Rather recently someone said to me, “Why don’t you just speak your mind!”  I paused and then thought, “This would never happen in many cultures.”

It is not uncommon for people in the USA to be upfront and speak their mind.  Americans often believe that being direct is the most efficient way to communicate.  The phrases “tell it like it is” and “speak your mind” — express such a value. Being direct is often valued over “beating around the bush.”   Consequently, Americans are often assertive, open and direct about their thoughts and feelings.   In fact, however, in other cultures, such behavior is often seen as being rude or expressing anger inappropriately.

Why is it that Americans often neglect and even ignore value systems when they travel abroad?  Some speak their mind, even to the point of embarrassing a new cultural friend.  Instead, Americans should learn that not all cultures have this same value: a value of being “upfront”.   In some cultures, the “normal” way to disagree or to say no is to say nothing.  Cross-culturally, it is sometimes better to keep one’s mouth shut than open.  Our tongue can easily cause more harm than good.  The Bible confirms this saying,

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (James 3:6-12, NRSV).

So, the next time you travel abroad, don’t let the things you hear, the sights you see, or the smells you smell influence you to speak your mind.  Instead, hold your tongue and don’t speak your mind.  You will then find yourself in a better place to not only understand the situation but also learn from the people.