Mine is Bigger Than Yours
May 16, 2008 11:03 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with ultra-competitive people

I meet regularly with a group of people consisting of friends and acquaintances.

Salary-wise, I don't make as half as much as the others do. Just to be clear, I am normally a very content person, happy with the choices I'm making in my life. I am also genuinely happy when someone gets a raise or is doing financially well for themselves.

I feel bad, however, when someone will talk about how much they make, then turn to me, and say "and how much are you making these days?" Or ask about my own car, or home, right after they boast about their own purchases, waiting eagerly for my answer.

I was quite taken aback when I was first asked these types of questions, but this seems to be a standard type of exchange for at least 3 individuals in the group. What bugs me is that does not seem like the asker is concerned about my well-being, but using it to gauge their own success, and perhaps give themselves a little ego boost.

Am I making too much of this? How do I not let this bother me? Sometimes I think, "gads, how obnoxious", but I also wonder if I'm being overly sensitive. Because if I truly didn't care about competing, why do I feel like crap during these exchanges? Do you have any experiences with this? And how would you respond?
posted by uxo to Human Relations (60 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You are not being overly sensitive. Ugh. These people are cads. Let them know that you think such bragging is gauche. You don't have to be insulting about it, just let them know that you are insulted.
posted by caddis at 11:08 AM on May 16, 2008

Response by poster: What bugs me is that does not seem like the asker is concerned about my well-being, but using it to gauge their own success, and perhaps give themselves a little ego boost.

(Sorry, the above is missing a word. Should read like below.)

What bugs me is that IT does not seem like the asker is concerned about my well-being, but using it to gauge their own success, and perhaps give themselves a little ego boost.
posted by uxo at 11:08 AM on May 16, 2008

Smile in a small quiet way and enjoy the fact that you are not one of those people. If you're enjoying your life on your own terms, what the hell else matters?
posted by cmyk at 11:12 AM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it is totally over the line to ask about other people's salaries and purchases. It's on par with asking unwarranted questions about people's sex lives. Just respond that you don't feel right talking about it. If you're mad enough just say that you were taught that those sorts of questions are rude.
posted by Alison at 11:13 AM on May 16, 2008

You're not making too much of it, it's a terribly rude and obnoxious thing to ask. In terms of responses, is it Miss Manners who suggests responding to rude questions with "Why do you ask?"? Because that seems to me to be the best way to handle inappropriate questions.

Whether or not you care about competing, this is obnoxious, socially unacceptable behavior. What you make and how you choose to spend is none of their business.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:15 AM on May 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

I also felt like crap about these types of exchanges. And then one day, I decided NOT to feel like crap. Maybe it's maturity - having enough life experiences under my belt to know that the grass isn't always greener, regardless of one's ability to afford a pricey lawn maintenance service.

If you are happy with your own choices, just [try to] let those questions roll off your back. One way I've found to answer is something along the lines of "I make enough to be happy," and let the asker of the question wonder exactly what that amount is.

I have also tended to drop those kinds of people as friends, although that may or may not be possible in your case.

Another point to consider is there are probably other people in the group who feel the same way you do, and you may have to do some digging to find out who they are. Then make a point to cultivate their friendships and let the relationships with the competitive types wither a bit.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:16 AM on May 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

When asked, respond with: "I consider such to be personal information and really not suited for conversation."
posted by ericb at 11:16 AM on May 16, 2008

Agree with caddis. You are not being overly sensitive.

I have experienced exchanges like these. I have never been interested in cars. I want a reliable car with decent gas mileage and I drive it for a long time (compared to most). I have never been interested in BMW's or Lexus or whatever. I have gotten crappy little comments about my Mazda 6 (a perfectly acceptable car). Things like: "Don't we pay you enough to buy something nicer?" from my boss (Seriously.) It always irritated me and I never had a witty enough retort. I usually responded with "I am sorry you choose to judge people on something so petty as what they drive".

I don't get the point blank "how much do you make" question. That is just plain rude. I would refuse to answer. That's a bunch of crap.

Rereading this, I am not very helpful. Sorry.
posted by beachhead2 at 11:17 AM on May 16, 2008

I like to look visibly taken aback and drop a "Wow" in cases like these.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Pick one:

"Oh, that's personal info."


