If You Can’t Say Something Nice… How to Think Before You Speak.

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Most of us have heard that saying originally said by a little rabbit, Thumper, in the Disney movie, Bambi.

Sweet as it sounds, it can come across as trite, a coward’s way to handle a conversation. But as our modes of communication evolve, maybe it is time to re-embrace the wisdom of a bunny. This doesn’t mean we have to hold our tongues; if we enter each interaction with a better mindset, we can usually get a better outcome.

It is generally agreed that the level of discourse dropped off dramatically with the arrival of remote-communication. It is much easier to say something rude or hurtful when the recipient is situated somewhere behind a screen. You can hammer out the words and run without having to see the other person’s reaction. Just scroll through any political site, and you’ll want to disconnect your Wi-Fi.

However, it is naïve to blame technology. Even as primitive humans, I doubt we were sitting around the fire, saying how much we admired each other’s stone tools or complimenting each other’s animal skin outfits. Since the time of spoken language, people have always insulted and hurt others with their words.

This week, I had two clear opportunities to think more deeply about, “say nothing at all.” The first was chatting to a friend about her 4th of July weekend plans. She was very excited and proceeded to share the many activities she and her family had planned. I was quiet while I processed the information and then responded by saying how seeing family and friends was always an emotional boost. 

What I didn’t voice was my opinion. Given the current situation and laws where we live, her plans seemed risky and careless at best, and potentially illegal at worst. I chose to hold my tongue. She hadn’t told me these details to get my opinion; she was simply sharing. If I had chosen to lecture her about the dangers, what could her response possibly have been? She wasn’t going to cancel her weekend because of what I said. The only likely outcome is she would have defended her point of view, and I would have had the choice to push back or remain quiet.

We ended our conversation, and I felt uneasy. Should I have worked harder to explain why I thought what she planned to do was ill-conceived? Was it my responsibility? Would it have changed her thinking or just lost me a friend?

The second incident was with someone I know from business. This person was impressed with an aspect of my marketing and asked if I would give her some guidance. I said I was more than happy to help. While on the phone, we both logged on to the platform under discussion. I was explaining how and why I had done certain things when she interrupted me to provide a full and detailed critique. “This photo was taken too close, that font was dated, this explanation should have been shorter, and that intro was confusing.” You get the picture. Considering this was from someone who approached me for help, I was insulted. At no point had I requested her input or sought her guidance or feedback. I was stunned that she felt comfortable launching into a full appraisal. I bit my tongue so as not to respond with equally hurtful words, even though my basest instinct urged me to sharpen my tongue and get my revenge. I kept quiet and pointed out that she could make all those choices once she got going on the platform. 

Hours later, I was still pondering: what on earth was her objective? Did she say those things to appear clever? Did she want my gratitude for her critique? Did she really think she was helping me? I was flummoxed. 

Yes, we are all frazzled, and it’s so much easier to shoot from the lip when the other person is behind a screen, but words matter. This doesn’t mean we can never disagree or discuss any point of view. Nor does this mean we need to lace every conversation with fawning phrases pouring honey on the other person’s comments. We need discussion, we need debate, but we also need to think before we speak!

I try to enter conversations by consciously thinking: By using these words, what outcome am I hoping to achieve? Am I hoping my comment will make the other person feel inspired or deflated? Am I aiming to open a discussion or destroy their reasoning? Will this “comment” build them up or tear them down? By taking a moment to consider how my words will make the other person feel, I go in with a better framework in place.  Discussion is vital, and debate can help us gain a deeper understanding, but in those moments when I know my words will either hurt or fall on deaf ears, I remember the saying and I “don’t say anything at all.”

We all need to consider our words and their enormous impact on those who hear or read them. Think: what reaction am I hoping for by using these words? What emotional state will the other person be in from reading/hearing my comments? If the person is open to debate, then, by all means, jump in, but make sure to listen as well. If the other person will not be swayed, then be a Thumper and say nothing at all.

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2 comments on “If You Can’t Say Something Nice… How to Think Before You Speak.
  1. Rene` says:

    I needed to hear this. Thank you. I’m definitely going to try be a thumper. Unfortunately I say things as they are. Meaning well but clearly taken the wrong way at times. In Australia the South Africans are known to be very arrogant and outspoken. Do you think it could be a cultural thing?

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Hi Rene. I think there is a certain style of “plain speaking” that goes with certain cultures. These folk aren’t being rude or aggressive, in fact, they are often people who value honesty. They see their way of communicating as respect; they respect the listener enough, to tell the truth. However, this assumes everyone is the same, and we know they are not. By being a Thumper, you may find people feel able to open up more, so simply listen.
      For any group of people to be “known” to be very “place-a-quality here,” is rubbish. Sweeping generalizations and overarching stereotypes say more about the speaker than the recipient.

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