How Much Do You Get Paid?

Culturally, asking someone how much they make is  like asking them how many bowel movements they make in a day.

In some cultures—like Singapore, for instance– it’s not as uncommon to be asked it, (the money question, not the toilet question) but I think that most locals in the Lion City still think it’s rude.

But why is it rude?

Is it because we recognize how unequal our society has become, and we’re embarrassed by what the comparative answers reveal?

You can’t tell me that an investment banker making $600,000 a year works harder than one of the Bangladeshi workers we have building and maintaining roads here in Singapore.  But the Bangladeshi worker gets about $2 an hour.

And you can’t tell me that the investment banker already put in his time, sweating away at an Ivy League school.  I don’t buy that either.  Until you’ve watched a young man laying tarmac on the equator, in 100% humidity, for 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, you can’t talk about sweat equity.  I won’t listen.

But there’s something else to this.

Our reluctance to share what we get paid can leave so many young people in the dark.  For instance, wouldn’t you have wanted to know answers to the following questions when you were choosing a career?

1.  How much do you make?

2.  How many hours do you work per day?

3.  What are your holidays like?

4.  Do you have to spend time away from home?

5.  Do you love your job?

6.  Do you think the majority of your workmates enjoy the work they do?

7.  What do you like most about your job and what do you like least?

Strangely, when students have “career days” at school, they never seem to ask these questions.

I’ve been privy to a number of career day sessions, where professionals from the community give talks to interested students, while the students ask only the “polite” questions.

What are your thoughts?  Should the above questions be considered taboo—especially the money one?  Would you have wanted to know the answers to these questions before starting your professional career?

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Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School (2nd Ed. Wiley 2017) and The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat (Wiley 2015). My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions. However, please read the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and the Comments Policy.

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10 Responses

  1. To me what you get paid is still a private matter. But I'd have no problem answering questions 2-7.

  2. Mich @BTI says:

    Interesting times we're in, some people have no problem discussing their personal sex lives while they consider it rude to ask question number 1. How much do you make has become more taboo than sex….

  3. This is an interesting web site about salary comparison.

    The only concern I have with sharing salary is when it can be used against you … I have no problem to help educate but it becomes an issue if everyone around you know and start making comments or issues from it. That said, CEOs in public companies have a public salary. Most employees won't even bother to look it up though … but they would lookup the salary of every person they are surrounded with to compare and that's where trouble starts.

  4. Think Dividends says:

    I went to an Ivy League school in Canada and we were NOT allowed to ask those questions when an employer came to campus. Since those questions were frowned upon, several of my peers were dissapointed when they got their job offers…

  5. 101 Centavos says:

    Like Biz, questions 2-7 would be no problem. I'm sometimes surpised by the directness of certain questions and comments in other cultures. When I worked with Filipinos, for example, it wasn't uncommon for some of them to say something like "Wow, you got fat"

  6. Hey Andrew,

    Happy Holidays to you!

    I don't think any of the above questions are really taboo, but #1 is still considered rude. How much someone makes, for whatever reason, is somehow a social barometer of success. I don't see it that way, but because so many folks identify professional (and sometimes personal) success with money made, it's been a touchy subject since day one.

    In the end, it's not what you make, it's what you do with what you make that should become the measuring stick. Somebody making minimum wage and retiring early has absolutely everything to be proud of over the millionaire pensioner who worked 40 years until they were 65.

    Wow – I couldn't imagine "…a young man laying tarmac on the equator, in 100% humidity, for 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, you can’t talk about sweat equity."

    I wish you all the best in 2011!

  7. Gareth Barlow says:

    Nothing at the minute, Andrew. I tell everyone I meet on the ski lifts that I'm a "kept man". Unfortunately my passport was returned today with my application for Canadian residency completed. I tried to hide it, but to no avail. Marni found it and now she has been talking about me getting a social security number. I think we both know where this is leading…

    Happy new year. Hope you and Pele are enjoying your break.

  8. I think some companies like it that way, since there can be big discrepancies between coworkers. 2-7 are ok for me, and 1 is OK if I think the knowledge can be handled safely and won't be abused. I'm actually more willing to tell a stranger 1 than a friend, due to the potential issues that can come about.

  9. BRANDON says:

    How about a question of 'HOW MUCH INCOME TAX DO YOU PAY'?

    This question can skirt around question number 1, and then you can do some quick math for an approx. figure.

    Life is about 'PERCEPTION' & 'CONDITIONING', which is the reason why some questions seem to be taboo to some people.

  10. @BRANDON

    There's a point Brandon. But I wonder how many people can answer that one.

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