The Hard Facts: Is It Harder to Be Friends With Rich People?

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Are the upper classes really indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk? Or is it that they just don’t understand their less privileged peers? According to a paper by three psychological researchers…members of the upper class are less adept at reading emotions.” (“As For Empathy, The Haves Have Not” 12/30/2010)

Wealth and status have always been touchy subjects in friendship. It’s an uncomfortable moment when your BFF wants to order a seven course-meal at the fanciest restaurant in town and you have to say you can’t afford it.

I wrote about this situation last summer and commenters got riled up. Money—especially when it’s tight—is a sore spot. One reader said she recently lost a friend because of a split-the-bill situation gone wrong.

According to this new research, people with money to spare aren’t necessarily being selfish or inconsiderate when they act clueless about a friend’s financial circumstances. They just don’t have as strong a capacity for empathy.

“Here’s why: Earlier studies have suggested that those in the lower classes, unable to simply hire others, rely more on neighbors or relatives for things like a ride to work or child care. As a result, the authors propose, they have to develop more effective social skills — ones that will engender good will.”

If you’ve never had to ask for similar help, the authors’ logic goes, then you’ve never had to hone your people skills.

It’s an interesting argument, and it makes sense on the surface. But I have plenty of friends who grew up incredibly privileged, and many of those friends now use their advantages to help others. They may not be able to walk in the shoes of the “have-nots,” but they are certainly not “indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk” and I think they do understand their less privileged peers.

I don’t do the research, I just report it, but here’s what I think (for whatever it’s worth): Empathy can be taught. If you don’t have empathy, if you can’t bring yourself to understand where another person is coming from, it might be because it was never modeled for you. Not just because you have money.

Perhaps, if one is raised in a home of privilege, she is less likely  to get empathy exposure. And thus has less of it as an adult. Maybe that’s where the research comes from.

I don’t know. It’s just a theory.

What do you think? Have you found that people in the upper-class have a harder time relating to others? Are cross-class relationships impossible to maintain?

14 Comments

Filed under The Hard Facts

14 responses to “The Hard Facts: Is It Harder to Be Friends With Rich People?

  1. Joy

    What an interesting post! I’ve often thought of this myself.
    This is especially an interesting theoryyou mention – “If you’ve never had to ask for similar help, the authors’ logic goes, then you’ve never had to hone your people skills.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that! But like most things, it likely depends on the individual. I know many working class people who are bitter and lacking in empathy.
    I’ve found that the wealthy like to “stick together”. In other words, the mothers in my community who live in the million dollar homes tend to socialize / befriend those of similar financial circumstances — lots of snobbery. But I think such individuals would be snobby (lacking in social skills) even if poor.

    If anything though, I think it’s more difficult for the “lower class” person in a cross-class relationship. It’s highly challenging to refrain from comparing oneself and one’s home, and so on… It can be done, but it can also be a bit depressing. (I speak from experience.) It takes a truly special person perhaps? Someone who understands that our worth is not determined by our material possessions and paycheck.

  2. Beth

    Good one, Rach. This is really thought provoking. I think empathy starts with your parents and their marriage and parenting skills, however. You learn from them and how to be compassionate and how to relate to people. Money permeates all aspects but the parental influence, to me, trumps all.

  3. In the spirit of research Wednesday, I actually just read an article on the decline of empathy among young people. Very interesting: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-me-care It said that people who read fiction tend to have more empathy than those who don’t.

    I didn’t grow up wanting, and I now work in the non profit world helping others. I think it depends on what values you are taught when you’re younger. My parents taught me to help others. The organization I work for now actually focuses on teaching empathy and compassion to children through learning about human rights, animal welfare and environmental ethics. Kids can be taught to care. They just need to be exposed to the world outside of their safe little bubbles. Not everyone has clean water to drink or a house to live in. Once they know that, they generally want to help.

  4. San

    I think there are always these and those people…. my best friend grew up in a more privileged, wealthy household, but I can say that she’s one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met. Money has never been a problematic topic between us.
    I do think that it really has to do with the upbringing… I’ve met rich brats that really can’t relate to anyone, too.

  5. anonymous

    It may come from the fact that rich people can simply throw money at a problem and make it go away, whereas those who have to decided between food and going to the doctor have to get creative with their solutions to problems in life, therefore forcing them to use more of their brain. Just a thought…

  6. One of my good friends from grad school was super wealthy, but you would never know. She is one of the most down to earth and nicest people I’ve met. I believe it has to do with an individual’s intrinsic values, rather than the amount of wealth.

  7. Ana

    I agree with you Rachel, its more about character and the values modeled for you than the amount of money you have.

  8. Rema

    I think it’s terrible to lose friends over money issues but I can definitely believe it. I believe even priveledged individuals can be taught a lot about empathy and different classes and general awareness about financial differences among friends.

    I came across this quote though a while ago and thought I would share since it’s so true!!

