Why don't we talk about money? - RSA

Why don't we talk about money?


  • Enterprise
  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain
  • Communities

Conventional wisdom, which is usually more conventional than wise, advises us that there are three things we should NOT talk about in polite company: sex, religion and money.

Conventional wisdom, which is usually more conventional than wise, advises us that there are three things we should NOT talk about in polite company: sex, religion and money.

Discussions about sex may elicit embarrassed smiles and uncomfortable eye contact, but rarely cause offence. On religion we may hold back for fear of offending cherished beliefs or trampling on carefully constructed world views, but our position on the 'what's it all about?' question no longer feels particularly private.

Money, however, still feels fairly taboo.  I talk about money with my wife, very occasionally with my mum(usually when asking for help) and in detail with a financial advisor, whom I see far too rarely to make any sustained impact on my finances.

We seem to think that talking about money- how much we earn or should earn, how and when to spend and save it, are deeply personal matters, but why?

My first thought is that we fear money is a form of labelling. Knowing how much somebody is 'worth'- a horrible expression- somehow objectifies people and we don't want to be involved in that.

My second thought is that numerical comparison is uncomfortable, and generates status anxiety.  The main problem is that we invariably compare ourselves to people above ourselves, and so thinking or talking about money tends to make us feel bad.

Both these thoughts are largely about salaries, rather than money in general, so perhaps there is something else going on.

My third thoughts is that we value money for different reasons that say a great deal about what we ultimately value, often more than we are comfortable to disclose in public. For some, money means freedom, for others it means status, for others it's all about security.


If I discover, for instance, that you hoard savings for a rainy day, I have learned something quite personal about you, and may assume you are more fearful than I would otherwise have suspected. Or if I know that you decided not to sign up to your company pension scheme(rather than simply not getting round to it) it tells me something about your attitude to the future, and to risk.

I am sure there is much more to it, but not talking at a peer-to-peer level about money is problematic, because we lose access to our most valuable sources of advice- sources we really trust. We may have confidence in financial 'experts', but that is not the same as trusting them- they are not familiar enough for us to take a decision merely on their word.

I am sure I have squandered a lot of money over the years because I don't feel socially sanctioned to talk freely about money with people who might know, for instance, how to save money on phone bills, or insurance, or childcare, or which banks to use, or how much I should be paying into a pension...such questions are now the function of the market rather than our social network- but does it need to be so? If we start talking about money, does our social fabric get torn?

I am not sure, but I leave you with an enigmatic question by Ayn Rand, to ponder, in the hope that it might help you to help me find an answer:

"So you think Money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is at the root of all money?"

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