(CNN) – As the pandemic rages on, millions of Americans are suffering financially while millions of others are doing just fine — some even better than ever. But how do you talk about money with friends or your own family, without feeling ashamed or offending anyone?
America was already economically divided and a “don’t-talk-about-it” money culture, said Alex Melkumian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles. Now, with people finding newly exposed sensitivities and dividing lines, gaps are widening and conversations have become even more difficult.
We’re already in a period of financial trauma for people, said Melkumian. Conversations, which leave people feeling judged or insulted, don’t help. Here’s how to talk about money while being sensitive to those around you.
Listen more, spout advice less
Jake Morris was starting a financial advisory business and his wife Whitney was a verbatim hearing recorder for the Social Security Administration in New York’s Hudson Valley when the pandemic struck. Very quickly, Whitney’s work dried up as hearings were put on hold then went to a telephone format and the launch of Jake’s business was delayed.
Then he got a text from someone in his inner circle: “Do you both still have jobs?”
Morris said it was so insensitive that he had to laugh.
“To me, that was so stark. It was almost funny,” Morris said. “But so harsh.”
With their job situations turned upside down in a matter of days, they still weren’t over the shock. They have each found work in their own ways, but it is not at the level it was before.
“Anyone who has had a job loss or gone into retirement knows there is a loss of identity,” he said. “We need a little sensitivity training, I think. It isn’t helpful to say, ‘How does it feel to have your whole life torn out from under you?'”
Jake Morris found listening to be the most helpful way to hear about other people’s financial situations.
Based on his experience, he now asks people he meets, “How has this impacted you?”
“I let them talk about it the way they want to,” he said.
If you’re the person who has remained employed and is financially unscathed, do more listening, Melkumian advised.
“The most important thing we can do is listen and resist the urge to jump in and fix it, because much of this can’t be easily changed.”
Suggesting that someone ‘pivot and do something else,’ for example, can be good advice, Melkumian said. But your friend or loved one needs to be ready to hear it.
“You may have connections to offer them, but it is your connection with them that is most important,” he said.
Pick up the phone
These serious conversations are best had in person. If social distancing is preventing that, a phone call works best.
Nothing on the topic of personal livelihood and well-being is better conveyed by a text, said Ashlee deSteiger, a certified financial planner with Gunder Wealth Management in Michigan.
“With friends and family, I don’t want a text,” she said. “There is just too much tone to be lost in a text.”
She suggests setting boundaries like not texting in frustration or sharing things in which tone can be misinterpreted.
“Those conversations need to happen over the phone or face-to-face,” she said.
If you’re the one receiving the insensitive texts or messages, avoid getting defensive and try to consider where the other person is coming from.
“I suggest reframing the situation to, ‘I know my friend or family member is doing the best that they can for themselves and their family.'”
That, she said, may help you see beyond the posts and conversations that you think lack empathy.
If you are having financial difficulties, now is the time to speak up about it, Melkumian says, because you’re not alone.
“If you are really struggling and feel you can’t say to your friend, ‘I don’t know where my next rent payment is coming from’ — then when can you say that?”
When Ed Hart was able to reopen his hair salon in Hermosa Beach, California, he noticed many of his clients experienced the shutdown much differently than he had.
While Hart was struggling after a major loss of income, his customers were working from home, earning the same income, some even more than before.
“People that I know who retired well are fine,” he said. “Younger people I know that work for large companies are working out of their homes, they are okay. But the people who are consistently struggling and having trouble are business owners, entrepreneurs.”
So he decided to address this awkward disparity directly.
“I made a sign and put it by my station,” he said. “It says that there is no secret that we are going through a financial hardship. I understand that they may be going through a hardship, too, so we won’t raise prices. However, if you are financially strong, pay more if you can.”
And they have. After one client received a $200 treatment, he said, she included a tip and left.
“It was a $1,000 tip,” he said. “I called her right away to thank her. I didn’t know what to say. It was overwhelming. ‘Don’t worry,’ she told me.”
Don’t be tone deaf
Some people who have celebrated things like buying a house, taking a trip or getting a new job, have been met with anger by hurt friends and family who say it smacks of being tone-deaf to the moment. Just look at the public reaction to Kim Kardashian’s post about her 40th birthday celebrations on a private island earlier this month.
The response was largely not enthusiastic.
“Congrats on this nomination for most tone deaf tweet of the year,” Twitter user @beyondbrighton replied to Kardashian. “You want normal? Try people unemployed, at food banks, teaching kids at home, or worse in the hospital by the tens of THOUSANDS! Oh the plight of the wealthy & their struggle to an escape to a private island.”
The context matters when sharing good news, said Melkumian.
“If you post your celebration in a way that says, ‘I’ve been struggling and in order to overcome something and I did this, this and this,’ documenting and chronicling your fight, it isn’t out of context,” he said.
But in this moment, there are other things to keep in mind, he said.
“There are political factors, sounding tone deaf, other people being broke,” he said. “How do you tell your truth without coming off as insensitive?”
It may be that there isn’t a way to do that, he said, and it is better right now to keep it to yourself and just to listen.