Gosh, I wish I hadn't said that!

In public and at home, Americans are boldly speaking their minds - and sometimes regretting it later.

As a self-proclaimed "loudmouth of long standing," Judith Newman of New York likes to speak out. So does Bryan Freeman of Atlanta, who calls himself "a very forthright person." Victoria Moran, another New Yorker, says she is "prone to speak first and regret shortly thereafter." And John Baldoni of Ann Arbor, Mich., laughs when he says that he is "famous in my family for shooting my mouth off."

To speak up or shut up? It's a question that looms large for many people - at home, at work, with friends, and in public. Whatever the subject or circumstance, those with opinions to offer must decide whether to zip their lips or let words and emotions tumble out.

The question has also been floating through the summer air after Teresa Heinz Kerry's widely publicized rebuke of a reporter - an act that generated both criticism and praise. Alluding to the incident in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, she said, "My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some have called 'opinionated,' is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish."

That right isn't always appreciated by others. One person's idea of candor may be another's definition of thoughtlessness. "Honesty without compassion is cruelty," says Jonathan Bernstein of Monrovia, Calif.

Culture-watchers attribute some of this candor to broad social changes. "We live in a very confessional culture, with Oprah and Dr. Phil," Ms. Newman says. Counseling, support groups, and even reality TV shows also encourage a tell-all approach.

"Everybody's got something to say, and they want to say it," says Mary Spio, editor of One2One magazine.

Some observers see a double standard based on gender. "We are more forgiving, or more enthusiastic for men to speak their minds," says Mr. Baldoni, a leadership communications consultant. "We say, 'Oh, he really told them off.' That's an accepted part of our society. But I don't think we're comfortable seeing women do that. So when we see Ms. Heinz Kerry tell off a reporter, some people see that as a negative. If her husband had done it, it probably wouldn't have been a story."

Other differences in approach take a regional twist. A native Southerner, Schuyler Brown found that Southern politeness and reticence did not serve her well when she moved to New York.

"I literally was talked over, interrupted, ignored, and not taken seriously until I began to speak my mind loudly and forcefully," says Ms. Brown, an associate director at Euro RSCG Worldwide, a marketing agency.

But that approach can cause problems on a personal level, Brown says. "Whereas this serves young women well at work, it's getting harder to find men who are comfortable with such aggressive behavior."

Yet assertive is not synonymous with aggressive, insists Suzy Allegra of Phoenix, who teaches communication skills. "To be assertive means to state or to ask in a calm, direct, or straightforward manner what you want or need," she says. "To be aggressive is to state what you want or need, and you don't care about the other person. You're a bulldozer."

Ms. Allegra's own approach? "These days I rarely hold back," she says. "But I do think about what I'm going to say, and I say it in a way that's assertive but not aggressive." Other women, she finds, often do not speak up. "They're holding their tongue, they're biting their lip. They're being the good girl."

For many women, the lightning-rod subject is motherhood. "We give advice where nobody's asking," says Newman, the mother of 3-year-old twins. "Motherhood - other people's ways of doing whatever it is they do - is one area where we should all shut up."

So sensitive is the topic that she and a relative are not speaking because of a rift over a childrearing issue. "We're at loggerheads," Newman says. "You know what? I should have shut my mouth a long time ago, and so should she." But, she adds, "I still think I'm right."

As the father of five, Mr. Bernstein has also had ample opportunity to consider outspokenness. On occasion, one of his teenagers has told him what she doesn't like about what he's wearing.

"She could have chosen to say nothing,or she could have chosen to express herself in a much more tactful way, such as, 'I'd like to go shopping with you next time,' " says Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management.

Although he assures his daughter that he respects her right to her opinion, he gently tells her, "You know, honey, I think you could have achieved the same thing by saying this instead." He adds, "All of my kids have heard me say, 'It is entirely possible to express opinions without hurting people.' "

Still, Bernstein finds that it is often harder for people to communicate objectively with those they love than with others. "You just assume your family is going to understand, and that you don't need to explain it to them," he says. "In my painful experience, that's a mistake."

One advocate of forthrightness with family and friends is Ms. Spio. However hard the truth might be to hear, she says, in the long run it can be helpful. "There's got to be somebody out there who tells them, 'That skirt is too tight.' "

Even those who express opinions openly with family and friends often remain more reserved at work. "It's just good business to play your cards a little closer to the chest," says Mr. Freeman, an insurance agent and financial planner in Atlanta. Others caution that speaking out too forcefully at work risks burning bridges.

"With bosses, you want to know how willing you are to be without a job next week," says Ms. Moran, author of "Creating a Charmed Life." "Sometimes it's a great thing, if you really think the boss is awful, to write out the soliloquy you're going to give the day you quit. You have the satisfaction of saying, 'I told him,' and you still get the satisfaction of keeping your job until you find another one."

Whatever the situation, Freeman emphasizes the importance of respect. Humor can be valuable, too, when used appropriately.

Humor could have helped Heinz Kerry, says Spio. "There are many ways she could have diffused that situation without having to resort to 'Shove it.' It takes just a little self-control and a sense of humor to do that."

Allegra views the incident differently. "I'm saying, 'Bravo, lady.' She's not doing anything in a mean way. She's speaking her mind."

Every day, millions of other people are speaking their minds as well, sometimes out of anger or frustration: A flight is canceled. A line at the bank barely moves. A restaurant meal disappoints. The question is: When to speak up?

"If we perceive that we're getting poor service, we have a right to speak our mind," Baldoni says, reiterating the need to be respectful.

Other times, it may be better to say nothing. "We should think twice about speaking up if we are only saying something out of defensiveness or anger," says James Houran of Irving, Texas, a clinical psychologist specializing in communication. "And think twice about speaking up if you are participating in a power struggle, just to assert your authority."

But not speaking up sends messages, too. "Silence is compliance," Allegra says.

When someone blurts out a comment and then regrets it - the "me and my big mouth" syndrome - there are ways to minimize the damage. "Make amends with the people you think you might have offended," advises Peggy Post, great- granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post. "Tell them, 'I really apologize. It was inappropriate on my part.' Don't make a lot of excuses. Try to mend fences as soon as possible." That might include sending flowers or a small gift, along with a simple, sincere note.

To avoid hurting others, Moran encourages a cautious approach: "Because words can't be recalled like a defective product, don't send them out until you're sure you want them on the market with your name on them. When in doubt, strategic silence is a wise choice."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Gosh, I wish I hadn't said that!
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today