges.

I have not yet had anyone be offended by the discussion, and frankly, in my opinion, most people don't mind sharing, but management on the other hand, just freaking hates it, as it leads to questions such as, "why didn't I get more?"

Similarly, in private/personal discussions with friends and family, most people don't seem to mind sharing salary ranges. In most cases this is public information anyway (via salary surveys).

P.S. I'm in Canada.

  • 1
    While your personal experience certainly counts as good information, you essentially answered a question that asks, "Why do people behave [this way]? by answering, "In my experience, they don't." In other words, if the OP has encountered this phenomenon and is asking why it happens, your answer has not really .. answered the question. On StackExchange (SE) sites, our goal is to provide informative, well researched answers rather than simply "weighing in." Please keep this in mind in the future. We do thank you for your participation. Welcome to the Interpersonal Skills SE site! – WeaselADAPT Aug 20 '17 at 23:57
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Salaries

While I see the issue about some companies forbidding talking about salary, this is not the case in mine. Some (few) people are known to talk about their salaries with close colleagues, and this is usually a non-issue. Yes, management will be influenced by it, but in my experience only insofar as the salaries of said people tend to stick rather close together, which can be positive or negative for the persons involved.

I do not see it as a problem that a colleague could go to his boss and say "I want to earn as much as XXX". This is the same for me as "either I get XXX, or I'll leave". Yes, it is a threat, and no, it will not generally (in my experience) have the result the colleague intended.

Money

As mentioned in some comment, the issue not even just about salaries in a company, but about money in general.

Let's see some interpersonal issues that could crop up with discussing money in any context:

Envy and grudges are obvious things. If you learn that someone else has much more than you, and you are feeling that he should not (or that you should), and you are not inclined in a way His Dudeness would approve (indifferent to money), then you will likely feel unwholesome emotions.

If you are indifferent about money, but someone around you boasts about their riches, you might think them an oaf.

If you notice someone talking about money as if they had a lot, but they don't actually do (the scale might be different for different people), you might think less of them.

If you learn that two persons who are "worth" the same earn wildly different amounts, you could feel bad about the injustice.

If you do care about money and like to compare yourself openly with others, you can make a little game out of it - as long as you get more than your peers you'll be happy; if you get less you may get incentivized (think "big players") to earn even more or, at some point, get depressed because you just cannot keep up - everyone has to be their own judge whether this incentivization is a wholesome thing or not.

I have only witnessed very few cases where people talked about their money and it came over in a nice way. Some can pull it off (there are some interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger where he talks frankly about prices of some of the things he owns), some not so much.

So, TLDR: discussing money with people who don't care would just be hot air. Discussing money with people who do care usually would lead to bad feelings.

Equalizing salary

A point that shone through in other answers and comments was that employers do not want employees to talk about it, maybe so they cannot leverage some information.

I can see no way that talking about money would ever be positive for employees. What would be positive (possibly, depending on your personal views) would be to have a public, open list of salaries connected to "jobs" in a company - similarly to salaries in academic/public sectors in Germany. But then, people would probably not fight about the fixed salary, but about the other side of the coin - the amount of (perceived) effort put in.

What helps is if companies have job descriptions, job families, salary "bands" etc. and a transparent process of how salaries are arrived at. This does not mean that salaries need to be public. The decision of how much any one employee should get can depend on a lot of bits of information, not just the greed of the employer. For example, in my rather large company, the people distributing the salary do not profit in any fashion whatsoever from keeping back - they get a budget by their respective managers and then do their best to divide that as fair as possible, respecting the individual employees as well as the big picture. They do not have any benefit if there is "leftover", instead, they try to press out as much budget as they can from their uppers.

In smaller companies, where the single owner is more or less directly doing that, and where anything he does not pay out will directly end up in his pockets might be different, but then, in such a company, the issue is the boss himself (or his relationship with every single employer), and not the comparison about the different employees.

0

Salary is a sensitive subject. When people ask about the salary, mostly it is for knowing the salary range for the kind of job one does. If the person asking for information works in the same field, it is probably to compare their own against ours. There are a few who ask the question directly or indirectly just to know the earning capacity of a person and to guess how rich or average or poor he/she is. It is plainly a status-related question. Either way, I find it difficult when someone me such personal questions. I may earn 200K or 20K. It is nobody's business. It is Personal.Period.

0

The problems that arise if I say the actual salary:

  • It's confidential information that we are exposing.

  • If it's too low, the other person and myself will feel uncomfortable.

  • If it's too high, they feel oh, he is earning a lot of money, and see how is he living, what might he be doing with that money etc..

If I don't say what my salary is:

  • They will think that I am not close to them and hiding my salary, and then their feeling will get hurt.

Personally, I avoid asking other people about their salary. Instead, I will ask about work, health, environment, or at the most will ask if they are getting enough salary.

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