A lot of us run away from tough conversations. Anna Sale runs toward them. For nearly a decade, as the host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money, she has been having searching conversations about “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” Now, in her new book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, she blends reportage and memoir to reveal how speaking openly (and listening attentively) can fortify our relationships. That may sound simple, but as one of the book’s reviewers observed, “As vaccinated people begin to have joyous reunions with friends and family, after a year of isolation and Zooms, many of us are realizing that we’ve forgotten how to talk about the easy things, let alone the hard ones.”
In this discussion with host Rufus Griscom on the Next Big Idea podcast, Anna reminds us how to have those difficult conversations. Listen to the full episode below, or read a few key highlights.
Now more than ever, we need to have tough conversations.
Rufus Griscom: There are a lot of people who feel unmoored right now. We’ve had the erosion of religion, plus declines in confidence in government and media. People are lonely. I was amazed by this statistic in your book: 60% of Americans said they felt lonely in 2019—before the COVID epidemic. Do you see the Death, Sex & Money podcast, and, by extension, this book, as an attempt to help people reconnect? Do you see it as a form of healing through shared experience?
Anna Sale: I think the book and the show do it in two different ways. I hope that Death, Sex & Money, as a listening experience, is something you can turn on, and just by hearing people talk about hard things, you can put your shoulders down a little bit and think, Oh, I’m not the only person who’s ever gone through some version of this. And I also hope it can model how to talk about tough stuff, and also a way to peer into other people’s lives to make you feel more open-hearted and compassionate and open to connection.
The book is a little bit more prescriptive. I really believe that if you push yourself to have conversations in your personal life, to go to that next level of interaction, which usually starts with you being willing to signal that there’s something you’re having trouble with, then you can build a relationship on the idea of being there for one another. That is what will help us build back to having a sense of belonging and community—that we’re not just out on our own struggling and feeling lonely. My greatest hope for the book is that it helps each of us build back that sense of connection in our daily lives.
“More conversations about how each of us is doing financially will help us understand how the economy is working, who it’s working for, and who it’s not working for.”
Maintaining a dialogue about sex is an important part of being in a long-term relationship.
Anna: In a sex conversation, particularly with a potential partner, you’re having to negotiate. It’s relational—it’s not just carnal. It also calls us toward the limits of our ability to communicate.
There are a lot of conversations in the culture about sex and what’s going to happen with a new partner, what you both consent to if you get together. But that conversation sort of goes away in longer-term relationships, whether they’re monogamous or not. And I wanted to have some space for that, because I think those can be tricky conversations, too. They open the door to change in a long-term relationship, which can feel really risky and scary and shaming.
We’re clumsy when we talk about money—but we should keep talking about it anyway.
Anna: More conversations about how each of us is doing financially will help us understand how the economy is working, who it’s working for, and who it’s not working for. On an interpersonal level, talking to friends, talking to people coming up behind you in your career about money—those conversations are so important, because money isn’t just something that happens. There are a lot of tools and mysterious investing vehicles, for example, that you need to talk about, and not feel like you have to go to personal finance websites to find out how to “do” money. I have found it really helpful, in my life, to talk about money with people who are friends and colleagues, because it helps me to recognize where there are choices—and talking about how you make those choices can be really useful.
“It can be hard to see outside of the particulars of your own experience.”
Money is an important part of the plot of each of our lives, and I think we should all acknowledge that more openly. But it’s also very dependent on a moment in history and what’s going on and forces that you can’t control.
Rufus: How has your relationship with money evolved?
Anna: Well, I don’t like spending money—I want to shovel all of my money into savings as a way of making me feel safe and responsible. Certainly my earnings have changed over the course of my career, but what’s changed more is my ability to manage my feelings around money. When I used to feel anxious about spending money, I would think, like, “This is my responsible brain telling me that I’m getting out of control.” And I have since developed this other part of my brain that says, “Well, Anna, you have to pay for childcare, and childcare is expensive. And here’s what happens when you pay for childcare: It enables you to do X, Y, and Z.” I can talk back to those feelings. That is how I’ve developed and hopefully grown when it comes to money.
On the beauty of intergenerational friendships.
Anna: Something beautiful happens in multi-generational friendships: You learn to recognize, through conversation, that what you’re struggling with right now is part of just the season of life that you’re in, and not just the particulars of your individual experience. I’ve been so helped by having friends who have kids who are older, just being reminded of the different phases that one goes through as a parent—because it can be hard to see outside of the particulars of your own experience.
And when I talk to younger people and people who are starting out in journalism, I can help give them perspective about how careers unfold. I love that. I love having friends who are lots of different ages. But it does come with more awareness of death. I could be in more denial if I didn’t have so many old friends.
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