"How's your sex life?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:23 AM on May 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

why do I feel like crap during these exchanges?

Because they are trying to make you feel like crap and they succeeded.

How to not let it bother you: you need to really know for yourself that you're ok. You need to define success and happiness in your own life. For these people, success is defined in material ways. How do you define these things?

And I call into question anyone who knowingly and willingly turns to another "friend" asks them about their salaries and vehicles with the intent to boost their own ego and therefore causing you sadness. That's not so nice.

How I handle these situations - first off, I am a fairly frugal person and I like to save money for important stuff (important to me). I like to be debt free. So, when so-and-so is talking about their latest expensive vehicle or whatever, I'd be thinking about what a waste of money that was and how much SMARTER it would have been to buy a 2- 3 year old used vehicle.

Be proud of who you are and what you have and what you have achieved. Be really proud. People can pick up on your security and their attempts to bring you down won't work for long.

Like cmyk said, "smile in a small quiet way." Don't respond. Or if you do respond to their questions, say it loud and proud. If asking about you vehicle, "I love my Geo Metro!! The gas mileage rocks" don't hem and haw and shuffle your feet while you embarrassingly own up to driving it.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:24 AM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

One runs across people like this from time to time. It's not always about money, but about the exotic places one has travelled to, or how fast one can ride a bike for how long, or whatever.

When asked a question like this, I'll exaggerate in the opposite direction "Oh, I'm practically destitute. It's a wonder I can keep a roof over my head. On the plus side, I've learned 30 ways to prepare rice and beans."…"My car? My bike cost more than my car" [this was true for a long time]
posted by adamrice at 11:25 AM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

This doesn't directly answer the question, but I think it's relevant that these days there's less of a cultural taboo about salary discussions. From the New York Times: Not So Personal Finance.
posted by awesomebrad at 11:25 AM on May 16, 2008

Channel yourself a little Taylor Mali.
posted by tula at 11:29 AM on May 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

Answer succinctly and without shame, then immediately ask if the person has had any success in getting their partner to try anal.

Preferably, the partner will be present.
posted by coryinabox at 11:29 AM on May 16, 2008 [10 favorites]

Sometimes I think, "gads, how obnoxious", but I also wonder if I'm being overly sensitive. Because if I truly didn't care about competing, why do I feel like crap during these exchanges?

You feel like crap because people are being obnoxious. In response to this sort of boorishness, personally, I either smile very sweetly and say "none of your fucking business" or otherwise call out the obnoxiousness.
posted by desuetude at 11:30 AM on May 16, 2008

coryinabox's suggestion occurred to me as well.
posted by desuetude at 11:31 AM on May 16, 2008

Background: when my wife was getting her MBA, people regularly assumed that I was the student, and she was merely the spouse. This led to ample opportunities for this kind of thing.

It needs to be said, however, that most of her classmates surprised me by not playing to the stereotype. A few did not. Of those, if I started to get sick of the vibe you're describing in your question, I'd change the game. Why should Mr. or Ms. jerkwad compare themselves to me? What fun is there in that? For example:

Ms. Jerkwad: "Oh, you're not in banking...blah blah blah."

Me (with 99% certainty they were not going to say Goldman): "Hey, do you know what you're doing this summer/after graduation?"

Ms. Jerkwad: "Oh, I'm going to be working for (not Goldman)."

Me: "Really? I thought all you guys wanted to go work for Goldman? Why aren't you going to work for them?"

Replace "Goldman" with "McKinsey" for consultants, "Google" for marketing people, etc. I knew full well what I was doing to these poor people, but since I was part of the great unwashed herd outside of their reality, I could play my "ignorance" to great effect.

Oh, you just bought a 3/5 series? Doesn't BMW also have a performance version? What's it called, again? Like an M or an L or something? Etc. There's ALWAYS something, some life, that's better - you and I might not need those things to validate ourselves, but they do - and they don't own it. Make them aware of that.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 11:34 AM on May 16, 2008 [18 favorites]

Just tell them that salary is inversely proportionate to dick size and brain capacity. Glad to see you are so wealthy you small dicked imbecile.


