Silence can be golden

By: 
Chuck Kajer, The New Prague Times

Many years ago, I was interviewing Jerry Bohnsack, then the New Prague city administrator. I don’t remember what the story was about, but I noticed that when I asked him a question, he sat there, thinking…. for at least 30 seconds before he responded.

I had noticed this before, when interviewing then State-Rep. Bob Vanasek, who was at the time the Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives. When I mentioned this to Jerry, he said he learned it from Vanasek. The two were close friends, and they both had learned to choose their words wisely.

I admired both Jerry and Bob for their ability to think things through and before opening their mouths. It’s a discipline that many people do not have… myself included at times. Unfortunately, too many people seem to have the same problem, and it can lead to problems, whether in a personal relationship, a professional setting, or, in the cases above, a political setting.

Back in the 1990s, if someone mis-spoke, it might cause a stir for a few days, but then quickly go away unless the statement was especially egregious. Today, in the world of the 24-hour news cycle and instant social media, a verbal gaffe can derail an important project, cause widespread embarrassment or even end a career. It doesn’t matter the intent of what was said or the context. People can read whatever they want into someone’s words and spread that message nation-wide, or even world-wide, within a matter of hours.

Yes, words matter. And when they come out of your mouth, or off the tips of your fingers on a computer keyboard, they cannot be brought back. Someone will find them, and if it is an especially offensive remark, even if you try to delete the post off of Facebook or Twitter, someone is likely to make a screen grab and share your words with the nation. And with so many people using phones as video cameras or voice recorders, an off-the-cuff remark can cost someone their job or even lead to legal trouble.

Recently, several politicians have found themselves in trouble for putting their feet in their mouths. In this day and age it seems that everyone wants to have a quick, witty comeback or believes it’s important to make an immediate statement about a current topic or an important issue. Many of them are finding that they are having to go back and explain themselves, doing damage control. A little self-discipline would help prevent many of these mistakes.

It seems they have forgotten the words of President Abraham Lincoln: “It’s better to remain silent and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

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