So You Don’t Have an Opinion???

Brigitte Opel

Brigitte Opel

Thunderbird Alumna, Class of 1995

News from around the world are at our fingertips. We can have the headlines of The New York Times, The Guardian and The South China Morning Post (and many more) delivered into our inbox or feed on a constant basis. And if we find the time to read them, we can be informed on any event and trend around the world. 

Some of us have the capacity to fit the information into the complex spider web of global events in economics and politics. Some of us just hold onto these bits of newsflashes for the short conversations at the coffee machine. Somewhere floating between these two groups, I try to filter whatever information makes sense to me or I can use in my next lecture, article, or workshop. So there’s a lot of world news that I find interesting. 

Often, when I put down the paper, I get the question “what do you think about what is happening in ….”. I specifically remember that question after the British voted to leave the EU. Although I was surprised by the result, I didn’t have a specific opinion about it. And I didn’t think that I needed to have an opinion – it seemed that this was going to happen no matter what I thought about it. 

To provide some context to this story: I live in the Netherlands, and the Dutch are known to be outspoken and vocal about their opinions. It is one of their trademarks; it is their interpretation of freedom of speech. They share their feedback and their view of the world with anybody and in any kind of situation. It is this unfiltered frankness that made the rest of the world label them as rude.

At the same time, the Dutch trust people that share their view of the world. It is the transparency of thoughts and opinions that makes them trust. If you don’t seem to be open with what is on your mind, how can they trust you? 

So here I am, without a quick answer on my opinion in this culture of speaking-your-mind and trust-in-transparency. Since the day of the Brexit referendum, I have become more conscious of this discrepancy. Clearly, during the COVID-19 pandemic there have been many moments where I could (should?) have an opinion: on the face masks, the closing of restaurants, homeschooling, and last but not least, the vaccination rollout. It might not come as a surprise that many of these things happened without me having an opinion about them. I spent more energy trying to figure out how to deal with all these events than having a stand on them.

Sometimes I wonder if that is because as a German I try to understand the facts, the context, and the possible consequences – and as long as I feel I haven’t fully grasped all of that, I am not entitled to an opinion. In cultural terms (without wanting to stereotype), Germans try to control uncertainties in life, in private and work life, by relying on scientific evidence, experts, and people with diplomas that prove they’ve studied something in depth. So maybe the need to oversee all aspects of a situation is a cultural trait. Angela Merkel seemed to prove the point. During her 16 years as German chancellor, there have been several incidents that she failed to comment on immediately. In some cases, it took her 3 days to issue a statement because she was examining all evidence and news items. I totally understand that. 

As an intercultural consultant, I have learned to appreciate my lack of opinion. I’ve turned it around and call it ‘keeping an open mind’ and see it as a clear advantage when I try to teach people to understand others and walk in their shoes. 

Fortunately, I have that liberty in my line of business. Meaning: I’ll maintain a safe distance from the office of running a country.

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