Silence is truly golden

“Keep your mouth shut,” my sis said. “You don’t have to say each and every thought that comes into your head.” For the record, this was one time she wasn’t talking to me.

Don Miguel Ruiz put it more eruditely in his book “The Four Agreements”: “Be impeccable with your word.”

“Still waters run deep” informs the folk wisdom of ages past.

“You’re just talking to hear your head rattle,” my mom said.

It’s so true. How much of what comes out of our mouth is really worth saying?

Mona, our band drummer, was explaining tonight, for example, about her slow emergence from introversion.

“It was when I turned 40,” Mona said. “I decided that if I was to ever have friends close enough to be able to ask them for a favor, I had to start talking to people. Up until that time, it just seemed that there wasn’t much of value to talk about.

“Talking about the weather, what someone was wearing, how many days vacation I might have coming, what I always wanted to be as a child, the guy who cut me off on the freeway, the fact that I have to go shopping for toilet paper and green beans … there just wasn’t much that I wanted to spend time telling someone about. It all seemed pretty pedestrian. I didn’t have Big Thoughts that often, which might be interesting to other people.

“And I didn’t think much of what I was hearing warranted spending any time listening to!”

While dear Mona has demonstrated the ability to engage in conversation since then, she leans towards humor of the absurd as her “small talk” category of choice.

Most of us find ourselves in verbal communication of the trivial sort quite often. It’s a near requirement for the peaceful negotiation of normal human activities as we interact with people in our daily life, from the barista to the man in line passing time while he waits with us, from the colleague in the break room to the tow-truck driver taking us home with our busted vehicle.

The worst for me is the business function where, over dinner or standing with a cup of coffee in hand, the collegial stranger turns to me and says, “So what do you do?”

My first reaction is, “Why do you care?” I don’t say this, of course, because I know most of the answers. No sense demonstrating mastery of the obvious. I’d love it if instead the person asked, “Did you learn anything of interest today?” That’s a much more compelling invitation to a worthwhile discussion.

As Ruiz reminds us, words are very, very important and powerful. If we use them indiscriminately, we run the risk of being inconsiderate of our audience (we might say something that is unintentionally rude or dismissive), boorish (they feel pinned down by our long monologue) or just plain boring (they have zero interest in the topic we’re engaged in).

We also could be diminishing our own chances for success. For example, if we are aiming to achieve some goal, the more we tell people about it, the lower our ability to actually achieve it, particularly if the people we are telling can have zero impact on whether or not one advances along the desired trajectory.

Telling family or friends all about what we’re going to do tomorrow — or five years from now — reduces our energy to actually do it. Why? Normally, when you tell someone you’re going to, say, get your degree in engineering, but you haven’t enrolled in one class yet, they will praise your intentions and give you support.

This feels good. So you tell more people. Everybody reacts positively. You feel like you’re actually making progress, so you keep telling people — as long as they keep stroking you for your ambitions. But you haven’t enrolled in a single class.

After a while, people ask you, “How is that engineering degree coming?” If you haven’t taken a step toward it, it’s embarrassing to tell them so. So you make up a reason why it wasn’t a good idea after all: “I discovered that engineering is more about following very detailed procedures and rules. I want to be more creative, to design from scratch, to create my own principles. I’m thinking about art school.”

“That’s wonderful!” they say. “You must be so talented!”

After years without progress, you start to feel like a fraud, so finally you learn to keep your mouth shut until after you’d at least started the journey, if not finished the damn degree!

And then there’s the realization famously phrased by Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” So often we open our mouth with a firm opinion, later to find how far off base it really was.

Put another way, by the same bumpkin genius: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

My misanthrope of a sister would heartily agree. Maybe now I’ll listen to her.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at

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Mona 10:34pm April 4, 2014

Stan! This is so true. Intentions professed never make it to fruition. Precisely why I didn't tell a soul when I started taking drum lessons 17 years ago. Got out the Yellow Pages, found a teacher and started driving off every Wednesday at 1:00 to "run errands." Finally confessed a couple of months later, because well, people DO talk! My whole life's been like that. I did the same thing when I was 14 with money I made drawing pictures. Unfortunately it took all my money for one lesson (and the walk to the music store took an hour each way) so nobody knew I tried, nobody scoffed, and it didn't count as failing, either.