Rich Friend, Poor Friend

For context, I mostly socialize in upper middle class and tech- and rationalist-leaning circles, and it’s likely that at least some of what I describe are just quirks of my local culture.

I have this pet theory that I’ve shopped around a fair bit, that it’s much harder for financially comfortable people to make deep friendships.

What do I mean by a deep friendship? I mean one where you can trust the other person to come through when you need them to. There’s levels to this as well, of course. You probably ask casual friends to help you move, but not acquaintances. Close friends could be people who will let you crash on their couch for two weeks without prior notice or who will lend you rent money for the month. People who live more marginal, riskier lives might think about this in terms of who is willing to bail them out of jail or smuggle them medicine.

The thing is, money exists, and can solve most of your problems better than your friends can. If you can afford it, it’s much less annoying to hire movers, book an airbnb, contact your doctor, or call your lawyer – get professional problem solvers involved, in other words. 1

So this dynamic emerges where my rich friends never ask each other for help, pay for services using money, and never do anything unpleasant for each other, whereas my poorer friends are always doing stuff for each other out of necessity and becoming closer knit in the process.

[This is a good summary of my thesis, you can stop reading at this point if I linked this to you in a group chat or something.]

Am I the Baddie?

I do look at my more well off friends weirdly if they ask me for serious favors/impositions, so it’s not like I’m not part of the problem. If I get a message from someone who wants to visit town and crash in my spare bedroom, but I’m not close enough to them that hosting them would be intrinsically valuable to me, and I know they’re making enough money to afford an airbnb, I think it’s rude if they ask.

A friend also pointed out that rich people can afford therapists or have their companies pay for therapy. When this is common knowledge, it’s higher risk to look to your friends for emotional support, because some may think of this as rude in the same way I think of acquaintances asking for my spare bedroom as rude. 2

I personally would not find this rude, but I do sense this risk myself. It is genuinely harder to be open about your emotions to a friend when you and your friend both know that “you should be talking to a therapist about this” is a non-risky, socially acceptable (and possibly rewarding) thing to say at any point during the conversation.

The most I do to help wealthy friends is to do the logistical work of planning some summer cottage getaways together. This is pathetically little in the grand scope of things that humans can do for each other out of love.

Anne Carson, Euripides

We used to do more for each other as poor university students, but at some point when we all got enough spending money from our internships at white collar workplaces, we stopped informally paying for each other’s food when ordering takeout and moved our bills onto splitwise. This was seen as a rational move by everyone.

My sense is that as soon as freeloading became unacceptable (e.g. when each person felt like there was no more chance that they themselves would need to freeload out of necessity, and thus will always be the sucker in these scenarios going forwards), our transactions started being mutually surveilled. 3

For friends that are down in the dumps, I’ve lent four figure sums of money, bought them things that I know they need, and sometimes just straight up sent them money for gas or groceries or surgery. Doing that sort of interaction makes me feel a lot closer to them. And it is a form of interaction that is locked to wealthier friends.

So true, past me 😔

(Not) Talking About Money

Some but definitely not all of these dynamics come from the fact that it’s considered rude to talk about money and crass to haggle in some of my friends’ cultures. If, to that casual friend who asks to stay over, I can be like “I’m not willing to suffer the psychic damage of you being in my private space for zero dollars, but I can do it for $200, which is less than what you’d spend on an airbnb,” that’d be cool. But seeing that I can’t, it’s just a shittier time for everyone.

Some of these dynamics come from the fact that it’s considered incredibly crass, or even morally wrong, to pay or not pay for certain things. Some think it’s crass to pay for companionship because some people believe that well-adjusted people will just naturally receive and give that to their well-adjusted friends. But of course this isn’t settled – from the opposite side of the ring, there’s been an internet slapfight going on about whether or not you should pay your friends to listen to your problems (“eMoTiOnAl lAbOuR”) for like the last decade.

There are also things that are only acceptable to not pay for if you really, truly can’t afford it. Care for an elderly relative is an example – you can ask your friend to help you with this in exchange for reduced rent in your apartment, but only if it’s very obvious to everyone involved that you cannot in any way afford to get a nurse for grandma.

It behooves me to mention here that there’s a grey tribe move to oppose this on a large scale. Basically, aggressively signalling being nonchalant about money and treating it like a resource like any other, instead of this concept-symbol that wraps you up in anxiety and taboos. Here are four examples (along with the obligatory LW post), but my intuitive sense 4 is that the people who are currently pushing for this are a lot wealthier than my current friend circle is.

