What would you do if your HR accidentally emailed you back with an attached Excel file containing the actual salary figures of all employees in the department?
But that actually happened to my coworker and friend (Please, don’t ask for more details).
It might be unethical and a grave violation of the company policies, but I couldn’t help joining the squad as they scanned through the highest and lowest earners, the overpaid and the underpaid. Tao lang, and I sincerely apologize for it.
To make a point and not waste this outrageous illustration, I believe the incident somehow changed my work attitude, although not necessarily manifested in my behaviors, and how I appreciate my hardworking coworkers who stay underpaid. Yes, it just did.
Now, what makes discussing money, particularly income and how much we have in our bank accounts, culturally inappropriate in most social settings?
It’s true that we Filipinos rarely or never ever talk about how much we earn for a living. During family gatherings and reunions with friends, we quickly dismiss the topic and brush off the awkwardness by simply saying “sakto lang” (enough) or “okay naman” (fine).
Suppose not dismissed, and we get almost cornered with salary guesses and brackets insistently laid on the table, we either make a compromise with “mga ganyan” (something like that) or respond humbly with “medyo mababa” or “medyo mataas naman” (somewhat lower or higher); however, the bottom line is that — still we don’t disclose the actual salary figures.
If another person, say, other than us and the company payroll team, knows how much we really earn, we feel as if we need to gag him or take the restroom whenever we expect that casual conversations lead there. We feel that we can never trust anybody else.
We don’t want other people to know our real numbers, but we cannot deny that deep inside us, we are also dead curious about how much others make.
It’s taboo to talk about money. In many cultures, not just the Filipino culture, as a matter of fact, talking about money, especially income, is considered taboo.
As BigThink writes, taboos are social no-go areas and conversational untouchables, and what makes discussing it taboo is the belief system (right and wrong) deeply embedded in the culture that wealth equals value.
Thus, when someone asks us about how much we earn, it is as if they’re also asking about our place in society. Getting into this situation unwantedly brings the harsh reality of social and economic inequalities to the fore, which may further trigger internal and external conflicts.
To avoid such conflicts, we have developed a simple and seemingly effective mechanism — we don’t talk about money!
Although it’s not all a disadvantage, we Filipinos are collectivists. We Filipinos prioritize the welfare and perceptions of the social group we belong to rather than the individual self. In doing so, we consider the standards of this group as the arbiter of our ideologies and behaviors. We put our inferiorities and struggles in moral terms, believing it is a mortal sin being the weakest link.
While we strongly value social acceptance over autonomy and uniqueness, we tend to stay silent, hide emotions, and avoid topics that we think will put us in a difficult situation or disrupt our social disposition. Thus, being a collectivist makes us keep many things on our own.
In terms of personal finances, we want to avoid being perceived by the group as the lowest earner, the most unfortunate, or just the one who runs short of diskarte sa buhay (resourcefulness). It is as if being one makes us less of a member. Sometimes or in many situations, we fake the declared salary figures or the ranges.
We take money as a success and status symbol. The Filipino dream that our society has long defined goes this way — we get our degrees, land jobs in reputable companies, earn a stable income to support our family (and even our extended family), work harder to build tangible wealth to prove success and retire in our sixties.
In the Philippines, money is always a status symbol. The concept of success is culturally limited to money and material possessions such as a house and lot, a car, and other properties.
Young adults get pressured to work in a traditional employment setup, climb the corporate ladder, and earn more to meet the expectations of the elders and society the soonest.
Such a status symbol and social pressure leave many of us in a dilemma between making our own decisions, for example, pursuing creative arts and other passions, and just meeting these social expectations. We all want to be successful in all aspects, even in terms of the socially imposed material wealth. That is certain, but sometimes we would rather keep our lips zipped than show defiance.
On the other hand, we equate low income and financial struggles to failures. Now, it is harder to keep the right balance between personal decisions and social expectations than said and imagined. Being resilient as we are, we usually keep the internal battles with frustrations and inferiorities on our own, so with the financial struggles.
