A Time to Be Quiet: 3 Instances Where Shutting Up Is Your Best Option


Growing up with devout Christian, staunchly traditional African parents, like I detail in this post, I cannot recall how many times I got my ears pulled for something I had said.  Often times my crime involved, speaking at the wrong time, with the wrong tone, to the wrong person or using the wrong words.

You see, the ability to know when to speak and when to shut the hell up is one of those highly extoled African virtues that I must admit, to my mother’s chagrin, I had trouble learning.  When I moved to the U.S at college-age, I began to notice the difference in my upbringing vs the average American’s.  Here, people are encouraged to speak freely, often times with little regard for pesky, little details like accuracy, knowledge or appropriateness.

Through college and my first few years on the job afterwards, I noticed how speech, no matter how devoid of the aforementioned, was often rewarded in and of itself.  I watched as White coworkers, usually male, got commended for “piggy-backing” on someone else’s comment

Sometimes, there was even more commendation for a vehemently-worded piggy-back than there was for a softly spoken original thought! 

Small talk, a prominent American pastime, was one of those skills I have had to try incredibly hard to adopt to make my way in Corporate America. In Nigeria, small talk was not a thing.  No one felt obliged to speak, especially to people they didn’t know.  You could literally stand next to someone for 30 minutes and exchange nothing but long stares at each other. And personally, as a card-carrying introvert trying to camouflage as an extrovert, I prefer substantive conversation to shallow, meaningless drivel.

Lately though, I’ve found myself pondering the wisdom behind the African approach.  While it may not jive with the Western values of assertion and dominance, here are 3 concrete examples of where it has distinct advantages in the Corporate American workplace.

Avoiding Word Vomit

For this, I draw on an unlikely reference: Newton’s 1st Law of Motion in Physics.  Essentially, an object in motion is inclined to continue moving.  How many times have you found yourself in a conversation with someone and when you walk away, you realize you said more than you initially intended? Our collective fear of awkward silence often leads us to continue talking, thereby divulging personal information to near strangers, sometimes sharing details that may be harmful to our careers.

Once I was in the office kitchen and I observed Nate, a young, Black man, entry level, in conversation with a White, male manager.  After several spurts of awkward silence, Nate felt compelled to keep talking and in doing so, shared that he got wasted over the weekend and slept most of it away.

Tip: When you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is not a friend (and I am not using this word loosely), decide ahead of time what topics are off limits and stick to them.  If you feel uncomfortable or compelled to fill in the silence, ask them questions instead and let them do the talking. And when all else fails, a little awkward silence never actually hurt anyone.

Salary Negotiations

As I moved into more senior roles that required me to hire talent, I started observing how so many people shortchange themselves during salary negotiations by simply talking too much.  Once an offer is made, skillfully state your response (should be a counter if you know what you are doing).  Keep your justifications brief.  I was once on a panel interviewing a Black woman and, in an attempt to indicate her salary expectations, she rattled off qualifications and experiences and when she was met with a brief silence from us, kept talking and ended up telling us how she had student loans and health related debts! Way TMI!

Office gossip

This needs no explanation.  There are few things worse than getting involved in a “he said, she said” at work.   As a clever person once said, “Silence can never be misquoted.”

I am a strong advocate for using your voice and making your presence known in Corporate America.  There’s probably no way to progress beyond a certain point otherwise.  However, there are a few instances where silence, even awkward silence, is your best friend.

What other instances can you think of where silence is the best response in Corporate America?  Please share your thoughts.

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