On Knowing When to Shut Up
Like knowing when to step away from the sundae bar, knowing when to shut up is one of those things we’d love to teach other people but rarely ever learn ourselves. It’s so much easier to recognize when somebody else– a Facebook friend or blogger or that coworker at the meeting that’s fifteen minutes overtime– is blathering away and making an ass of themselves
As somebody who writes (and blathers) a lot myself, I’ve been loathe to become that guy. “Too late!” you are quick to point out. But lo and behold, I actually do make an effort to know when to shut up. You, dear reader, are blissfully unaware of the many unpublished posts lying around behind the curtain of this blog. Even on Facebook, as inconceivable as it may be for those who know me, I regularly erase comments before posting them, tossing them away into the ether.
In short, I make an effort. Do I wish other people did as well? Do I wish there was a list of caveat questions tattooed on some bloggers’ and Facebook posters’ writing arms? I do. But I also wish I was better at it myself. In that vein, the following are the things I (hopefully) ask myself before commenting, blogging, and yes, even speaking. You have my permission– nay, my earnest request– to loudly point out whenever I’m not asking myself these questions loud enough.
4. Are You Really That Smart?
It’s the reason any of us opens our mouth in the first place, assuming it isn’t to stick a Twinkie in it: we express words because we think we’re smart enough to have something meaningful to say.
But what if we just don’t?
Us opinionated types– the ones usually first in line to start blogs, or discussions, or arguments– are prone to think we’re pretty astute (at least astute enough to use the word “astute” in a sentence). Ego is far more often the fuel for writing than inspiration. So when’s the last time we asked ourselves if maybe we aren’t really all that insightful and intelligent?
Because honestly, if it’s true– if we aren’t as gloriously sharp as we think we are– we’d probably be the very last ones to know. No one’s going to tell us, or if they do, we’ll just dismiss them as haters. Our prides have a million ways to inure us to the possibility that maybe we’re just bags full of crap.
Thus, it behooves us to ask ourselves. Are we really all that smart? Do we really have that much worth saying? Or are we just joyriding in the backseat while our ego drives us around in a cheap limousine rented with the intellectual equivalent of burger-flipping money?
3. Did Anyone Ask You?
The other day I was riding my bike when an old shirtless dude passed me and chided me about not wearing a helmet. As you’d expect, I considered his advice, immediately went back to my car, drove to Wussies R Us and bought myself a bike helmet. Later, I thanked him with a hearty thumbs-up, just like we all do when we’re given an unsolicited piece of advice.
No. Actually I yelled at the old guy (something pithy, smart, and insightful, like “Yeah? Well! So, whatever!!”). No one appreciates the answer to a question no one asked. You can be all the smart in the world, but if no one asked you to share it around, chances are your wise words amount to one of those flyers that gets handed out in front of cheap Vegas strip shows: taken reluctantly only to be tossed in the gutter one step later.
People need to want to know what you think. They have to have expressed an interest. This is true on social media, and it’s especially true if you’re a blogger. If nobody asked for your thoughts, you’d better be so unbelievably entertaining that they’ll listen anyway, or ready to not be offended if they tell you to shut up.
Or maybe we should sometimes just cut to the chase and shut up before anyone has to say it.
2. Will it Change Anything?
One of my favorite Bible stories isn’t the one about the guy getting swallowed by the whale or the other guy killing an army with a donkey’s jawbone. It’s a story about Jesus getting the religious leaders’ panties all in a wad (again). The Pharisees asked him where his power came from, not because they wanted to know, but because they wanted to get him in trouble.
Jesus knew this and didn’t waste an answer on them. Instead, he asked them a trick question of his own. They hemmed and hawed and harrumphed and finally said, “we can’t answer that one.” And Jesus said, essentially, “then fine, I’m not answering yours either,” and probably dropped the mic on his way out of the temple.
Jesus knew when an answer wouldn’t change anything.
We love to complain and monologue, but it’s only useful if there’s a chance of changing what we’re carrying on about. You can carp all day about how Facebook statuses are a bunch of self-aggrandizing posturing, but it’s not going to change it. People have been being self-aggrandizing since cave paintings.
If the thing you’re saying has no chance of changing anything, or if you’re audience is too stubborn to hear your fabulous wisdom, then just shut up. Nobody wants to hear it.
1. Has it Already Been Said?
This is the ultimate question. After all, humans have been around for a few years, and we’ve been talking about stuff for most of them. If there’s a good chance that your amazing insight has been said before (there is) then maybe you should consider just referring everybody to that. Chances are it was already said better than the way you’ll say it.
And perhaps even more importantly, if it was already said (it was) and said better than you could (it totally was) but it still managed not to change the world, what’s the point in you going at it again?
On the other hand, if you can say it in a new way? Sure, give it a shot. Or if you can add your own spin to it, based on your own life experiences, then maybe it’s worth it. But seriously, this is a lot harder than you think it is. Originality isn’t about just saying the same thing with your “unique” spin on it. It has to be changed by being digested through your life, your experiences, so that when it finally gets excreted out onto the world (sorry, it’s a yucky but entirely accurate metaphor) it has to be unique enough to be distinguishable from all the millions of ways it’s probably been said before.
This is the one that I ask myself the most– the one that has killed the most comments and blog posts. Has it been said before? Yes, it probably has, and by far better writers. Go check them out instead. If you (George) are still trying to say it, then you aren’t interested in sharing a truth, you’re interested in getting people to look at you (George!) There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s at least be honest about it.
And that’s it. Those are my four personal rules for knowing when to shut up. Again, call me on them. And if you so choose to apply them to yourself and your writings, well I suspect I won’t be the only one to applaud you.
Some things we all know by nature. Other things we get taught by our parents and teachers. Learning to know when to shut up– that one we have to take the tough initiative to learn entirely on our own.
I’ll shut up now.