The Art of Speaking Less


October 12, 2021

The chorus has grown louder over the past few years: Listen to the experts! Authoritative opinions carry epistemic weight; of that, there is little dispute. However, even on matters where an authority is an expert, there are times when things are better left unsaid. Take, for instance, Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recent interview on CBS’s Face the Nation. The exchange went as follows:

Margaret Brennan (Host): “But we can gather for Christmas, or is it just too soon to tell?”

Fauci: “You know, Margaret, it is just too soon to tell. We have to concentrate on continuing to get those numbers down and not try to jump ahead by weeks or months and say what we’re going to do at a particular time. Let’s focus like a laser on continuing to get those cases down. And we can do it by people getting vaccinated.”

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Fauci’s answer, “It is just too soon to tell,” as expected caused quite a stir, which led him to “clarify” his remarks on America’s most trusted news source, CNN:

Fauci: “I also said something over the weekend that was taken completely out of context. I was asked, what could we predict for this winter, for like December and Christmas? Yeah, I mean, I say you hold off on that. I said, we don’t know because we’ve seen slopes that went down and then came back up. The best way to assure that we’ll be in good shape as we get into the winter would be to get more and more people vaccinated. That was misinterpreted as my saying, ‘We can’t spend Christmas with our families,’ which was absolutely not the case. I will be spending Christmas with my family. I encourage people, particularly the vaccinated people who are protected, to have a good normal Christmas with your family. But it’s just the way all of the other just information goes around. You say something talking about a landmark of a time and it gets misinterpreted that I’m saying you can’t spend family Christmas time, which is nonsense.”

Obviously, Fauci was not taken out of context. He said something that he regretted saying, and rather than admitting that he misspoke, he blamed others for taking him “completely out of context.” The fact is that Fauci put his foot in his mouth. This is not to say that he is more prone to this than others. People misspeak all of the time. The problem with Fauci in this particular case is with his unwillingness to accept responsibility for what he said. The moral of the story is that he would have been better off saying less. By saying less, he would not have needed to backpedal.

Fauci is not the only “expert” guilty of saying more than he should. How many times has the Vatican had to walk back remarks made by Pope Francis? The question is rhetorical, of course, but it would not be unfair or impolite to the Holy Father to say: “Too many.” Just recently (Sept. 15), he made some off-the-cuff remarks about an unspecified Catholic media outlet:

Question: “How do you deal with people who look at you with suspicion?”

Francis: “There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.”

There seems to be a consensus about which channel Francis was referring to. Leaving that aside, one can imagine an infinite number of responses that Francis could have given that would have been less controversial and divisive. The work of the devil, really? “The Church does not deserve them,” says the man who not long after (Sept. 26) would say just before leading the Angelus prayer at the Vatican: “Let us ask for the grace to overcome the temptation to judge and categorize.” Had those words of wisdom only occurred to him two weeks earlier. In any case, here again, we have someone who would have been better off saying less.

Listening to Fauci and Francis brings to mind an essay by the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch, “On Listening.” If you have not read it, you really should; it has real practical value. The title speaks for itself. The essay is addressed to a young man named Nicander, who, as a young teen, was graduating from childhood into adulthood. Plutarch sends his essay to Nicander so that he would “know the correct way to listen to anyone who is trying to persuade [him].” So much attention is usually given to rhetoric, the art of speaking well, that we can forget there is also a corresponding art to listening well. Thus, it would be wise for us to note some of Plutarch’s finer points.

As with so much of Plutarch’s writings, his concern is a fundamentally moral one. He tells Nicander right from the start: “When some young people shed the mantle of childhood, they simultaneously shed inhibition and caution.” Without parents, teachers, or other authority figures around, there is a tendency for the young to do what they should not. That includes not only what they do, but also what they say, thus the need to become disciplined in action and speech; but Nicander is cautioned against forgetting about being a disciplined listener. Plutarch writes: “Most people go about the matter in the wrong way…[practicing] speaking before they have got used to listening. He continues: “They think that speaking takes study and care, but benefit will accrue from even a careless approach to listening.”

In fact, those who do not devote themselves to becoming good listeners violate the natural law: “Nature gave each of us two ears, but one tongue, because we should listen more than we speak.” “Silence,” Plutarch says, “undoubtedly an adornment; and never more so than if he listens to someone else without getting worked up.” Envy, as one would expect, inhibits our ability to listen and respond well to others, for it colors what we hear and causes us to “take stock of the audience’s comments and attitudes as if [we] were registering votes.” Overcoming the bad habits endemic to listening poorly takes effort, but it can be done if one works at it and learns how to converse as one learns how to play catch.

Plutarch’s essay is an old text, but Dr. Fauci and Pope Francis would benefit from putting its principles into practice. Some people are more circumspect than others when it comes to sharing opinions; others have never met a microphone that they did not like. Francis seems to have an irresistible urge to tell the media what he thinks—on everything. Both he and Fauci lack filters and forethought. They do not seem to give much thought to how their words will be taken. That could be for a number of reasons. Maybe they are arrogant, lack a certain kind of empathy, or are immature. More likely, they are unable to make adequate value judgments between what is more or less important. 

Plutarch observes, “One should speak out only if something personal is seething within one and demanding attention.” Discretion and prudence dictate that we should measure our words carefully, especially if we have a captive audience. The words of experts carry with them greater weight, and with that added weight comes the greater responsibility of being clearer and more precise than we would expect from nonexperts. Sometimes the best option, to avoid falling into the trap of saying more than one should, is to say nothing at all.

Cardinal Sarah has shared his thoughts on the power of silence. His book on the subject is mandatory reading for faithful Catholics. He frequently points to paragons of silent virtue. Of Mother Teresa, he says: “[She] had a face charred by God’s silences, but she bore within her and breathed love. By dint of remaining long hours before the burning flame of the Blessed Sacrament, her face was tanned, transformed by a daily face-to-face encounter with the Lord.”

Sarah also quotes St. John Paul’s remarks on the Virgin Mary: “It is this silence as acceptance of the Word, this ability to meditate on the mystery of Christ, that Mary passes on to believers. In a noisy world filled with messages of all kinds, her witness enables us to appreciate a spiritually rich silence and fosters a contemplative spirit.”

We are indeed surrounded by noise: the artificial noises of smart phones and cars, as well as the noise from talking heads on television, radio, and the internet. Mother Teresa and the Blessed Virgin were not deaf to the sounds around them, but they understood how to maintain silence within their souls. They also knew that contributing to the cacophony of sounds by speaking words needlessly would only distract people from the only Word that people need to hear.

Pope Francis announced recently that the theme for the 56th World Communications Day (to be celebrated in 2022) would be “Listen.” A press release from the Holy See states: “Every dialogue, every relationship begins with listening. For this reason, in order to grow, even professionally, as communicators, we need to relearn to listen a lot.” Truer words have not been spoken. In order to listen better, however, one needs first and foremost to learn how to speak less. Let us pray that Francis will begin to practice what he preaches and that the lapsed-Catholic Fauci is not far behind. We would all benefit from hearing a lot less from them moving forward.


  • F. A. Grabowski

    Francis A Grabowski III is a professor of philosophy at Rogers State University.

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