Not earning enough for a living is seen as a lack of diskarte, lack of skills and capacity, or in other words — a deficiency. Financial struggles and unwise decisions about money also create the same bad impressions about us. People use them to define us.
We instead prefer to keep these inside than be judged or embarrassed. We don’t want others to think of us as a failure; thus, we avoid discussions about them as much as possible. In doing this, we also close our doors for empathy, possible external help, and good advice for our financial problems and struggles.
We don’t want to be judged, embarrassed, and compared to others. Aside from being judged, we are also prone to be compared to others when we become all transparent about our financial situation, particularly the real numbers.
In the workplace, we may be compared to coworkers who are earning way higher but seemingly working less and lighter than us. Although, in most cases, this is in somewhat teasing approach, but may still have a negative impact on professional relationships and work attitudes.
In the family, this comparison among siblings weighs more seriously, and one will expectedly be at a big disadvantage. It will make that one feel inadequate and embarrassed, bruise the ego, or develop an emotionally disturbing experience.
It is also typical for adults in Filipino society to get nosy about other people’s affairs, including their finances. In conversations, we don’t know whether they are just amazed about how their subjects build a house or buy a car quickly, are a little envious, or want to ask us about where we are already in the Filipino dream.
Or we just want to keep a low profile and not be misperceived as braggarts. Young professionals are just professionals, and we know when to brag and when to keep a low profile. Personal finances are just personal that do not need any public disclosures.
Braggarts are loud, arrogant boasters who may be displaying and talking more blusters than substance and may just be insensitive to the feelings of others, and these are not what we expect from successful people.
In modern and educated Filipino society, those who earn higher are most likely the ones who keep their lips zipped when asked about the actual numbers or the costs of acquired properties.
It’s probably for keeping healthy social relationships, for security reasons, or avoiding being taken advantage of by exploitative people in the family and social circles.
So, talking about money is often a double-edged sword. Whether among the higher or the lower earners, we inevitably develop feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment should income and real numbers be open for discussions.
We also don’t trust others and find financial advice an intrusion into our personal life. We always think that it is useless to talk about personal finances, much more to seek financial advice, because we believe that no other person will understand our situation than we alone.
We rather talk about other things, even other people’s lives, than bring our personal financial matters to the table. Even when we already mess up with our finances, we still wouldn’t admit needing help.
We prefer to solve these problems on our own. We also find it an intrusion into our private life when other people make unsolicited and vocal suggestions, such as how much we should stash away from our paychecks, where to invest our money, or whether we need this or that.
Equally, many of us have stigmatized financial planners and advisors as salespeople who usually employ sales-driven tactics and that they are only motivated by hefty commissions from their sales of insurance policies and other investment products.
It has developed to be an intergenerational norm. In many traditional Filipino families, wealth and financial matters are just between couples or among adults. Children are usually hands-off and not given the necessary financial guidance and teachings. Growing old, we are clueless about our family finances, debts, and wills.
Speaking of wills, Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy and Boston College, in a Forbes article, says that the taboo against talking about money among people with wealth inheritance comes with three dimensions: intergenerational, in which parents and children do not discuss the wealth; publicity, in which public disclosure is highly avoided; and, peers, in which it’s not discussed among friends and colleagues.
While houses, parcels of land, and other material wealth are handed down through generations, inheritors are usually left figuring out many things undiscussed to them and then passing the same on to the next.
The cycle then continues, but now loosens up with the modern family setups where many millennial parents teach their children the value of savings, investing, and many financial things during their formative years.
Conversations about money can help children develop better money habits. As they grow old, they may be more likely to seek financial support should they need it and find more opportunities for healthier financial lives.
In the end, money carries a certain stigma in various social settings, but not talking about it at all, especially when there is a need to do so, may leave us at a disadvantage.
Being open about it may make us more informed about financial matters, learn and adopt practical money skills and habits, and share these with family, friends, and even kids.
So, should we talk about it now or still not?
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