“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
That quote, more appropriate than ever in the social media age, has been alternately attributed through the years to everyone from Mark Twain to Abraham Lincoln. But it is originally derived from the Bible, specifically Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”
We live in a world where knowledge is valued, and it is often tempting to share with others the extent of our personal knowledge, so as to impress. But often, in so doing, we end up instead revealing our limitations.
I have been pleasantly surprised through the years to realize how often I have been mistaken for intelligent because I remained silent. When I began working in politics around 1996, I adopted the above philosophy because I was in the learning stages.
Amusingly, that silence was often mistaken for wisdom or prudence, and realizing as much, I tended to stay even more silent, a particular rarity in political circles. Granted, as my knowledge and confidence grew, so did my willingness to speak up. But even today, more times than not, I tend to regret the things I say much more than the things I do not say.
So even if you are not particularly bright, silence can at least fool people into thinking you are. Along those lines, it is no mystery why people are able to imbue their pets with such adorable personalities. Our cats, dogs and other domestic animals are blessed with the gift of being inarticulate. They are tabula rosa – blank slates on which we project our own imaginations.
They cannot speak for themselves, so we use our imaginations to speak for them, and then find it remarkable how much our pets resemble ourselves. It is why pets are such wonderful companions. Their personalities are amazingly what we wish them to be, and usually very intelligent at that, we think.
Then there are people who do not have or want the gift of silence, or they learn to develop it only late in life. Having attended hundreds of meetings over the years on various subjects and for different purposes, it has often been predictable to me that one or two people in particular would rule the conversation.
There are, unfortunately, those who try to compensate for their lack of knowledge on a particular topic with more words, not fewer. They seem to think that if they just keep babbling on long enough, they will eventually sound convincing.
A couple of weeks ago, an acquaintance told me about a meeting he had just attended, complaining that it was once again dominated by someone who is never short of opinions and never hesitant to share each one of them, whether asked or not.
The annoyance was not that the person’s opinion was necessarily wrong; in fact, it was acknowledged that on nearly every fact that was raised, the individual’s input was probably on target. The aggravation came because of the obvious smugness and satisfaction that was taken in shooting down every other suggestion or idea, and in finding the flaws with any notion that came from any other source.
Possessing the greatest amount of knowledge does not justify sharing it all at one time. No one likes a know-it-all, even when the person in question really does know it all. It is true that a handful of people in any group, or even any community, are much smarter and much more knowledgeable than others on almost every topic. Such people are generally much disliked.
It is said that knowledge is power, and that is true. So why hand over all the power in one fell swoop? It would seem logical to keep our own knowledge mostly to ourselves, at least until a moment when it can be wielded most effectively, or is most needed and welcomed.
Silence can be beneficial in regard to team building, friendship and goodwill insomuch as it allows others to be the ones to arrive at and share a piece of knowledge, even if it is information that we may have possessed from the start and could have shared much earlier. In other words, let others take the credit sometimes – a philosophy rarely practiced in some circles, like among many public officeholders, where the race to take credit for things is truly Olympian.
Another well-known proverb on the subject states, “Silence is golden.” The full version of that saying is, “Speech is silver, silence is golden.” As the poet Thomas Carlyle interpreted it a couple of centuries ago, “Speech is of time, silence is of eternity.”
In our current age of bombastic cable news channels, outrageous talk radio, and unrelenting social media outbursts, we all occasionally need reminded that what we don’t say is often wiser than what we do say.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.