I'm a receptionist at a small firm, and all of my coworkers are at least 15 years my senior, often twice my age. Generally, this wouldn't be an issue, but the topic of money casually comes up a lot at work.
I'm in my early 30s with no college degree, but tons of debt (I was working three jobs while trying to take my last credits at home). To put it bluntly, I'm poor as fuck. I don’t have relatives who can float me cash here and there. It's fine. It is what it is, but it's pretty stressful, especially when I have to hear about my coworkers taking bi-monthly trips out of the country for vacation, or going on shopping sprees over the weekend. My coworkers have also been vocal about laughing at/criticizing poor people. Our building is close to a shelter that hosts soup kitchens, and my coworkers have laughed at the lines. I have used a food bank more than once.
Hiding that I'm poor is hard enough. How do I stay sane in an office full of coworkers that aren't shy about being well off?
This isn’t about coworkers who don’t hide how much money they have. This is about coworkers who sound like awful people.
If it were just that they talked a lot about their international trips or their wardrobe splurges, I’d tell you—yeah, this is a thing that will come up when you work with older, better paid colleagues. It can feel weird and it can come across as tone-deaf, but hey, let them pay for your drinks and maybe tell them about a favorite charity that might interest them… and know this is just a thing that will happen in some fields.
But your coworkers laugh at poor people waiting in line for food. This isn’t about income inequality; it’s that they have a dearth of empathy and general decency. I’m curious to know what your experience with them has been like outside of this, because I’m betting you’ve seen other evidence of serious deficiencies in their characters. Otherwise lovely people do not mock strangers who don’t have enough food to eat.
So the question really is: how do you navigate an office full of coworkers who are jerks about money and privilege, and willfully ignorant about the world around them?
One option, if you’re willing, is to make it far less comfortable for them to speak about poor people the way they do. When they laugh at or criticize people for being poor, let yourself have a natural reaction to it. Let yourself look shocked—because shock is a reasonable response. Say, “Wow, that’s an awful thing to say” or “I hope you don’t mean that the way it sounds.” If you’re willing to, you could say, “I’ve used a food bank in the past. No one wants to be in that line; they’re there because they need to eat.” If you don’t want to share that, you could say, “You never know who might have used a food bank in the past. I’m glad the help is there.”
But I want to push on your sense that you have to hide your own financial situation. It’s stressful enough to have money problems; you don’t need the additional stress of feeling obligated to hide it too. That doesn’t mean you should share all the details of your debt at work or reply with “must be nice!” every time someone mentions taking a vacation, but you don’t need to protect your colleagues from knowing that your reality is very different from theirs. And frankly, there’s value in them realizing that not all poor people are anonymous strangers, but in fact walk (and work) among them.
Of course, it’s not your responsibility to fix them, and you don’t need to take on the labor of educating them if you don’t want to or if you worry it could harm you professionally. These are people with more professional power than you; it’s OK if you decide the safer option is to just privately judge them for the crappy humans they’re being. (And if you do take that route, it can sometimes make it more bearable if you pretend you’re an anthropologist studying an alien culture and its ways. That often builds in some emotional distance, which can make it easier to remain calm in the face of truly infuriating things.)
But if you’re willing to speak up, it could be both a social good and a way to relieve some of the pressure you’re currently feeling to hide something you shouldn’t have to hide.
Here’s to decent coworkers in your next job.