I would have to say for myself that it would depend on the people. People who ask this in the fashion you describe I can honestly say I would probably not find myself around. Just not my type of folks.
I camp every summer with a group of friends that date back to High School and beyond, some of whom have salaries that DWARF my entire universe, and you would never know it. At least not on our camping trips. In the parking lot it shows a bit. And when I go to their houses it shows as well. But, because they are true friends, it is never an issue. I am welcome at their home just as they are welcome at mine.
At a guess, these individuals are youngish? Male?
Bottom line for you, don't feel bad. You have no reason to feel bad if you are happy with your own situation.
posted by a3matrix at 11:35 AM on May 16, 2008

I've been in situations like this, and I feel for you, uxo. I'd go with what SuperSquirrel suggests (I make enough), and just change the subject without answering directly.

Or, define worth in terms other than money, such as "how much is your house worth?" "My house is fantastic! It's so close to the shops, so conveniently located, etc." Ditto for your car, or other posessions being asked about. Bonus if you can throw a little dig into the mix. "My car gets such good mileage, it makes me feel so good that I can do something for the environment! How's your Hummer working out for you?"
posted by LN at 11:36 AM on May 16, 2008

(As an aside, stick the little dig in only if the person you're talking to is someone you don't want to be friends with, as it's a terribly passive-aggressive thing to do.)
posted by LN at 11:43 AM on May 16, 2008

Am I the only one who just thinks you should make up something outrageous? "Oh, Mid five figures." I mean, it's none of their business, so why not just bullshit 'em?

Of course, I probably wouldn't do that myself, but I think it would be funny if you did.
posted by delmoi at 11:46 AM on May 16, 2008

There are any number of methods but the common thing is: you deal with competitive people by not competing. That's the main thing to keep in mind

"Why do you ask?" is the most useful response. It works for any question you find inappropriate. In this situation, I'd probably follow-up by changing the topic by talking about something you love to do (this is assuming that you do want to keep talking with this person).
posted by winston at 11:47 AM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I make enough that I've stopped comparing myself to others."
posted by advicepig at 11:50 AM on May 16, 2008 [8 favorites]

Am I the only one who just thinks you should make up something outrageous? "Oh, Mid five figures."

Mid five figures is $50,000. If you want to make up something outrageous you might want to aim a little... more outrageous.
posted by dersins at 11:56 AM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

My response, historically, has been absurd overstatement. So, when someone asks how I'm doing, I'll reply with something completely out-of-scale and offtopic, but spoken in an offhanded manner. For example:

Car: "Eh, these days I'm pretty boring -- mostly just Bentley's. I used to like Italian cars but really they're like origami you've set on fire; pretty, but it's not gonna last for more than thirty seconds."

House: "Well, I home-invaded this really nice couple out in Aspen. Totally nice place, nice kitchen, quality views, the whole deal. Sweet place. I kinda felt bad about it, but it turned out the carpets were really stain-resistant. Even so, next time I'm gonna use something small-calibre."

Money: "I'm doing OK I guess. Lost a couple hundred thousand in property when that volcano erupted in Colombia, but I'll probably make it up once the fucking Bolivians come through. Lemme tell you: if you're gonna work with Bolivians, bring a goddamn cattleprod. Fuckers couldn't move fast if their lives depended on it."

I tend to focus, personally, on things that are violent and unsavory. It makes the whole thing seem more ridiculous, to me.
posted by aramaic at 11:57 AM on May 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

people who ask those kind of questions are not happy. it's incredibly trite but incredibly true: money and possessions do not equal happiness. Buying nice things can be great, but when your self becomes your salary and you worship money for it's own sake, you are wasting your life and you will regret it on your deathbed, if not sooner.

So remind yourself that you are (I'm assuming) happy and doing something useful with your life, and they are not. Then try to be as gentle with them as you can.

Although honestly, if it was me, I would stay home and watch tv or clean my kitchen. Life is too short for people like this.

posted by drjimmy11 at 11:58 AM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I like meg_murry's answer. "why do you ask?" seems the perfect response. It's a good way to dismiss the question gracefully, but still putting them on the spot to give a good reason why it's their business or let it go. Rather than awkwardly dropping the conversation and admitting their rudeness, they might say "oh, just curious". Then you can say "I do okay," and that should be the end of it.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 11:59 AM on May 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I neglected to mention a downside of my tactic: it only works with certain crowds. You need a backdrop of reasonable people. If it's all competitive assholes, they won't get it.
posted by aramaic at 12:02 PM on May 16, 2008

Actually, I want to elaborate on my point. Call it the embrace and extend strategy. Yes! I, too, see the value in your worldview. Given that, let's see how you're doing!

