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What to Say When You Don't Have Anything to Say


24Aug 2008

I didn’t write an entry last week because I couldn’t really think of much to say. Nothing profound or new (not that my entries are typically profound.) So I decided to “think on it”.

This week, I don’t necessary have anything new (again), but I have been thinking about those situations when you don’t have much to say — and what you should do.

First, some context for those of you who don’t know me well. Historically, I have been quite outgoing, social, and rarely, if ever, at a loss for words. In the past (and still in some situations) I have been one of those people who willingly fills the void if there is any dead air space. Age, life experience (including times of making a fool of myself by talking too much) and the amount of social interaction in my work — all have caused me to slow down a bit and not be so socially hyper.

In fact, an adult friend of mine gave me some advice when I went away to college. He told me, “Paul, you are the kind of person who will jump in to every activity available, get over-involved, and burn yourself out — because you want people to like you. What you need to do is sit back for the first semester, shut up, and just watch what is going on. Then you can see what you want to get involved in and make some good choices.” Believe it or not, I attempted to follow his advice. And it was an interesting experience for me. Rather than be Mr. Outgoing, I actually took on the role of “the quiet guy” in new situations. And I watched other people make fools of themselves — and saw what I must have looked like to others.

Since then, I now “pick and choose” — sometimes I am my fun-loving, outgoing self, while other times I tend to be the “sit back and observe” guy. I actually enjoy the ability to choose which role I will take.

Here are some observations I have made, and some lessons learned.

  • If you don’t have anything to say, don’t. There is an old saying which applies: “Even a fool seems wise if he doesn’t open up his mouth.” It reminds me of the movie from the 70’s “Being There” in which Peter Sellers stars as a not very bright (and even strange guy). He was primarily a gardener and butler and didn’t say much. But he would occasional utter an obtuse saying or metaphor, that others would view as quite “deep”, and he continually kept being put into higher levels of responsibility — largely because he didn’t say much.
  • If you are not sure what to say, wait — leave some silence for others to speak. Many people who are more introverted need more “space” in which to engage in conversation. They need some time to process what they have heard, gather their thoughts, formulate a response, and then gather the courage to share their thoughts. Those of us who are motor-mouths go at such a fast pace in conversations (especially in small groups), that many quieter people don’t say much because there is not enough space for them in the conversation to enter in.
  • Ask questions of others. The truth is: most people like to share about themselves — what they have been doing, what they are thinking about, experiences they have had. And all they need is someone to show some interest and ask them “What’s been going on?” and they are ready to share. I actually have found I get deeper and more meaningful responses when I ask different questions, like: “What is new in your life?” “What have you been learning lately?” “What’s going on that I don’t know about?” These seem to bypass the traditional small-talk responses (“Nothing.” “Not much.” “I don’t know. What about you?”)
  • Sometimes “I don’t know what to say” is the most appropriate thing to say. There are difficult or awkward situations that arise occasionally, where it is really hard to know how to respond. Surprising news or decisions made, recent serious medical diagnoses or personal tragedies, or just awkward statements by others — all can put us in a position of wanting to say something but not to say something that might offend or seem inappropriate. I have found if I say “I don’t know what to say” they will continue on, give more information, and allow me time to figure out what an appropriate response is.
  • If you don’t have anything to say, and you find yourself talking — stop. Okay. Sounds good.

Have a good week!

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