Why Don't Americans Talk about our Bank Accounts?

By Eileen O'Gorman on July 05, 2015

I have a Middle Eastern friend who was a tour guide in Turkey. Before leading tourists around her city, she was coached on guests’ cultural expectations. One no-no was this: “Don’t ask Americans how much money they make.”


It was so strange to me that she’d received this advice. Not because I thought that she should ask about money, but because I really couldn’t imagine that such a topic would even come up! Of course, you never ask how much money a person makes or has or anything like that. It’s private; even among family members.


Recently, I heard a 40-something American woman say that to this day she has no idea how much money her parents make.


What’s going on here? I am not asking because I think we necessarily need to change our practice, but I have to believe there is something deeper in play. Here are a few guesses:


– The amount of money we make affects our sense of identity. Am I “worth” what I make financially? Therefore if I don’t make lots of money it’s shameful. When we keep it secret is just one less thing to contend with in the battle for a sense of worth.


– People may judge us. This could come in all kinds of scenarios. Potential judgment for drawing a “high” salary and spending little. Or the reverse. Judgment for drawing a “low” salary and living outside your means. Again, easier to just not let the cat out of the bag.


– Western culture is highly individualistic. Essentially its no one else’s business how much money you make because you are an island, your family is an island. Conversely, a friend from the D.R. Congo recently shared with me that in his people group when one person gets a job all rejoice because they will all benefit. This opposite approach may not be the answer, but they certainly think in terms of the common good when it comes to money. The individualism usually erodes as our parents age and then adult children may get quite involved in their parents finances, but inherent in this interdependence is the aging process.


I can only imagine that there are a host of other things going on as we consider American cultural values and money. But honestly, I did have to stop and think about my own idolatry when I considered the “mum’s the word” approach to salary. I wonder about my sense of worth (or lack of) as it is tied into my vocation. I see my idolatry of self-reliance and even self-protection/isolation.


For missionaries who raise personal support to serve overseas, I know the support raising process can really do a number on their own identities. No longer do they go to a job with a salary through traditional means. They actually ask for financial partnership and are interdependent with their supporters. Information gets put out in the open that is often private: how to pay for rent, kids’ school fees, the fact that a support account is in deficit.


But so much good is happening as this support-raising interdependence grows. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Whether we are asking for money or giving money we are drawn together by God, who is about to do a new thing through our collaboration (see Isa. 43:19). To be converted means to experience a deep shift in how we see and think and act. To be converted is to be clothed in our right mind, to come to ourselves the way the younger son did when he was starving far from his true home (Luke 15:17-20). It is a shift of attention in which we set our mind on divine things (Matt. 16:23). ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. 12:2).”


So, I don’t know exactly why Americans – and I am guessing others, as well – won’t talk about our salaries, our bank accounts, our 401K plans. But I want to be willing to dig far enough into my heart to see if there is an idol hiding that is manifested by this silence. I want to be converted, as Nouwen says, not just once, but all the time.


Image sourced from Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

Eileen O'Gorman

About Eileen O'Gorman

Eileen serves as a the Director of Communication and Development for Serge. She holds an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and an B.A. in International Relations with a minor in Writing as a Profession from Webster University. When she is not communicating for Serge, she loves to dig in the dirt! She resonates with these lines from Julian of Norwich: "Be a gardener. Dig a ditch. Toil and sweat...make...abundant fruits to spring. Take this food and drink, and carry it to God as your true worship."