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I don’t want to be friends with rich people anymore. Is it OK if I just stop? I don’t want to look at their Instagram accounts, or hear about their disappointments with private school, or read pieces about how hard it is for them to get their second homes ready for first-home living during the pandemic. It’s partly because many of the rich people I know (or read about) tend to lack self-awareness and empathy for people who aren’t like them. But if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t even want to be friends with the rich people I know who are thoughtful and nice. I just feel bad when I’m around them. I think the terrible truth about me is that I don’t want to be rich; I just want to be richer than my friends. Does that make me a terrible person?
-Covetous in Calgary
I’m not here to say you’re terrible, but I am here to say your question is timeless. Congrats…? I asked the Princeton sociologist Dalton Conley about your problem, and he quoted H. L. Mencken to me by way of an answer: “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”
You’ve hit on the theme of countless Reddit posts, a middling movie, and definitely the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie gets her downpayment (and a lot of judgment) from Charlotte. It’s a question perhaps even more relevant to our increasingly unequal times. And it all basically boils down to: why do I feel bad when other people have more?
Look, I don’t know your situation but I’m going to take some leaps: you don’t sound like you’re describing a state of deprivation vis-à-vis society at large, but when you compare yourself to your rich friends, you start to feel pretty bad. Your Toyota is great until you see their Bentley, etc., etc. I guess it’s called being a hater? Believe it or not, there’s a scholarly term for resenting your rich friends. You’re describing something called relative deprivation. That’s the way someone experiences not having the same resources as the people around them. I’m not going to tell you if that makes you a jerk (not yet anyway! I’m gonna make you wait for it). But I am going to make you ask yourself a few questions about why you feel that way. And it’s especially difficult when you’re dealing with someone you know rather than some billionaire you see on TV. Conley, the sociologist explains it this way: “We see the Gates or the Bloombergs or the Buffetts as this far away phenomenon. We are much more focussed on the legitimacy of our friends’s and neighbours’s wealth.”
Believe it or not, there’s a scholarly term for resenting your rich friends: relative deprivation.
Let’s start with this: what kind of baby were those rich friends that you don’t want to be friends with any more? I mean, everyone loves a baby. Or mostly. But certain babies are born with generations of accumulated financial returns behind them. And because wealth begets wealth, those rich babies will have more rich babies, just laying around getting rich while they’re pooping and drooling, not even building a vaunted tech company in their garage. Or crib. Or whatever. I have a three month old, does it show? My point is that some kinds of money are more annoying than others. We are capitalists, which sounds in textbooks like it means we’re all meant to go out and make our way living by our own wits. But what it also means is that we encounter both inherited wealth and the “self-made” kind. (That’s in quotes to acknowledge that the playing field isn’t level and that a lot people who made it on their own probably had some advantages due to stuff like the colour of their skin or the place they were born.) Broadly speaking, we are less likely to be resentful of someone like Oprah Winfrey, a now-billionaire born into poverty, than we are of Jared Kushner, who was born a billionaire but acts like he founded Apple. (Or to be bipartisan, any number of Kennedy offspring, many of whom I’m sure are annoying). One of the problems with wealth, especially inherited wealth (beyond societal inequality), is that it can feel normal. If you’ve spent your entire life surrounded by other wealthy people, gone to the “right” schools, etc., you may not get how hard it is to climb the socioeconomic ladder. You might start to wonder why other people aren’t rich — and assume it’s somehow their fault.
Or you might believe you are truly special, rather than lucky or privileged. Indeed, there is a body of scholarly research showing that higher-income people tend to rate themselves as better than average across a wide variety of metrics (memory, physical fitness, driving ability, honesty, sense of humour, attractiveness, intelligence, and cooking ability). The old Dunning-Kruger tendency to think you’re awesome for no reason, but with money.
If the fact that your rich friend is rich because of her parents is part of what’s making you a little nuts, it’s understandable. The wealth gap, which is hugely affected by how much money and property your parents leave you, is even wider than the income gap. Basically it’s unfair, and unfairness is really infuriating, and it probably makes you not want to hang out with someone.
Look, I’m OK with blaming you for hating on your rich friends. And we’ll get to that, and if I can, as your money ethics supreme ruler, let you off the hook. But isn’t it important to blame them first? How annoying are your rich friends? Are they really gross about what they spend their money on and therefore un-hang-out-with-able? Do they have bad values? I often think about money as a lens through which we can articulate our priorities. This works for countries: how much do they spend on the military? On teachers? On the elderly? And it works for families and individuals. And maybe just as importantly, how do they deal with the fact that they have more money than other people? Some people flaunt their wealth, which makes them, in the parlance of bros everywhere, “not a fun hang.” But, as you said in your question, it can also be sort of galling when really rich people don’t flaunt their wealth. Yes, it’s pretty hard to stomach mid-pandemic displays of Instagram vacation excess. But when someone hides what they have or downplays it, it can feel dishonest or perhaps even condescending (“What, me? I’m just like you little person.”). What I’m saying is that it’s OK to stop being friends with people who are mean, oblivious, uncharitable, or who have bad values. Don’t blame yourself for that.
If the fact that your rich friend is rich because of her parents is what’s making you a little nuts, it’s understandable. It’s unfair, and unfairness is really infuriating.
But let’s get to the complicated heart of the question: if it makes you feel bad when your rich friends flaunt their money, and it makes you feel just as bad when they don’t, is there any solution besides erasing them from your contacts and unfollowing their social feeds? I think I said this in my last column, but money taps into all sorts of triggers around shame and childhood. I’m not necessarily saying you need to talk it out with a therapist, but I’m not not saying that either. I think you need to do a real gut check. Can you envision hanging out (someday, whenever that is) with your rich friends and not silently seething? Or will it always bother you, like some sort of itch you can’t quite reach? Because that’s what this is really about — how you feel. I give you permission to walk away from your friends, if you need it. But I also want you to take a look at why this bothers you so much. Because that’s not going to leave you even if you abandon these friendships. And I think it’s worth working on being, well, OK with what you have.
The last point I’m going to make here is to try to use your resentment. It’s important for society. Inequality makes us feel bad and it can be the seed for change. That relative deprivation I mentioned before? On a macro scale, it can fuel things like the Civil Rights Movement. I would be remiss if I didn’t underline the way our economy is structured. As frustrating as your rich friends and their money might be, they exist because the system allows them to exist. Nay, encourages it. Our society pretends to be a meritocracy, but isn’t, and the fact that the easiest way to make a lot of money is still to start out with some is proof. Our tax laws and fraying safety net only reinforce that, and it’s likely getting worse. Meanwhile you, regular person, are made to feel bad because you are carrying credit-card debt, or student debt.
Or perhaps you and I are someone else’s rich friend, and they are seething at our existence. This is probably true. (If you don’t have a relatively rich, relatively annoying friend… you might be that friend.)
It’s also worth noting, as Dalton Conley did, that while there are differences between friends, our friend groups are usually already broadly segregated by levels of wealth. “That’s the flip side of our hyper-local focus. It leads to misattribution of all the causes of inequality and makes us focus on individual differences in our community rather than broader structural causes of financial differences.”
In other words, you can blame your friends, if you really can’t stand to be around them. But I think it’s OK to blame The Man a little, too.
Lizzie O'Leary is a longtime economic and policy journalist. She hosts the podcast What Next TBD at Slate.