The Salary Discussion Taboo

In the paycheck world, it is obviously beneficial to employers if employees don’t discuss salaries openly, and though in the U.S . you cannot be legally prohibited from doing so, many employers strongly encourage the norm. Many even institute it as a policy, though it cannot be legally enforced. The thing though, is that employees don’t really want to discuss their salaries openly either, whatever the cost in terms of ceded salary negotiation leverage. Periodically, there are calls by well-intentioned people to normalize open discussion of salaries, but it never works and never will. Why? In the modern world, income, identity, and social status in the middle class are too tightly coupled for talking openly about salaries to be comfortable. Revealing how much you make has social consequences. Gaining salary negotiation leverage against employers is a secondary consideration. Maintaining a social status quo relative to neighbors and work peers is primary. Your neighbor or coworker in the next cubicle or Zoom window, with a very similar home and car, may be making twice what you make and have half as much debt, but you wouldn’t know it. And it is in your best interests, for both of you, to pretend the differences are smaller than they might actually be. The salary taboo is a peculiarly middle-class thing and there’s a history to it. Through most of the twentieth century, as the middle class grew and absorbed chunks of the working and wealthy classes, the taboo grew in strength. Socially, the middle class is much more egalitarian than either the wealthy or the working classes. Markers of differences in wealth and income are subtle and understated. The differences are not denied, but their social consequences are consciously minimized. Shared social realities — such as schools and community centers — present a facade of near-absolute equality. Even in the U.S . , where homogenizing norms like school uniforms are uncommon, flaunting your parents ’ wealth too openly, or failing to adequately mask their lack of it, marks you for social consequences. After 1980, as the middle class began to both shrink and socially fragment under economic stress, the taboo weakened, but only slightly. Social life in the middle class depends too much on the pretense of relatively equal lifestyles for the taboo to dissipate. A twinge of envy, when you look over to your neighbor’s driveway, might make for some healthy social competition, but you don’t want such casual awareness of your social milieu to turn into suicidal despair at the unfairness of the universe. All this tempers the impulse to share salary information and the impulse is not class-native to begin with. So where did it come from in the first place? The thing is, the very idea of trading salary information for shared negotiation leverage is fundamentally rooted in working-class solidarity tactics. In the working class — what used to be called blue-collar or service labor, and in its modern form is what I call under-the-API work — openness about pay harmonizes well with things like unions and fungible labor. In the traditional working class, people were much more interchangeable. They were valued by role and by a relatively straightforward correlation between an experience ( “ seniority ” ) and a worth-in-role perception that was relatively independent of skill ( unlike modern white-collar work or pre-modern craft work ). It’s not that the working classes are less socially competitive — it’s that they are too interchangeable at work for work identities to be the basis of social competition. As a result, working-class Joneses around the world compete socially in other ways. In the U.S. , historically, things like Christmas decorations, bowling scores, baking skills, chili recipes, drinking stamina, and dancing abilities have mattered more than income. Neighborhood “ big man ” types dominate local social hierarchies much more than in the middle class. Among the wealthy, of course, the discussion is moot. Net worth and political power are far more important than salaries. Among the truly wealthy, living off investment income is the norm and having to work at all marks as you as not - quite - respectable. In the gig economy, the fundamental psychology of social competition and money taboos is similar, but it plays out differently.
