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Drinks Tonight? How Income Disparity Affects Friendships

Stay in...choose your beverage
Stay in...choose your beverage
Kathleen Hildebrand

MUNICH — At some point Hanna Seibert (not her real name) just started making excuses. When her girlfriends called and wanted to go out to eat and drink cocktails in the city, she would put them off, saying she had too much to do. The cliché excuses suggesting she was stressed out struck her career-minded friends as pretty normal. “Tell me about it,” they’d say with a knowing nod. But it wasn’t a question of time for Siebert. It was a question of money.

Things weren’t always this way for her. After earning a degree in business administration, Siebert earned good money working for a couple of years at a large German accounting firm Then, at 28, she quit to start her own small advertising agency. It took a long time to build a customer base, and at first there was no income at all. But she’d counted on that. What she hadn’t counted on was that her professional decisions could affect her friendships.

Siebert’s savings progressvily melted away, and at some point she began having existential fears. When they became overwhelming, she accepted a traineeship in a publishing house that paid her 600 euros a month. Her friends from university, meanwhile, had stayed in their well-paid consulting jobs, climbed the career ladder and were well-paid. Because they realized that things were financially tight for their friend Hanna, they’d pay for that bottle of wine at the restaurant or forego eating out altogether and come visit her at home. “They were so nice,” says Siebert, “but after a while the whole thing just seemed stupid to me.” So she stopped inviting them to her home and eventually became disconnected from these friendships.

When people with money are friends with people of modest means the disparities don’t typically end with the bank accounts. One person in the friendship often feels less comfortable than the other, and it tends to be the one with less money — the friend who can’t afford to join the group at the restaurant or go on the weekend trip, the one whose share may be paid for by the others.

“It doesn’t disturb the rich ones to pay,” says Horst Heidbrink, a psychology lecturer at the distance-learning University of Hagen and one of the few researchers who focuses on the subject of friendship. “The rich person thinks they’re being caring. But the poorer person feels under pressure to be particularly nice.” In close friendships between two people, Heidbrink says it’s often successful to discuss the issue, but that’s more difficult with larger groups of friends.

Back on the drinks circuit

Fast forward. At a bustling Italian restaurant in Munich’s Old Town, a year after she last made excuses and begged off for drinks with her friends, Hanna Siebert is ordering an avocado and crayfish salad. This would have been unthinkable back when during her precarious job situation when she was becoming ever more isolated. But she was lucky. After some two years of uncertainty, her financial hard times are over. She is now in a lead position at the publishing house where she started as a poorly paid trainee. She runs her advertising business on the side. And she’s meeting up with her friends again. “They weren’t trying to drum me out of the group,” she says, looking back on it. “I was actually the one with the biggest problem about the situation.”

But a lack of balance puts pressure on many friendships. Aristotelian ethics would suggest dealing with the imbalance with increased devotion by the friend with less. Friendship expert Horst Heidbrink says he wouldn’t recommend this, but his research has shown him that the give and take between friends has to be balanced.

And that doesn’t just go for money. “The currency in friendship can be almost anything,” he says. The person who calls a friend 10 times will wait a while before calling again so that he or she isn’t always the one reaching out, for example. “We constantly do these little calculations and feel uncomfortable when we feel used,” Heidbrink says.

Despite the compliations, friendships between rich and poor people are not as unusual as one might think. In a 2014 study by the Bremen-based Allensbach Institute, 1,624 people of different ages were asked about their friendships. Forty-four percent of respondents said they had friends who were considerably better off than they were. And 41% said they were friends with people who were considerably less well off than they were. And yet that old saying to the effect that money issues can put an end to friendship still holds for many.

The sticky wicket of money lending

According to the study, friends helped each other out with moving house and renovation work, offered an ear when needed and doled out advice. But only 10% ever accepted significant loans from their richer friends. “Many people believe that borrowing money would weigh the friendship down,” Heidbrink says. “Most people would rather go to their parents because family relationships don’t depend on symmetry as much as friendships do.” Nevertheless, he says, “A good friendship can also withstand a credit.”

Andrea Brandt (not her real name), 52, would say a friendship could grow even stronger because of it. Her best friend Micha has known her for 20 years. When Brandt’s relationship broke down in 1997, she was forced to sell the house that she’d built with her former partner — at a loss. Micha, the owner of a successful ad agency, lent her the 30,000 Deutsche Marks she was missing to settle the bank credit. They drew up a contract with Brandt’s parents as guarantors. It was all highly official, except that Micha refused to charge interest.

“I paid him the money back as fast as possible,” Brandt says. “That was really important to me. I wanted him to know that he could depend on me.” And their friendship became stronger as a result. “It looks like we’ll still be friends when we’re old,” she says. Brandt no longer protests when Micha picks up the lunch tab, and every year when his wife gives her a large bag of designer clothes she no longer wants, Brandt doesn’t regard the gift as somehow shameful. Instead, she feels happy and invites her daughter over to join her in trying things on.

Deep friendships are able to withstand asymmetry like that, Heidbrink believes, although friendships between men and women are vulnerable because they are defined by different activities. With their male friends, men play sports, for example, while women and their girlfriends often just talk when they get together. “That’s where it gets harder to leave out financial situations, and there’s more comparing,” says Heidbrink. On the other hand, when two guys play soccer together, it’s not an issue if one returns to a villa and the other to a low-rent apartment.

“What counts is trust,” Heidbrink says. When trust isn’t justified — when a friend refuses to help or betrays confidences — then friendships fall apart. They don’t fall apart because one person has a lot of money in the bank and the other doesn’t. If the less well-off don’t suffer from jealousy or envy, and the better-off don’t take it too much to heart if their best friend can’t join them on that spa trip, there’s a good chance of a successful friendship.

This modern reality is something Aristotle addressed back in ancient times. He defined three kinds of friendship. The first two are utility and pleasure. But it is the third — based on friends sincerely wanting what’s best for each other — that stands the best chance of longevity.

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