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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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