Last week, I was filling a little dead space in my workday IM-ing with my friend Jane, a magazine editor in New York. As we discussed our careers in a way that we probably shouldn't have at our workplaces (sorry, boss!), the subject of our salaries came up.
"How much do u make?" I queried, quickly balancing my brazenness with "Don't tell me if you don't want to."
"I don't care," she shot back and told me. I was shocked to learn that my friend, who is four years my junior, makes more money than I do. I felt ... bad. And a little regretful that our so-open relationship had crossed over into taboo territory.
In case you missed it, everyone's talking about their salary, at least the under 35-set, if you believe The New York Times' Sunday Styles section. But not everyone agrees on how it should be discussed and, among the stodgy (older?) holdouts, whether it should be discussed at all. But one thing is certain: Everyone's got an opinion.
"I'm not going to run around blabbing to everyone, 'Guess how much money I make,'" said Jenna Naranjo, a 29-year-old associate producer in Washington, D.C. "But I think sometimes when you're still trying to figure it all out, it's hard to negotiate. I remember when I was negotiating for my salary, I didn't know what to do. If you ask your friends if they've been through this before, maybe they'll ask you [your salary] and you'll tell them."
A lot of people I talked to echoed this sentiment, and believe me, everyone wanted to talk, from my co-workers who gathered around my desk to talk about my assignment to the 40 or so friends who responded within 20 minutes to a mass e-mail I sent.
"Obviously with Facebook, no one really has a private life," Naranjo said. "I think people are more able to talk about anything with their friends, whether it's salary or other things in their private life. Why wouldn't you sit down with your best friend and talk about your salary, your boyfriend, your sex life? I know when I need to negotiate my next salary, the first thing I'm going to do is quiz my friends and acquaintances about what I should do. If I don't ask them, who am I going to ask?"
Whether Facebook or other networking sites are a factor, the hard-to-navigate salary-revealing game has developed its own special set of rules, and everyone interprets them differently.
Rule #1: Do not talk about your salary with your co-workers.
For many people, talking about salary at all, much less at work, is the ultimate taboo, even -- and perhaps especially -- for managers.
"I feel strongly that co-workers shouldn't talk about it because it only leads to animosity between the associate and the manager," one upper-level manager at a large company said. "I don't talk about any aspect of my benefits. ... I don't disclose anything. It makes me extremely uncomfortable."
The Chicago-based 38-year-old manager makes sure that her employees do the same.
"It's completely taboo," the manager said. "[Sharing information] can give a misperception to a person about pay. I can't go get that person another 20 grand. So the conversation is very strained. It gives the misperception that they're not being paid what they're worth. It can lead to all sorts of different animosity."
Rachael Rosenblum, a 27-year-old fashion designer, refuses to talk to anyone about her salary -- unless she knows she'll never work with them.
"If I'm never going to work with them, I don't care, but I tend to not really like to talk about it," Rosenblum said. "I have a friend I went to college with, and she works in fashion. I kind of know that we're never going to work together, and it's interesting to get her feedback [on salary]."
Sharing salary information sets up a competitive environment she'd rather avoid.
"You start second-guessing where you are," she said.
Rule #2 (also known as caveat to Rule #1): Unless you want to.
Despite Rosenblum's own hesitancy, people in her office do discuss salary, though in very vague terms.
"We did get our bonuses, and there was vague talk: 'I guess I can't pay for this now,'" she said.
Kate, 23, who works in communications for a financial firm, said that some 20-somethings' openness isn't necessarily due to more access to information.
"I tell everyone what I make," Kate told me in an instant message. "Well, I don't tell everyone, but when I'm having a frank discussion about jobs and I need real advice, I don't hesitate to just level with a friend or colleague."
She likens salary-sharing to a rite of passage.
"I think income to the generation right out of college is like a shiny new toy: They want to take it out and show it off to everyone," she said.
But later in life that changes, said Kyle Wortham, 37, a senior brand manager at Pabst Brewing Co.
"I don't talk about my salary," he said. "[When I was younger] I don't think people were so protective of that information. As you advance, it becomes a little more secret."
Rule #3: Do not talk about salary with people you're dating.
For the truly tactless, this rule is worth repeating.
Laura Fenton, 27, a New York-based consultant for a nonprofit organization, says that she has experienced far more issues by discussing her salary with a romantic interest than with her friends.
In one long-term relationship, Fenton knew she made more money than her boyfriend, so she delayed talking about money until a year into the relationship.
"I definitely would say I regretted talking about salaries with him," she said. "There was an expectation at times that I should then therefore pay for more stuff."
Conversely, she also went on a few dates with a longtime friend. For years, he had never talked to her about money -- until the dates.
"He makes a lot of money, and he feels like this is alluring to women, where to me, it seems very unattractive," she said.
Fenton recently changed careers, and with the switch came questions.
"When I tell people that I make less than before, they're surprised someone would do that. Then they ask me how much the pay cut was," she said. "I say, it's really none of your business."
For many, the money talk between significant others remains significant.
"I haven't even told my [live-in] girlfriend what I make, and I don't know what she makes," Wortham, the brand manager for Pabst, said.
As for my own rude awakening via instant message, I wonder whether this newfound openness isn't detrimental: When Jane revealed her salary, my stomach dropped into my shoes. In a high-powered media world, was this much of my self-worth tied up in dollars and cents?
On the other hand, a few years ago a co-worker and I were negotiating similar promotions at the same time. We revealed our deals to each other, despite instructions to do otherwise. We discovered that we both got the same offer and, while the knowledge didn't result in any different deal, the alliance did give us bargaining power.
Maybe revelation isn't so bad after all.