Reticence is not much of western virtue. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the words of Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester, to “speak as we feel, not what we ought to say” illustrate the tragic cost of withholding one’s authentic thoughts and feelings toward others and perhaps even more tragically from oneself. After all, pulling one’s punches can rear back as a punch to one’s own gut. The free expression of authenticity holds much more cultural purchase than stuffing one’s feelings. As students say, “why don’t you be you, and I’ll be me.”
Valuing such authenticity has made it axiomatic that we should be as interpersonally transparent as possible. A writer to Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Times ethicist, recently asked if she was morally obligated to let her co-workers know that another colleague held anti-abortion beliefs since the colleague was unwilling to reveal her position. The letter writer saw her lack of forthrightness as duplicitous, even wondering if her silence on the matter was a form of lying. Professor Appiah answered that her coworker’s reticence was not problematic, nor did the writer have an obligation to share her co-worker’s beliefs.1 While I was pleased with the answer, it was the letter that caught my attention as it seemed to capture the current mores on the matter. With this thought in mind, I did a bit of a double take recently when reading Paul’s short encouraging bio to the Corinthians:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.2
These verses are counter-cultural in that they seem to encourage chameleon-like behavior in becoming “all things to all people.” After all, we want the “authentic” Paul—not some cipher. Trying to emulate Paul, as he emulates others, feels a bit like a moving target.
But I wonder if there might be a lesson to be learned by framing Paul’s actions in terms of reticence, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as someone who is “reluctant or disinclined to speak out or express personal thoughts and feelings freely; reserved in speech; given to silence or concealment.” While reticence is usually considered a type of fearful withholding, this definition is somewhat neutral. As such, it raised questions for me about the potential positive aspects of reticence. Are there times when, for the good of others, community, churches, or institutions, it is more appropriate to hold back from sharing thoughts and beliefs in order to put forward and invest in the values and mission of something beyond ourselves?
Before discussing the benefits of reticence, it’s important to note that holding back doesn’t require surrendering our identity to someone or something else. Values are not a zero-sum game. Valuing an institution’s mission, for example, doesn’t necessarily come at the cost of self. According to psychologist Milton Rokeach,3 we don’t hold all our values with the same intensity; we value some values more than others. Commitments to community flourishing do not cancel out commitments to an authentic self.
And the benefits are many. Reticence as a position of quietude creates opportunities for our communities, churches, or institutions to shape us. It can build relational capital, creating space for an authentic sense of “we” rather than an aggregate set of “I’s.” It can invite others to share themselves without fear of judgment, especially in the presence of power differentiations. Reticence allows us to enter into others’ worlds without knee-jerk reactions based on our cultural blinkers. Institutions are strengthened when the cost of membership is not agreement amongst members but the commitment to a common good. A community built on such obligations can weather disagreements because its underlying trust is not contingent on promoting individual beliefs.
There are times, however, when reticence is not an optimal approach. It can signal fearful withholding when those with moderate views are silent for fear of trolling and, in turn, wind up ceding the public square (virtual or otherwise) to those with extreme views who are more likely to make their opinions known.4 In another example, leaders who are reticent (for good, bad, or indifferent reasons) in the face of some violation of trust give up the opportunity to rebuild bridges as their silence may fail to address guilt toward perceived wrongdoing found in an apology or explain their actions through denial. In the absence of an apology or denial, silence may signal to others a lack of interest in redeeming relationships or community fabric.5 In these cases, the silence of reticence is extremely noisy.
Yet reticence can reflect a long obedience in the same direction. The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the passing of a person who was beloved yet a stranger to most who lined the sidewalks and byways to say their final goodbyes. She was the epitome of reticence, but also the epitome of devotion to country. By placing service before self, she became larger than her own life. Seeing the thousands who gathered to pay their respects, it was clear that people were not just mourning Queen Elizabeth’s death but also the passing of an age. Juxtaposing her life with Paul’s self-confession of being “all things to all people” brought into focus his expanded sense of self woven into a vision of the global Church in all its kingdom diversity.
- Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is It OK That My Co-Worker Keeps Her Anti-Abortion Views on the Down Low?” New York Times Magazine (2022, August 23) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/23/magazine/abortion-views-work-ethics.html.
- I Corinthians 9:20-22.
- Milton Rokeach, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values: A Theory of Organization and Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1968).
- Jonathan Haidt, “Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid,” The Atlantic (2022, May), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/.
- Donald L. Ferrin, Peter H. Kim, Cecily D. Cooper, and Kurt T. Dirks. “Silence Speaks Volumes: The Effectiveness of Reticence in Comparison to Apology and Denial for Responding to Integrity- and Competence-Based Trust Violations.” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 4 (2007): 893–908.