Another example, I've actually heard someone seriously say the sentence "My boss doesn't roll out of bed for less than $10 million." I use that one all the time now:

Me: "Yeah, I heard you guys (bankers, brokers, agents, whatever) are doing great nowadays!"

Them: "Exactly, the market is unbelievable right now."

Me: "I mean, the stories are unreal. I heard someone in your line of work talking about a deal the other day, and he actually said he doesn't roll out of bed for less than $10 million. Can you believe that?"

Them: "..."

Me: "You seeing those kinds of numbers, too?"
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:06 PM on May 16, 2008

I forgot to say my first thought, which was to ask how well exactly you know these people? Well enough to call them out directly, or via humor? Calling them out directly may be a bit drastic. We humans like to avoid confrontation. If you think that's unnecessary, you could try to poke fun at their career in some way. I have a friend who is kind of like you describe. He often brags about how much money he's making, among other things. To which I'll respond with something like "way to 'work' hard, sitting on your butt. You know the scientific definition of work involves energy being used. I don't see you using much energy tapping on the keyboard". My job isn't a desk job of course. And for everyone out there, I don't actually have any problem with you desk monkeys. Seriously though. But it is a good way to implicitly and humorously point out that he's being an ass, and I don't care how much he's making, and I like my job just fine, thanks.

So you could go with some snarky comment along that route if you're comfortable with it.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 12:07 PM on May 16, 2008

"Oh, I'd rather talk about something interesting|meaningful|non-competitive. -

- Are you reading anything interesting?

- Are you volunteering anywhere?

- How are your kids doing?

- [other more friendly conversational diversion]

posted by amtho at 12:08 PM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, I always want to ask these questions, but would never actually do it. I'm interested in asking because I always assume people are doing better than me based on how I see them spending money. It stems more from my belief that I am totally horrible managing my money and if the people I know are making comparable salaries but enjoying more vacations, buying bigger houses, affording more expensive colleges, etc... then my lack of money management skills are the real reason for not being able to do these things.

In other words, tell the questioner to pound sand.
posted by genefinder at 12:18 PM on May 16, 2008

Why are you friends with these people? Might wanna rethink those relationships.
posted by hjo3 at 12:21 PM on May 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I used to get really annoyed by those types of people, until I realized that they don't have anything else to talk about. Their entire lives are consumed with getting more. This actually made me feel sorry for them, so if they start bragging about their stuff, I treat it as though they are talking about their life (which they are) and respond appropriately. I've found I have a lot of compassion for them, and it's easy not to get caught up in any competitive BS because I don't own anything and make relatively little money.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:28 PM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could always go the underminer route and say something about how your priorities are not so material what with so much poverty/environmental destruction/etc in the world. If there is some issue you know the person cares about, work in something that implies your more modest lifestyle makes you a better person than them with regard to that issue.

Alternatively, you could say fuck it and find some new friends who don't bother with this bullshit.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:34 PM on May 16, 2008

Best answer: "I'm rich beyond my widlest dreams" is my stock response. You are not being overly sensitive.
posted by jessamyn at 1:11 PM on May 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Light Fantastic has it pretty much on point I think. People who play this game usually work long and hard and have NOTHING else going on in their lives but said work and making money. Lawyering, anyone? MBAs are probably in a similar boat. You work so hard and invest so much, in such a stressful environment, that you've got to tell yourself it's "worth it". And if you look inwardly and doubt that it actually is, you begin to compare your life to others to reassure yourself.

I think the vaguest answers to these ridiculous questions are always the best. I really wouldn't "call them out" on it or do _anything_ overtly aggressive and/or sarcastic though, because regardless of what you say in that instance, they'll still think they've won because you're overcompensating. If you really want to rile them up, just be as positive and happy as possible in the conversation without giving them any real information. "Oh! I'm doing really well these days!" And then move on to a subject that highlights why you like your life and are happy with the decisions you've made. (Kudos to you, btw.)