THE TABOO IS A GOOD THING
This might be a surprising conclusion, but I think for indie consultants, as well as for salaried workers, the taboo is actually a good thing. A richer, more functional social milieu exists because we have a certain sense of decorum around how we talk about money. This sense of decorum is, in my opinion, wiser than the impulse towards what is generally a vain form of openness. In the case of indies, the important thing is to not lie to yourself, but the salary-equivalent number does not actually matter for its own sake. Unlike for salaried workers, it plays no meaningful role in your life. Since you don’t use it as the basis for negotiating anything, it doesn’t matter. On the other hand, component numbers of the illegible formula, like an hourly rate, are meaningless to compare on their own. For your own needs, the important thing is to develop ways of looking at your books that keep you honest about the questions that actually matter: Does the headline of the work you claim to do match the contents? It is okay for there to be a gap so long as you understand clearly why it exists and should exist. Does your income mix reflect your actual or desired posture? Both are fine—so long as you know which it is. Are you doing too much work you don’t want to and too little of work you do want to? Are you able to say yes and no to gigs wisely, assuming you can say no at all? Are you able to invest as much as you want in spec work and non-consulting income assets? Are your finances lifestyle-optimized and tax-optimized? Are you saving at a reasonable rate? Like salaried workers, you too will grow old, less able to work, and need to retire. Should you accept this gig at this hourly or project rate? Will you learn something new that’s worth any discount you might be offering to land the gig? Is your runway healthy? How about your health insurance situation? Do your risks look good? Are you betting on things with a range of upsides? Are there things you want to buy that you are not able to afford? Material quality of life matters. The thing is, the salary-equivalent number doesn’t actually matter for any of these questions; it is a pure vanity metric of no consequence. The only reason to want to know it is to have something to compare with others and with your former salaried self (and former colleagues still in that world). There is no personal reason to answer that particular question of salary-equivalent income. What about social reasons? We don’t play the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses game for neighborhood status, but we do play something that looks a lot like it, and it is not meaningless. Learning to present yourself and parse how others present themselves is an important skill. You have to look enough like other people that potential clients understand who you are and what you offer (i.e., don’t call it customer-delight wrangler, call it marketing) and unique enough that they want to hire you specifically. Part of learning this skill is being able to talk compassionately and usefully about the questions while being kind to each other. This means avoiding challenging each other’s public postures and personas unnecessarily. To the extent taboos foster healthy patterns of mutual support, they are good. To the extent talking about numbers out of vanity, some misguided sense of openness, or an inapplicable sense of solidarity, actually hurts others by drawing them into unwise candor or demotivating them, violating the taboo is actively bad. Reveal what you’re comfortable revealing, when and where you’re comfortable revealing it. You’re an adult. You don’t need rules or boundaries of the sort designed for children where thoughtfulness is called for. But you don’t need idealistic taboo-breaking for its own sake either. It is entirely fine to tiptoe around sensitive matters with euphemisms and obfuscations. For example, I rarely ever share my income details even 1:1 with highly trusted friends (on the one day of the year that I actually have a sense of it), but I’m happy to share hourly rates pretty freely and advise others on where to set theirs or how to price project-style bids. I’m typically open about approximate narrative indicators like, “I am making more than I did at my last job, but not as much as I probably would be by now if I’d stayed in it and progressed at the expected rate.” That sort of sharing, I think, helps others calibrate and make their own decisions more wisely. It is somewhere between childish and clueless to hold to arbitrary standards of openness for no good reason. This is particularly a lesson that struggling, early-stage indies need to internalize because they often don’t recognize the costs of openness. Some seem to believe they have so little, they have nothing left to lose. It is certainly okay to ask for help, even publicly on Twitter. It is okay to share some of what you’re going through. But there are costs. In public, you don’t exist in a bubble of security and unconditional positive regard the way you might within a healthy family. What you say affects how you are perceived and determines who is willing—or not—to deal with you. You exist in a world where visible vulnerability can be exploited. There are real costs to posting a highly detailed confessional laying out all your deepest financial life secrets in the misguided belief that such openness will be seen as “authentic” and inspire people to open doors for you. That rarely happens. The world doesn’t work that way. There is always a balance to be struck between vulnerability and guardedness, openness and discretion, managing perceptions vs. presenting an unedited self to the world, solidarity with others, and pragmatic self-interest. Wanting to be completely open financially—whether the picture is one of abject despair or obscene success—is more often an exhibitionist impulse or a reaching out for human connection than it is a useful tactic for improving your financial condition. So yes, talking about money is fraught—and it should be. Don’t let misguided idealism draw you into talking about money in ways that don’t feel either right or wise.