Sometimes silence is better than sounding off
In a world replete with chatter, the best thing you can say may be nothing at all.
PORTLAND, ORE. — Think about how many people in America are talking at any given moment. It's a huge amount of sound. Then add in all voices that are reproduced and sent around the country through electronic devices such as telephones, home entertainment centers, and the Web.
I wish someone back in 1970 had invented a machine to measure our national verbal output on a daily basis. I think the data would show a massive surge during the past 20 years due to the proliferation of cable channels, satellite networks, talk radio, and other venues for vocal expression such as comedy clubs and karaoke nights.
In this era of audio abundance, with myriad opportunities to sound off about the latest controversy, cultural crisis, or political provocation, it's important to remember that no law says we're all required to have an opinion about every issue churning through the current news cycle.
I reaffirm my support of this notion on quiet mornings while standing at the kitchen sink, staring out the window. Many people enjoy sharing this part of their day with wacky radio DJ teams or cheerful anchors on TV. The morning talkers are never at a loss for clever comments and snappy comebacks.
My preference is for lower-volume surroundings. Standing by the sink, with only the soft hum of the refrigerator breaking the silence, I pose this question: Is there any discussion in the outside world that needs my help today? Very often the answer is no.
I have nothing useful to say about the pope's dilemma with the Islamic world, how the UN is dealing with Darfur, or why Tucker Carlson got bounced from the first round of "Dancing with the Stars." Those issues, and numerous others, are getting all the attention they need without my input. In many situations the best course of action is to refrain from saying anything.
A great example of this idea can be found in a book entitled "Men, Women, & Money" by financial writer William F. Devine. A client wanted him to negotiate the purchase of some property from a developer, but the client's offer was $100,000 below the asking price. During a long phone call with the developer, Mr. Devine got most details resolved, but finally the man brought up the money issue and said, "The price your client proposes will leave us well short of our projections. That makes it very tough on us."
There was a pause, and Devine considered his options. Since the developer hadn't asked a question or made a counteroffer, he decided to wait, and soon the man said, "But ... I guess it's good for us to just get the deal done, so we'll do it." The lesson, Devine writes, was, "I had saved a client $100,000 by simply immobilizing my jaw."
A great concept for business, and for everyday life. Sometimes the best reply is none at all. If excess words were corn, we could fill millions of giant silos with America's annual production. I'm trying not to add to that surplus. And if you disagree with anything I've said, feel free to offer a rebuttal. Just try to keep it as brief as you possibly can.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.