I also loved the poster who suggested turning the tables with things like "Oh, you're not going to McKinsey? I thought everyone wanted McKinsey." Anything that highlights their own fear that despite the "riches" their life really does suck a*s will shut them up v. quickly I would imagine.
posted by smallstatic at 1:30 PM on May 16, 2008

Any chance that you don't have to see these people? I would just quit hanging out with them if that's plausible.

I nth the "say something ridiculous" suggestions, though. Just make crazy shit up to amuse yourself and don't care about it. Even if they talk to each other and figure it out, they're unlikely to know what to say to you, since it will be obvious that you're purposefully fucking with them. If they do call you out, just say with a straight face that you're not lying and you think it's sad that they're so jealous of you.
posted by Nattie at 1:35 PM on May 16, 2008

You can alsways say, "I'm making enough so that I don't ask questions like that anymore."
posted by battlecj at 1:35 PM on May 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Love battlecj's answer, particularly if said in a tone of amused contempt.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:43 PM on May 16, 2008

Wow, how obnoxious. I think I'd reply honestly along the lines of "I really don't like discussing my salary" and adding "it's less than yours, if that makes you feel better" if I felt pissy, and then launch a new topic, like So, what *professional tool* do you prefer, or Who do you like for the series, or Did you see the eclipse last night?

In addition to being obnoxious, it's boring. I end up not enjoying myself around people who have nothing better to discuss, so I'd start looking for more interesting people to talk to. People who go to exotic locations are interesting if they can tell you what they learned or saw, rather than what they spent or bought. I think you are caught up in the feeling bad, and not noticing your boredom.
posted by theora55 at 2:27 PM on May 16, 2008

If they buy a car, say you bought a yacht. If they bought a house, you bought a small town in Pennsylvania. If you can do this well, they'll stop doing this around you.

Kristen Wiig can do this well. And by "well," I mean "funny to the audience, but just plain obnoxious to the other characters within the skit." There's probably a lesson in that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:28 PM on May 16, 2008

Really, only boring and obnoxious people discuss things like salary, especially with someone they know has less. The jokey answers are great, but more for that one off when someone makes an out of left field obnoxious comment or someone you won't likely see again asks. However, these people keep asking. You are likely beyond jokes. Straight up, "That is sort of gauche? Well mannered people don't discuss these things, sorry" or "Aren't you even slightly embarrassed to be asking people about their salary? That is sort of sort of rude you know." Soften it perhaps if they are truly supposed to be friends. If they aren't friends you could further ask if they have any manners. The main thing, you want them to get the message that you don't want to discuss it today, or tomorrow, or any other time. It is a subject off limits.
posted by caddis at 4:27 PM on May 16, 2008

"and how much are you making these days?"

"Oh, I get by."
posted by davemack at 4:38 PM on May 16, 2008

I think a lot of these responses are satisfying to brainstorm in the abstract, but would be difficult to pull off in the heat of the moment without appearing defensive. It seems like performing how comfortable you are with yourself is better than making stuff up.

And if you really have to fend them off, the quick but effective suggestions of "Why do you ask? or "Aren't your even slightly embarrassed..." would do the trick.

It seems like you could dispatch with them even more elegantly with a pause and a disingenuous confused look, maybe with raised eyebrows. Asking 'Are you really asking me this? Who do you think you are?' without having to actually say anything.
posted by umbú at 5:13 PM on May 16, 2008

Best answer: There are any number of methods but the common thing is: you deal with competitive people by not competing. That's the main thing to keep in mind

people who ask those kind of questions are not happy. it's incredibly trite but incredibly true: money and possessions do not equal happiness.

So true. If you can do this genuinely, do like me.

Give them a beatific smile, with piercing and loving, happy eyes. Absolute contentment. Look like the Buddha, and hold their gaze for a couple of seconds. "I have more money than I'll ever need."
posted by Meatbomb at 6:12 PM on May 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My stock answer in the land of Orange County, where everyone makes 100K or at least acts like it: "I make enough to be content." >>pause<>
People who do this are very insecure, and need to be validated. Don't play the game. But you don't need to come down to their level either.
posted by casadecruz at 6:34 PM on May 16, 2008

Personally, regardless of what game they might be playing I find complete wankers trying to have discussions with me about how they're better than me... irksome to the point where I want to bite their fucking faces off.

