(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Everyone knows there are a few hot-button topics that can make any conversation go nuclear.
Religion. Health. Politics. Death.
But when it comes to the most difficult conversation you can possibly have, a new survey from Wells Fargo & Co found one clear winner: money.
Money landed right at the top, says Karen Wimbish, director of retail retirement for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank. "I don't know that we expected that."
In fact, 44 percent of Americans point to personal finances as the most challenging chat anyone can possibly have. Even the existentially terrifying topic of death, which you might expect to top such a survey, comes in second at 38 percent.
Also far behind are perennially explosive topics like politics at 35 percent, and religion, 32 percent.
Wondering who would rather talk about anything in the universe other than personal finances? Meet Denver's Natasha Lannerd.
"I am definitely one of those people," says the national sales manager for an organic tea company. "It kills me to talk about it, just kills me. I have had this problem so long, I don't even know when it started."
Lannerd, 28, says the silence was originally a family trait. Nobody in her house ever spoke about money when she was a kid, so she never got in the habit of talking about it as an adult.
"I grew up in a single-parent family, we didn't have a lot, and we just never talked about it," she recalls. "As a result, when I grew up and started making a fair amount of money, I never had a plan and could never stick to a budget.
"I started to worry that I would work 50 hours a week for 20 years and end up with zero dollars in my savings account. I didn't want that to happen to me."
She was finally able to broach the subject with the help of financial planner Maggie Kirchhoff, who forced her to get her fiscal house in order. But without that encouragement, she figures she might have kept her lips zipped indefinitely.
So what exactly is going on here? In a society that is ostensibly one of the wealthiest in the world, why is everyone so frightened to talk about such a basic subject?
"It is such a loaded conversation, and there is so much subtext and hidden meaning wrapped up in money," says Daniel Crosby, a behavioral finance expert and head of IncBlot Organizational Psychology in Huntsville, Alabama.
"Money is shorthand for happiness, power, and personal efficacy, so it can be very scary," Crosby says. "When money is short, it can be seen as a deficiency on the part of the breadwinner, and when there is lots of money, there can be fears that greed takes the place of genuine love."
Whatever the reason for avoiding the subject - money mistakes, embarrassment, fear of conflict - silence is no long-term solution. Here are four key principles to keep in mind to help you get over the hump and talk openly about your finances:
People often keep their mouths shut about money because they feel alone and scared. If you know that virtually everyone else you see on the street is thinking and feeling the same thing, perhaps you would not be so reticent.
"People having hard conversations about money should be upfront about the difficulty and discomfort," says Crosby, who wrote the book "You're Not That Great" about our human tendency toward behavioral screwups. "And those receiving the news should appropriately respect the trust it takes to have such a hard conversation."
When we put off the hard conversations in life, we tend to think of it as benign procrastination: We will get to it all eventually.
Instead, we should think of silence as damaging the quality of our lives. Without attention, after all, money problems only tend to get bigger.
"Being withholding about money is a form of loss of intimacy," says Crosby. "Where there is no intimacy, the relationship will die, guaranteed."
If you tend to clam up about cash, pause for a moment and think about the longer-term effects. As seen with Natasha Lannerd, you are likely to pass your traits down to your kids, who might turn pass them to their kids. Your bad habits could be amplified 50 years down the road.
"What we know about money, we generally learn from our parents," says Wells Fargo's Wimbish. "If you are a parent and you are not having money conversations with your kids, you are handicapping the next generation of savers and investors."
Even if you never talk about money and would not even know where to start, people who deal with this stuff for a living can help you finally loosen your tongue. Find a professional financial planner at sites like plannersearch.org or napfa.org.
"If I wanted to learn how to play the violin, I would get a tutor," says Lannerd. "The same thing with talking about money: I really needed to someone to help coach me through this.
"Once I actually started talking about it, I realized it's not as scary a subject as I thought."
Editing by Lauren Young and Lisa Von Ahn