When Is It Better to Just STFU?

Sometimes it's just better to shut up. A situation arises, and you might be tempted to talk your way through it, in it, out of it, around it, and it's better to just…not. But if you like words and logic and being up front about things and trying to talk in a direct way and making that crystal-clear human connection, it might not always seem obvious when it's better to pipe down, nor will it be easy.


Absolutely Essential Caveat: I'm not saying there are times to speak less because you're a woman who talks too much and that is bad, good Lordy in the morning noooo. God knows we've been told enough that we talk too much in general since forever. We are still told this now even though it's utter myth and the science trying to say so is being used incorrectly. PBS explored this idea back in 1999 and found not only that women absolutely don't talk more than men, but that men are the ones running their yappers at all-time high yap speeds on the daily. No one can believe it, such is the grip of the stereotype, but it is true.

And more significantly, that how much men or women talk depends highly on "social context" and "relative power." Moreover, not only do men talk more than women (even when both are powerful), it's the perception that women are not as intelligent or entitled to basically hog up the air that makes them appear to talk more than they should even when they aren't talking at all!

But acknowledging all this doesn't mean we can act as if these assumptions and prejudices don't affect us in our every day lives. Plenty of women have the specifically related problem of being afraid to just say no, to be direct or blunt, because society is always coming back at them with bullshit labels like "too emotional," "too bossy" or "too much like person with detectable gravitas." We internalize the idea that we are taking up too much space and demanding too much, so we talk ourselves out of speaking up. Or, we over-explain and couch things. Yes, it's talking too much but specifically in ways that are a disservice to OURSELVES or people we mean to help. Then, I think it is worth unpacking.

Which is why when I was reading the excellent most recent "Ask Polly" advice column over at Hairpin, I had a moment. The advice-seeker wants to know how to tell her friend to stop pressuring her to join one of those bullshit marketing scheme weight loss things. Polly, AKA the brilliant Heather Havrilesky, lays it bare in these three paragraphs that instruct the advice-seeker to simply say nope, this shit is not for me, and then not explain further:

I would avoid specifics. I would memorize three "No thank you" lines and I would prepare to say them over and over again, punctuated by uncomfortable silence. As long as you don't start talking and explaining and apologizing and discussing her choice to become a pox upon the face of the earth, you're safe. Just be a woman of few words in this arena. And for fuck's sake, don't get drunk. Don't loosen up and start blabbing about the wrong thing. Your first line of defense is silence. Your second line of defense is one or two scripted, polite refusals. Your third line of defense is more silence.

We women always want to explain everything. More words! Surely more words will solve this problem! Men know better. When people ask most men to commit to something they don’t want to commit to, or to discuss something they don't want to discuss, they fucking sit there and say nothing. They never explain shit, those smug rats! They never throw good words after bad when they can choose to remain vaguely disapproving and enigmatic instead.

And they never get blamed for anything that way! We get blamed and blamed and blamed, because we can't shut up. We try to make stuff better by apologizing, analyzing, comparing, and along the way we nail ourselves to the wall like specimens. No!


Be a woman of few words in this arena. Oh how it pierced my soul straight to its talky core.

Recently a kid stopped by my apt. trying to sell a daily dead-tree newspaper subscription that was supposed to somehow help pay for this kid's college tuition — the farce of hanging a poor kid's educational possibilities on the subscription rate of a dying industry is just too much to stomach. But rather than just saying, nope, I don't want your subscription (by the way, this had happened before, and I had checked with the newspaper to verify its legitimacy, and the newspaper said it had no knowledge of this scammy thing), I felt like I had to explain this whole story of how I really was sympathetic to the whole college plight and how I had to pay my way through college on loans and Pell grants, but I really did not want to get a subscription nor did I trust the program etc. etc. WTF? Nope, no thanks. Not for me. Why couldn't I simply say less?


Because I didn't want to seem like a dick who didn't care. I wanted to seem like a dick who did care, but who was going to be a dick anyway. That took more words. Incidentally, it is not lost on me that my husband never has this problem, and simply says no, demands better services, speaks up when something's not right, and never talky-talks it up with the strangers. He gets way more general assistance on the regular, and as a result I pretty much make him deal with service people because of it. So I've even self-eliminated real-world interaction on account of it.

So I hereby commit to a list of times when talking less is better because words aren't helping.


When You Don't Know What You're Talking About

Duh. Clearly, if you don't know about the thing, don't talk about the thing. Ask about the thing. And fuckin' listen.


When You're Negotiating

You never get very far showing your hand in a negotiation. Reveal as little as possible about what you actually want or need in a situation to retain maximum power. I've mistakenly thought that I can state my needs and demand respect/compliance, but this is the equivalent of pulling out your checking account balance and highlighting exactly the maximum they can take from you.


When You're Trying to Be Enigmatic

To appear mysterious you cannot reveal all your complexities and contradictions with a big WINKY FACE.


When Your Two Friends Broke up and You Like Them Both

Couple splits. You were all buds. But alternating hashing out who is guiltier is asking for major loyalty riffs down the line. Offer your apologies and stay out of it.


During Someone Else's Crisis/Emergency

Something bad happened? Something worse than bad, but actually tragic? Shut up. Offer to help. But don't blather on to buffer the pain, or try to offer your own stories up as comparative unless it's literally just as bad, except not even then, because even if you think it is, right now, it probably isn't.


When You're Nervous

First dates, job interviews, awkward pauses — try to resist the urge to prattle on through them about politics or how great the sushi you ate for lunch was. Lean into the silence.


When You're Receiving Criticism

If you're on the other end of an assessment of your own shortcomings, it's tempting to answer the charges clearly and trump your own successes, but it usually comes off as defensive. Better to suck it up and listen, and then focus only on the specifics that require you to clarify or apologize, if anything.


When You're Getting Dumped

But you're so smart, and talented, and awesome, and remember how you didn't dump them that one time you really fucking wanted to? No, no no and no. The fewer words spoken here the better, especially if you think you might ever reconcile. And even if you don't? Keep the zingers to a cool minimum.


When it's Too Late to Change Someone's Mind About a "Bad Idea"

I'm not talking about a bad idea like drunk driving — shout from the rooftops to stop your friend from doing it. I'm talking about when someone is about to marry their cousin who happens to be your secret son or when you want to tell your friend you always hated that dude they were madly in love with, the one they will now almost certainly get back with. The time for preventive evangelical work is BEFORE BEFORE BEFORE. After? Sorry, Skippy, you missed out.


When You're Saying No

And finally, that mystical beast: saying no with a polite, unequivocal firmness. Seek it. Pursue it. Attempt it. Own it. It will make all the difference.


Homework: Read/absorb The 48 Laws of Power.


Image by Sam Woolley.



I have some person-of-few-words scenarios already worked out. These have taken me years to develop, so listen and learn, my children:

When asked for a charitable donation I don't want to give: (wistfully) "I'm sorry, I just can't."

When asked to participate in something I don't want to do, if the person who is not a close friend who deserves an explanation: See above.

When asked about religion: "I have my own beliefs that I prefer not to discuss."

When negotiating and asked for a price: "What price were you thinking?" (This puts knowledge and power in your hands).

When offered a resolution that is insufficient: "I'm sorry, that won't be acceptable." (THEN SHUT UP AND WAIT THEM OUT.)

To telemarketers: "Thanks so much for calling! But can you do me a huge favor and take me off your list! Thanks!" (All said in the cheeriest voice possible).

In response to rude questions: "Why on earth would you ask that?"