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.
As one who used to be quite reticent, I appreciated your fresh look at the trait. As I think about your essay, I recall Ecclesiastes’ rejoinder that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Solomon evidently gave the matter considerable thought, writing back-to-back proverbs; “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” As I’ve aged, I find myself more and more in line with Montaigne: “I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old.”
Thank you, Brian, for your engagement with this piece. I appreciate the additional scripture and your thoughts.
Thank you. Reticence does indeed seem to be neglected as a virtue. Your post made me think also of James 1:19–“Let every person be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Thanks, Bill for the additional scripture.
‘to the Jews I became a Jew . . . I have become all things to all people”
Communication styles vary widely by culture, and cultural rules can take considerable time to master. For me to become a Jew, culturally, would take much effort, as I am not of Jewish ancestry. Paul lived a long time, a year or more, in some towns where he set up churches, and it would have taken that long, or longer, simply to understand the people and their cultural rules, including those for communication. I lived in Japan, a relatively non-verbal culture, as much communication is unspoken in that country, where a vast majority of the population shares the same language and culture and people there understand one another’s thinking very well. Reticence in my early years would have saved me considerable anguish and cultural scars. Other cultures are far more verbal; whereas Japanese taxi drivers are very quiet, the driver in a different Asian country I visited hardly stopped talking during the entire ride! We need to learn the cultural ropes when it comes to communication outside our home culture; reticence is in fact a virtue early on, as we listen and watch in order to learn what is expected of us. We may discover later on that reticence is in fact a virtue within a particular cultural group, or, contrary to that, discover that our lack of communication is attributed to our being aloof or even hostile, as it could be in other places. To become all things to all people takes considerable time.
Thanks, Gordon for these thoughts. I appreciate the engagement with the idea of reticence in cross-cultural engagement.
What a helpful reminder for us as Christians, but especially as educators. An encouragement I needed to hear. Many thanks!
Thanks, Amy for your kind words.