When Pierce Mattie, the 33-year-old CEO of a public-relations company, threw a party at his Fire Island beach house in September, he decided not to wear his new one-carat-diamond pendant necklace. He didn’t want his friends from Lehman Brothers to see it. “Their jobs were in jeopardy,” he says. “I didn’t want them to say ‘How can you wear that?’” Instead of his Louis Vuitton briefcase, Mattie now carries a Coach bag to the office. (“Coach is safer. We have to be really sensitive with clients about what we did on weekends and what new purchases we made.”) Given the chill on Wall Street, he even feels guilty about the July engagement party he and his fiancée threw at the Waldorf-Astoria. As he watched 80 of his friends and family—some fresh off a plane from London or Vancouver—drink Veuve Clicquot, eat cake, and pose for one of six photographers, he kept thinking to himself, We should have done something on a smaller scale.

Welcome to the new social conundrum. In a world filled with dismal economic news, where guys who once banked bonuses double the size of their salaries are now firing their nannies, men who are still flush find themselves downplaying their success. They’re still spending like it’s boom times, of course. But they’re keeping their high rolling quiet, pretending that that Dolce & Gabbana suit is five years old, changing the subject the moment that summer trip to Phuket comes up, telling people they bought the new Audi at a fire sale.

The gulf between what they do and what they say is as wide as the mountain vistas in Aspen.

“During a downturn, the economic divide is exacerbated,” says Joan DiFuria, cofounder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, California, a company that helps people cope with the emotional problems that come with wealth. “People who are wealthy go underground.”

It’s only natural to be evasive when you’re enjoying dinners at Cipriani and cashmere cardigans from Brunello Cucinelli while your friends are putting their golf clubs up for sale on eBay. Dr. Jim Grubman, a psychologist in central Massachusetts who counsels wealthy individuals and their financial advisers, says there are two reasons for this: (1) People want to avoid inviting envy or resentment from their friends and (2) they feel guilty about indulging themselves when their fellow man is suffering. “In good times, I can show you my Rolex and you can show me your new Gucci wallet,” Grubman says. “In bad times, you go back to the haves and have-nots. If you can no longer afford things and I still can, it might cause a separation between us.”

So guys like Mattie say they’re shopping for wedding bands at Zales when in fact they’re surveying the options at Cartier. “We simply edit ourselves when we’re talking with people we know will be frustrated,” he says. And guys like Matthew, a public-relations executive, pass up the Rolex Submariner for their 40th birthday in favor of a Breitling. “If someone compliments it,” he says, “I’ll just say thanks and cut off the conversation.”