Do you ever hear your mother’s voice in your head? I do at times, and one of the messages I hear most often is, “you don’t have to say everything you think.”
I’ve gotten tripped up more times than I’d care to admit when I’ve ignored that voice. It might be that testy thought that I share in a discussion with my wife when it would have been better to hold my tongue and use my two ears instead. It could be that unkind word about a colleague who is not in the room that gets back to them, leading to a much longer discussion.
Then there are the comments in online discussions. I’ll see that patent falsehood or cruel remark about another person. And it is SO-O-O-O tempting to jump in. Usually, that is a great way to waste a day, leaving me thinking, “why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut.”
I’m the admin for a book page on Facebook (also called Bob on Books). Most of the time it is a pretty pleasant place and most people participate to get away from the unpleasantries of the world, or even the rest of Facebook. We have a “no ad hominem attacks” policy toward any person–politicians, authors, or each other. Yet I still find I have to deal with the comments of the person who uses the most innocuous post to attack a public figure they don’t like (but that others might). I find myself wishing they’d heard their mom saying, “you don’t have to say everything you think.” She probably did at some point.
Then there are the people who like to spoil others’ good time. We may be talking about mysteries and in the middle, someone feels they just have to let us know, “I don’t like mysteries and never read them.” Couldn’t they have just scrolled past?
The one thing I wish I’d asked my mom would have been “when do you speak up about what you are thinking?” There are times when our silence is assent to something that is terribly wrong and against what we hold most deeply. I recall a time in an online conversation where a person known to me in real life as someone who shares my religious convictions was mocking someone for a physical disability. I felt I couldn’t let that pass and wrote that I felt this was unbefitting of his professed faith. I still saw political statements I couldn’t agree with, which was fine–the world doesn’t have to agree with me. But no more like this, and thankfully we are still at least Facebook friends.
Then there are the times when a thought or an insight as your team grapples with a difficult question may be helpful. My own approach tends to be the “reflective observer” approach. I like the saying, “I read books and I know things.” Sometimes, it is actually important not to keep them to myself but to put them out there, not as pronouncements but as proposals: “I wonder if something like this might help…?”
I think what our mothers (and our wives!) were (are) trying to teach us is what is often called EQ or emotional intelligence. My wife will sometimes turn to me after a social gathering and ask, did you see what was really going on in that room? I’m learning that when you don’t say everything you think, you end up paying more attention to your context, what is really going on, and not just what is being said, which may not be the most important thing. Then you have a better chance that when you do speak your thoughts, they are worth hearing.
I don’t think not saying everything you think will solve global warming or bring world peace. It could make the online world a bit more pleasant. Often, though, the best reward may just be all the time you save by not having to clean up your verbal messes or trying to defend them. Mom knew what she was talking about.