Silence is safer than speech. – Epictetus
What does that mean?
The longer version of the quote says “Silence is safer than speech; refrain from saying what shall be void of sense and open to blame.”
Speaking when no speech is necessary or useful leads to saying things which are not always very bright, or as the quote puts it, “void of sense,” which isn’t usually a desirable thing to do.
And such speech leaves one open to blame in the process, which is an even less desirable state of affairs. Consider the possibility of saying something you shouldn’t, just to say something. How will that end?
Or making something up, just to fill time. Does that ever end well? Not in my experience. In short, when you have something to say, speak up. If not, hold your tongue.
Why are speaking and silence both important?
Have you ever been there, said something when silence was the most appropriate thing? And have you been in the other place, when you were silent when something should have been said? In the proper place and time, speaking is important, and the same goes for silence.
And the great thing is that only one will be appropriate at any given time. The trick is determining which one is appropriate when the time comes. But like most things in life, with practice comes improvement. And that requires paying attention, learning from each experience, and trying new things from time to time.
The better you become at knowing what is appropriate at that time, the better a friend and more helpful a person you will become. There are times when someone just needs another person nearby, yet they want to be alone with their thoughts. That is a time for silence. Similarly there will be times when they need to hear a reassuring voice.
If you speak when silence is needed, are you helping them or making things worse, even if just by a small amount? On the other hand, if they need to hear you speak and say something kind or reassuring, and you are silent, have you helped or been less than helpful? Both are important, but so is the timing.
Where can I apply this in my life?
When nothing needs to be said, silence is best. Sometimes you want to say something but you don’t. Is it right to be silent at that time? You will have to use your best instincts and learn from each instance. Usually it means sensing what the other person needs the most, you speaking or your silence.
Think back to a time when you should have said something, but did not. Was it from embarrassment? Were you worried that this was a time to be silent, and chose to err on the side of silence, rather than speak? Did you not have the right words, or even have any words? Take a moment and truly think about it.
What of the times you have been silent, but just couldn’t keep your mouth shut? Was that because you were nervous, and your reaction to nervousness is to babble? Or were you truly convinced that something needed to be said? Was the silence too much to bear? Take a moment to think about this as well.
Were you able to find several instances of both, or do you tend to do one more than the other? If it’s evenly split, is it because you don’t know which time is which? Are you taking wild guesses, and missing the clues? I isn’t always easy, but you can learn, if you pay attention beforehand and review the results.
I was like that for a very long time. I wasn’t very good at understanding people and often read situations incorrectly. Experience helps, so learn from what you try and the results you attain. You slowly get better. Well, I slowly got better, you will probably do better than 30 years.
If you tend towards one or the other, you probably have a preference towards either silence or speaking. If you try, you should be able to better read the situation, and specifically the person most in need of your speech or your silence. Like everything else worth doing, it will take practice.
Do you know which time is which? It’s hard for me to tell from this side of the computer screen. But as you gain experience, you will learn which is which, and you will learn when to speak and when to be silent. Both are important, but most important is doing the proper one at the proper time. After all, you just want to help, right?