People can be better than me and in fact lots of people are - but that's not what makes them good. So that is landmine. My eyes are shiny and if their eyes are dull.. than they can just fuck right off. It doesn't matter if they're playing "I'm better than you so - this that and the other. If catch wind of that first bit and under all that smugness there isn't the intelligence to stop me from raining all over that suggestion...
If I can't I've underestimated them... Crafty, let's be friends.

It bothers me a little that I'm so inwardly volitile over it but it's only certain people. Stupid assholes. And nobody else. I can't control it (to my shame I have tried). Stupid assholes with their stupid asshole expressions being smug and condescending while they tell me that their stupid asshole smug selves are better than me! Fucking needles me like nothing else.

Maybe you have something similar - I totally believe you couldn't give a rats ass about cars and gardeners but clearly there's an element within their game that you find offensive. Might not be the same as mine but if you touch on all the possibilities as to why it irks you - you will know it when you find it!
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 7:11 PM on May 16, 2008

Don't play the game. But you don't need to come down to their level either.

That's worth reiterating. All the responses that suggest that you say something to try to make them feel inferior only reinforce the notion that it is acceptable to try to make someone else feel inferior, they just weren't successful in that particular instance. Also, if there are any third parties involved, it makes you seem just as petty as the person who asked in the first place.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:29 PM on May 16, 2008

I don't think you're being overly sensitive to this. It's a really personal question.

As for a response, I tend to go the blatant honest rout and just say "Why?" especially since it seems like these people are trying to use you to make themselves feel better. Then again, I've never been one for subtlety. I also don't want to put up with crap like that.

Unless you're talking about your profession or something along the lines of your job, they shouldn't even be asking unless they're your very close friend. Otherwise it's none of their business.

If they press, I would tell them "I really don't think it's any of your business."

These don't sound like people you should really be spending time with if they're this insecure and need shit to fill the holes in their lives. It just seems petty.
posted by Gular at 7:36 PM on May 16, 2008

You could just say in your sweetest, most well-bred tone of voice: "Oh, I always think it's so terribly gauche to discuss those things! Let's talk about something more friendly." Then change the subject, or address someone else. It's taking the high road, sort of, by not out and out insulting them, but making it quite clear what you think of them. You just gotta sound as sweet and nice as possible. Actually, this will probably only work if you're female.
posted by MadamM at 9:08 PM on May 16, 2008

Response by poster: These answers are great. Thank you, guys!

Just to answer a couple of questions, these aren't my friends, but friends of friends, and acquaintances. My close friends are thankfully, considerate and tactful. I guess I never really appreciated just how much until now!

I wouldn't attend these gatherings if I had a choice, but I'm somewhat obligated at the moment, for a couple of reasons. I may have to do these shindigs for a few more months, hopefully no more.

One of you asked if these are "youngish" people. Yes. Mid-twenties. 2 male, 1 female. The older people in the group have never asked me anything remotely close. I guess it's a matter of the younger ones not knowing what's nosy or rude.

Some of you had some truly hilarious answers. If I had the balls I would certainly love to be as snappy or outrageous, but I happen to be more of a "shy, retiring" type, and asking "have you had any success in getting your gf to do anal" is about miles out of my league. I loved all the answers that were over-the-top as well ("I pull in 20 billion a year, total"), but can't pull if off for the same reason. The passive aggressive replies were equally as funny (but not realistic, for me.)

I did highlight a couple of the answers I'll probably use next time.

Anyways, thanks for your input, everyone. It made me feel a lot better to know I'm not nuts in how I feel. It's also so relieving to see that there are so many of you chill, cool people who don't play these types of games.

Thanks again!
posted by uxo at 1:59 AM on May 17, 2008

I have an honest reply that seems to work.

It goes something like this:

Person A: So what do you make a year anyhow?

Me: (waving them in a little 'conspiratorily' looking from side to side for a moment, lowering my voice) You know what? You're going to hate me right now for saying this but think about it later and you'll see I'm right. Every truly successful person I've ever met never asks that kind of question.

Then I immediately change the subject to Brangelina's twins or whatever the fluff du jour is. If they insist on badgering or sputtering or attacking after that I pointedly ignore them and keep talking about something I read in passing from a checkout line tabloid.