    “The richer your friends, the more they will cost you.”
    Elizabeth Marbury

  9. Erica

    There’s also a lot of research that suggests that less advantaged populations need to learn about and empathize with the more advantaged populations for survival. e.g. African Americans dropping some of their cultural identity to make it at work or school; women learning what makes men happy because they need them for their livlihood (at least historically), etc…. A housekeeper needs to understand her client to do a good job and succeed while the client doesn’t need to know anything about the housekeeper or empathize with her at all. Ideally friendship goes beyond borders of race, gender, or class, but when faced with someone at the top of the totem pole, are they used to people adjusting to them?

  10. JB

    This struck me as interesting. I definitely have wealthy friends in both camps. One of my closest friends at my previous job grew up very wealthy. She married a man who made a lot of money. We worked at a non-profit company, but she didn’t need her salary in order to live. She worked because she enjoyed it. Whereas my husband and I lived exclusively on my non-profit salary and a small stipend from his graduate program. She and I got along great in many areas, but there were several times that she made some very offensive, off-hand remarks about money. It was as if she actually had no understanding of what it was like to make less than six figures (or more) a year. It was frustrating and hurtful at times. I never said anything to her about it because I valued our relationship too much and I knew it would hurt her feelings. And I knew she didn’t mean to be offensive. She just had no clue that the rest of us don’t always have the same ease/security about money!

  11. anon

    I never noticed income level having to do with a person’s empathy level. It just seems some people are very empathetic in nature, and others aren’t. Sometimes even within one family there is a huge varying degree. So I sometimes wonder if it’s just a person’s nature?

    I do wonder if a BFF relationship would work out well between two people with very different disposable income levels. Mostly just because the things you do for entertainment are probably going to be very different. One might want to go to shows, shopping, weekends away, or to nice restaurants, but might not have the money, and so just can’t. While the one who can afford it might not want to give up all those forms of entertainment to sit and have coffee or tea in their (or their bff’s) kitchen all the time. They could probably be friends and get together once in a while, but maybe not really close bff’s.

    But really interesting to think about.

    p.s. (switching to a username – sorry, but I hate seeing my name online, freaks me out. I did a facebook acct and that is bad enough. I don’t have it in me to post much there though.)

  12. Worker

    For me personally it’s sometimes hard to be friends with some of those who grew up rich, especially when I am under financial pressure / working hard on a project. The rich just sometimes can’t understand that your appetite for risk is quite low when you have less than 1 000 (of any currency) in your bank account, and that if you make a mistake, there is no safety net, or family to help you out. The only poverty they experienced is when their allowances got cut and their parents felt they should experience not having access to everything for a year or two (before bringing them back in from the cold).

    Most frustrating is when they try to compare careers and try to convince you that they had it just as hard as you, and that you should really be able to be as financially secure as they are. They forget the private school, the international holidays, loans, the expert advice, the access to daddy’s business network/partners, access to capital, investment tips, the way doors and jobs open for you if your father is important – I think rich fathers try to not show how much they are helping their kids, but it can give rise to brats who really believe they “made it on their own”.

    Also they can’t understand that one can work hard and not make millions. “You are so clever and you are working all the time, I can’t understand why you are not rich?” With lots of knowledge one can gain money, but with a little knowledge and lots of money, you can make even more money than the clever guy – I think that is actually how it works. Hanging out with other brats these inconsistencies will never be exposed, but the moment they start hanging out with real “middle-class” people, whenever they try to show how “real” they are it just shows how large the value gaps are.

    Lots of rich people (especially 2nd / 3rd gen) are rich because they are actually quite lazy, and mostly use their money to make more money for them – they will tell you they are working hard, but most of the time it would be the money, their positioning or their network doing the work – when you are doing big deals with large amounts, you only need a couple of them – and you always get a bonus.

    I find rich people taking up too much of my time, picking my brain for interesting facts, introducing them to cool new things & ideas, hanging out at my place (when they are supposed to be working), I guess I make them feel like they know “real” people, but the moment they start wanting to “help” me, it just shows me how little they know about how average people make it in the world.

    The root of it, is that some of the rich in their secret hearts believe a different set of morals and values apply to them, and that playing by our middle-class rules is just silly, since we haven’t “seen the bigger picture”. Sometimes these motivations will only be revealed once you become close friends with this person – and that could also be the end of a friendship if you believe in the moral good and treating people equally.

  13. Very interesting post. This is my experience…

    I have a very wealthy friend who never worked a job in his life but before I go into that let me tell you my background

    I on the other hand had wealthy grandparents & when they passed my mother was not able to keep all of their assets & wasted it all hence our family becoming a different tier in classes. We weren’t poor but middle class however, grown and raised by my grandparents at a young age I had different opinions growing up from my family so I moved out on my own and switched to the poverty class. During This time in my life, I experienced a different lifestyle from middle and upper I was used too since I was on my own. However, me being raised from my grandpa whom was the bread maker I learned and adapted great people skills. I think you have to learn how to talk to certain backgrounds. For instance I had very poor friends whom didn’t have any money in their bank accounts and with those friends you can’t talk about money or material things because they will become envious. Those are the friends whom I found if I could not empower would employ to my company I was starting. My rich friend on the other hand who had 10k in hundreds lying around in his closet I could talk to him about materialistic & honestly it’s always a competition on who can show off. I’m not going to lie hanging out with rich friends are fun but if you can’t relate it will be hard to keep up.

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