We Don’t Always Need to Talk

“We need to talk.”

Those words inspire dread. They usually portend something unpleasant.

At home, your spouse might be angry because you forgot to take out the trash. At work, your boss might scold you for neglecting to put cover sheets on your TPS reports.

But in general, we don’t always need to talk. Sometimes, talking is counter-productive.

And that’s often the question: Will talking make things better or make things worse? Is it even needed?

The wisdom of silence

The Chinese philosopher Confucius advised that “silence is a friend who never betrays.”

Sometimes, silence isn’t an option. If we can prevent a serious wrong, then we have a duty to speak up.

At other times, the situation isn’t as clear:

  • Maybe speaking up would cause trouble but have no positive effect.
  • Maybe we’re not completely sure of the facts.
  • Maybe the problem itself is of borderline importance.
  • And maybe we’re just making excuses for ourselves because we don’t want to rock the boat.

So there’s no simple formula that tells us when to speak up and when to remain silent. We have to use our judgment.

The modern version of Confucius’s advice is that it’s better to keep our mouths shut and let people wonder if we’re fools, instead of opening our mouths and removing all doubt.

Make small talk about nothing

There are three things I didn’t learn how to do until my early 30s: juggle, whistle, and make small talk.

As a nerd, I was mystified by small talk. I thought that conversation always had to have a subject and purpose, preferably important ones. The idea of talking about nothing seemed insane.

And then one day, I was sitting on the porch at my parents’ house. My father was sitting across the table drinking a Heineken. We were talking about nothing. At times, we didn’t say anything. We just listened to the rustle of the wind in the trees, or watched the birds and the squirrels.

It suddenly dawned on me: talking wasn’t the point. The point of small talk was simply to be present with a person, to share the moment and the experience. It was “I care enough about you to spend time with you even if there’s no other purpose.” We were making small talk.

Not everything needs a purpose external to itself. Sometimes, the experience itself is the purpose. Like small talk.

Don’t shed your neighbor’s blood

The heading sounds scary, but fear not: It’s just a metaphor. It refers to a saying in the Talmud:

“Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.”

And the ancient rabbis were quite emphatic about it. One of them added that it would be better to engage in adultery than to shame someone in public.

Some statements are true but they humiliate people or hurt their feelings. Honesty does not require us to announce such truths publicly unless there’s a serious reason to do so.

If there isn’t, then we should refrain from “shedding the blood” of people for whom those truths are emotionally painful.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Life, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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