Americans love to talk about how Americans hate to talk about money. Indeed, recent surveys from financial and market-research firms have found that in 34 percent of cohabiting couples (married or not), one or both partners couldn’t correctly identify how much money the other makes; that only 17 percent of parents with an income above $100,000 a year had told (or planned to tell) their children how much they earn or their net worth; and that people are “more comfortable” talking with friends about marital discord, mental health, addiction, race, sex, and politics than money.
These results seem to point to a society-wide gag rule that discourages the discussion of financial details. But there are caveats. The companies that tend to publish findings like these stand to gain from persuading people to talk more about their money, if not with their loved ones, then with a professional financial adviser. They’re also, therefore, more likely to be interested in the psychological drama of people who make $100,000 a year than in that of people who make less.
Many Americans do have trouble talking about money—but not all of them, not in all situations, and not for the same reasons. In this sense, the “money taboo” is not one taboo but several, each tailored to a different social context. Money taboos are absent, or much weaker, in many countries and cultures outside the U.S., but when the conditions present in those societies exist in certain pockets of America, silence can give way to relative openness. Americans, in other words, are hesitant to talk about money—except for all the times when they aren’t.