If they simply won't give it up, there's always the crass "do we need to whip out the ruler and just get this over with, then?" (although if you're not both male, that one will leave everyone wondering)


Then there are cases like my father. If it's even vaguely quantifiable, he asks the question: How much, how big, how wide, how short, how now, brown cow. Most of the interest revolves around money, of course. I'm not about to use the "successful person" speech on him, as he's not being competitive and he consistently asks everyone about everything.

My longer explanation to him after ducking the subject a thousand times was that I think that asking questions about [salary | home price | car price] often leads to assumptions (usually false ones) about the person answering. If the numbers fall out of an expected range, suddenly there is a snap judgement; if the home price is too low, I'm poor. If it's too high, I'm excessive. If my income is greater than X, then why am I not helping Y and Z? If my income is less than X, then why am I not trying harder? You can imagine the heated discussions.

What it took me years to really understand was that in the case of my father, he was really just looking for similarity, synchronicity with his limited view of the world. He and I live in different time zones, geographically, financially, emotionally, and it's always been hard for him to understand my world, and vice versa. But I finally figured it out: he's looking for common ground. And without common interests, that leaves simpler, often quantifiable things on the table. Generally they are safer than say, religion or politics.

My point in the minor personal revelation is this - as annoying as people can be with these questions, yes, some of them are looking to compete or judge. But some of them are really just looking for a kindred spirit or common ground (which is as scarce these days as common sense).

Lastly, there's always the humorous answer about income:

"Well, there are a lot of zeroes in the figure. Some of them are even left of the decimal point!" (big smile)
posted by FrotzOzmoo at 7:49 AM on May 17, 2008

Humorous, clever or snarky answers (or worse, non-answers) aren't really going to make you feel any better in this situation or help defuse it in any way.

I assume you want to continue to be around these friends and the questions are going to continue to come up. You want to resolve them in a way that answers them once and for all and also saves face all round.

Nobody asks a question like this with the goal of making you feel bad. That's up to you.

When they ask how much are you making these days no one really wants to hear an exact figure especially if it's so low it makes you embarrassed. Your embarrassment is just going to make the both of you uncomfortable.

You already know what answer they want to hear (they want the little ego boost of hearing "I make less than you"), so tell them that the same way you said in the question ("I don't make half as much as you do").

If giving this truthful answer still bothers you, you'll need to resolve that for yourself.

Answering this way should shut down some of the questions about cars or homes tied to their boasting about their own purchases.

The side benefit is that it gets rid of the elephant in the room that is excuses you might have had to give in the past to beg off from activities they might want to include you in that you can't afford.
posted by aninom at 12:37 AM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nobody asks a question like this with the goal of making you feel bad.

That's not quite true. I think they're asking with the goal of making themselves feel better than others, which generally doesn't make the others feel great (though they may not be consciously thinking of that effect).

If giving this truthful answer still bothers you, you'll need to resolve that for yourself.

Well, yes, but one is not obligated to answer any question that any random person happens to answer -- and then best way to resolve it is not to answer.
posted by winston at 7:46 AM on May 18, 2008

aninom, I think you're downplaying how obnoxious the original askers are being.
posted by umbú at 5:00 PM on May 18, 2008

sorry to be the obvious guy here, but what's wrong with telling the truth? if someone is really trying to belittle you, there's nothing that you can say that will help them "learn their lesson". why bother taking it so personally?

and remember, there are lots of reasons that someone could validly be interested in your salary. for one, sharing information about salaries can help your friends make better, more informed career decisions. or maybe they are just genuinely curious? we ask too few questions as it is, i don't see why we should ostracize the curious.

uxo, you (assumedly) have made an adult, informed decision to choose your particular lot in life, including your profession and salary. it may not be perfect or ideal, but it's within your power. if you want to make more money, you can find a way to make more money. but if you're happy where you are, then express that to your curious friends. don't demonize them. you're making FAR too much out of this; if it's that big a deal to you, it might be worth looking inward to find a way to love yourself.
posted by jblu at 1:30 AM on May 19, 2008

I liked the answer "enough to make me happy".

They want a number out of you, don't give it to them.
They wont like it but you don't like being a checkpoint for them.

They're basing their self-worth on what other people (or their idea of what others) expect from them.

Win by not competing, nice :)
posted by Tha-Flash at 10:03 PM on July 19, 2008

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