Holding one’s tongue: Silence before speech

How infrequently do we hold our tongue. The phrase ‘holding one’s tongue’ we apply too narrowly, only to cases where we are upset and bound to say something that may hurt our interlocutor. At such a time, holding one’s tongue is appropriate and no doubt it saves us from embarrassment, foolishness, backtracking, and apologizing later on. And yet, not saying what may come to mind is an exercise that is best practiced not narrowly but across a whole range of cases. In lieu of privileging speech over silence, we had better reverse the relationship: holding silence to be the default, we only utter words when they are warranted.

‘Only when they are warranted?’ Yes, only after they have passed the test given by the demands within a specific context: answering cleanly a legitimate question; asserting a true belief in order to broaden the pool of true beliefs among us; saying in a few choice words how we are actually doing; helping the interlocutor make sense of a subject that had so far proven mysterious to him; issuing sincere words of love to one’s beloved. These are but some clear, vivid examples.

As a matter of fact, there are many statements that needn’t be made just because–being frivolous, boastful, petty, or else a bit clever–they are unwarranted. As when, for instance, one is irritated, shocked, had a silly dream last night, is seeking reassurance, longs for consolation, wishes that things were otherwise, is full of complaints, is making a trivial report about the weather, is boasting even a little bit, is repeating what he has often said (even if untrue), is gossiping about a friend. One particularly poor reason for introducing a certain subject is that it may turn our thoughts to someone who, even in his absence, can pollute our conversation. Concerning certain phrases, ‘I am miserable’ is rarely worth repeating aloud, let alone to oneself. Concerning possible topics of conversation, anything tedious should be avoided if only because it tires out the listener as much as the speaker. And, not uncommonly, I hear, ‘Pardon my digression,’ and I want to say–but do not–‘If you are about to digress, then simply do not. Then you will not need to ask me to pardon you in advance and afterward.’ I want to say something like this but have learned not to.

There is indeed the bullshit to be avoided as well as all the self-deceptions. But there is also more: once we remove the apologies, excuses, voluminous reports, digressions, meandering whimsicalities, the seemingly endless dissatisfactions from our utterances, then our speech is cleansed of its misuses and quite possibly we are ready to speak to each other as if it were a matter of life and death. Silence is readying us for right speech. It is rather like learning to make all the familiar phrases such as ‘Hello,’ ‘Goodbye,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘Good night’ mean deeply unfamiliarly and therefore become acts of truthfulness.