Sometimes nothing is the absolute best thing to say.
Photo courtesy of gratisography
We are a race of yakkers.
Exactly how much we talk is unclear. One oft-cited experiment puts the average at 20,000 words daily for women and 7,000 for men. A separate study of college students in 2007 reported numbers more like 16,000 for females and 15,000 for males.
Precise figures depend on a variety of factors — culture, gender and age of the speaker, context (coffee shop or library?), time of day, situation (“Is there a game on?” etc.). But we don’t need another study to tell us we talk a lot.
You say, “Not me. I’m quiet. I’m introverted.” Okay. Pick a lower daily estimate. Then crunch the numbers across an average life expectancy. When everything has been said and done (i.e., when you are done), it’s safe to assume you will have spoken hundreds of millions of words. (And that’s without factoring in all the words you write — in emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook interactions and blog posts — if you’re into those sorts of things). Hundreds of millions.
Let that sink in.
Then we have our loquacious friends who are in the Billion Word Club. As my friend Skin likes to say, “They can flap it.” I feel okay poking a little fun at them here, because they’re too busy chattering away to stop and read this post and be offended. (Actually, as a speaker and full-time writer, I’m pretty sure I’m in the BWC myself.)
No wonder we say talk is cheap. In a way, it is. But in another way talk is costly and, in certain instances, priceless. Talk is verbal nitro glycerin. The right words carefully administered can save a dying heart. The wrong words used carelessly can blow up lives.
It’s sobering and mind-boggling, isn’t it? Not just the massive number of words we use, but the myriad of ways we use — and misuse — them.
I’ve decided this business of trying to talk in positive ways is like driving a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport. We intend to be careful, but in only about 2.4 seconds we’ve somehow gone from 0 to 60 critical or gossipy comments per hour, braking only for a quick boast, a bitter complaint, a heated argument, or to spew a few snarky comments into the Twittersphere. Blowing through caution lights and ignoring stop signs, some of us can make it all the way to cruelty or dishonesty before other folks manage to get backed-out of the driveway!
And let’s not forget verbal manipulation. Instead of using words to give, how about all the times and ways we talk in order to get something from people? I have noticed, to my chagrin, that I sometimes say a thing not primarily because it’s true or encouraging or needed — but because I want to be in someone’s good graces. I sense that what he wants to hear is.... Therefore I will say .... And maybe I will get a benefit?
This is one of the curses of being a people-pleaser. In the dysfunctional desire to be liked, you can start saying things others will like — and end up disliking yourself in the process.
Talking is meant to be an exercise in transparency and authenticity. Words are for explaining, unveiling, truth-telling. Often, however, we do what Voltaire observed: We use words to hide our real thoughts. We mislead.
Wouldn’t you agree if it’s wrong to say hurtful things that crush a person’s heart, it’s equally wrong to say deceptive things that tickle a person’s ears?
Years ago, someone shared with me the old T-H-I-N-K principle, a reminder of how important it is to check ourselves before we open our big fat yappers. It involves asking yourself five questions:
T-Is what I’m about to say timely? (Is now the best time to have this talk?)
H-Can I be honest here? (Or will I be tempted to shade the truth?)
I-Is what I’m about to say inspiring? (Will my words give hope?)
N-Are my words necessary? (Not every thought I have needs to be shared.)
K-Is what I want to say kind? (Is my attitude right? My tone loving?)
(Note to self: Not a bad list to have tattooed on the inside of one's eyelids.)
Years ago I knew a guy who babbled incessantly. Like the proverbial boy who cried “wolf!” he essentially trained people to tune him out. One day he was rattling on about something — trying to get in his daily quota of words, I suppose — when the person whose ear he was bending looked up absentmindedly and said, “I’m sorry…what?”
The guy’s response was classic, “Oh, nothing, he replied, “I just like to say stuff.”
Ha, most days that’s me. (Maybe you too?) Opinions, criticisms, complaints, juicy rumors, advice for fixing this person or solving that problem — “I just like to say stuff.”
It’s to windy “stuff-sayers” King Solomon gave this wise reminder, “Where there are many words, transgression is unavoidable. But he who restrains his lips is wise.”
Clearly, in a world of endless talk, nothing is often the best thing to say.