Whether or not that means we can’t adopt it on a smaller scale with our smaller wallets isn’t something I’ve thought about in detail, but for what it’s worth, I do sense a quiet undercurrent of something like this amongst my friends. Money talk does get tentatively broached and we talk about our differing marginal utilities, but my sense is that it only happens among the people who are the most rationalist-leaning and the most close-knit with each other.

Other Friendship Devastators

There’s a couple more reasons why people in my social class don’t depend on friends and deepen their friendships more.

First is the fact that, with some exceptions, we all have pretty functional relationships with our family. It’s harder to get to where we are in life if we didn’t have supportive family, so our relationships with them are probably better than like, population average. And you have less need to depend on your friends when you can ask your mom or dad for something instead – especially for the super dramatic stuff that has the potential to forge a really powerful friendship.

I think this explains why friends who are in some minority groups, e.g. my queer friends, seem to have deeper friendships with each other. Worse relationships with parents -> increased need to lean on friends/community, deepening the bond.

Another reason is our fairly serious monogamy culture. If mom and dad are unavailable for some reason, the next logical person to coordinate with is your significant other.

Imagine how strong your relationship with someone could be if they let you sleep on their couch for 4 months after you got fired and your girlfriend dumped you, and then they helped you find a job and pick your life up back together. But for wealthy friends to get to that point, they have to 1) somehow lose all their FIRE-oriented savings, 2) lose their significant other, and 3) not have family to stay with or be unable to get to them.

The last thing is that it’s honestly really hard to have cross-class friendships (as it is with any cultural distance), because it’s easy for people’s senses of dignity or pride to get bruised. Poor people can’t ask the rich people in their life for help, even if it’s less of a burden on them than it would be on their other poor friends, because of the knowledge that there’s no way to be able to pay them back (which I think is a valid reason, but just kind of sucks in the abstract).

On the part of well-meaning richer friends, there’s often a sense of like, each marginal dollar being more valuable to their poorer friends, but not being able to give it due to reasons on either side, or feeling guilty if they don’t want to despite that. There’s just a lot of considerations that are made worse by the fact that it’s something you’re not really allowed to speak openly about.

So What to Do?

These observations feel important to me because deep friendships are difficult to cultivate, extra blockers seem to have emerged since I decided to throw my lot in with the grey tribe for some godforsaken reason, and they remain something that I want more of.

There’s some promising things that I’ve learned, that are sort of orthogonal to the dynamic that this post talks about. Recently I was able to meet a bunch of community organizers and a lot of them shared that close knit friend groups could be forged through something as simple as voluntary regular meetings over time. This seems to be backed up by studies such as this one (h/t effective altruism forums).

So that’s the plan for now. My concrete goal is to host enough gatherings that I’ll spend at least 100 hours with a consistent group of people that I find cool in the next twelve months. I’m not entirely sure that this will lead to what I want (see: the entire rest of this post), but I have other reasons for throwing these gatherings, and I would be very pleased to be surprised by the results.

  1. Money does stop working in catastrophic circumstances that we will face rarely in life – someone to comfort us when a loved one dies, or trying to mend a relationship that has turned into a horrible soulsucking mess, or your apartment burns down with everything in it and you’re too catatonic to start replacing your documents and things. For those things, you kind of either have close relationships that are already established, or you’re just kind of fucked.[]
  2. Sarah Constantin talks about another toxic dynamic around how my culture deals with mental health:

    The mantra taught to young people today is “If you’re having trouble, get professional help.”  And also, “If you see someone in trouble, don’t try to help them yourself, get them professional help.”
    In college, I had a barrage of orientation sessions where we were told that if a classmate or friend was struggling with an emotional or psychological problem, that we should not attempt to handle the situation on our own, but should refer them to the school’s mental health facilities.
    Think, for a moment, about how wrong this is.They are teaching kids not to be kind to sad friends, but to report them to the authorities instead.

    I’m also seeing a new wave of pathologization of normal brain stuff/emotional stuff + learned helplessness/ nominal fallacy in the past few months, which is one more thing that will surely play shittily with all of the above.[]

  3. For what it’s worth, my friends likely object this framing. Sorry guys! Fwiw, I think this might be a somewhat uncharitable, but 1) I think it’s a plausible explanation and 2) I’ve thought this way myself.[]
  4. My intuition by the way comes from the fact that all of these posts casually talk about spending five to six figure sums of money.[]

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