View From Lodi, CA: Silence Is Golden—Or, Anyway, Joe Prefers It
May 20, 2005, 05:00 AM
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'It is wise to be silent when occasion requires…'

—From 'Of Garrulity' by Plutarch (AD 46-120)

I like two kinds of people—the strong silent type and the weak silent type.

Genetics play a large role in my preference for quiet. My father recalled that when he was growing up in his patriarchal Sicilian home, my grandfather insisted on total silence at the dinner table. If Granddad asked a direct question, a short response was permitted.

Speak without being spoken to and you might get a pop in the chops.

Interestingly, once freed from my grandfather's shackles my grandmother, my aunt and uncle all developed into pretty good yakkers.

I have the fondest memories of my grandmother talking about the three loves of her life: her family, Italian opera and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

My mother's side of the family had good talkers. My grandmother talked so much we created the mythical Jesse B. Miller Award for anyone who could out-gab her. That was quite a challenge since Jesse B. answered all of her own questions thereby making it impossible to get a word in edgewise.

But my father always drilled home the importance of keeping quiet.

Once when I was 14, I was mouthing off in that know-it-all adolescent way. Dad let me finish before he took me aside.

"Son," he said, "it is far better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

My old man imparted many pearls to me. Most took years to sink in. That gem, however, struck me like a lightning bolt.

If only others would take heed.

"Hello, I Must Be Going."

Groucho Marx

People are such gas bags—and without the slightest prompting. No subject is too indelicate—divorces, children, operations on body parts that never see the light of day.

If you doubt me, just take passage on any airline. I guarantee that you will sit next to someone who will, without solicitation, tell you his life story in painful detail.

"You can't learn with your mouth open."

Wisdom from my father

In one of life's interesting twists, and one for which I'm very thankful, I've moved from a profession (investment banking) that required a lot of talking to one where I do very little (adult school instructor).

As an investment banker, clients always asked my opinion on interest rates, the stock market, currency fluctuations and the Federal Reserve Board.  I had to answer in depth and with authority. 

Occasionally, I had to deliver a speech on some arcane topic. Even though it went against the grain, I was always talking. I soon learned that the accuracy of my patter was not as important as the confidence with which I delivered it.

Although you would imagine that I talk a lot as a teacher, I do not. Since my students don't speak English I encourage them to do the talking…and they're pretty good at it.

Once, knowing they were not discussing their grammar exercises, I asked what they were talking about.

"Your spouses?" I inquired. No. "Your children?" No. "Recipes?"

"No," they answered gleefully, "We're just talking!"

"Empty barrels make the most noise"

More wisdom from my old man.

I recently watched a tape of a 1952 World Series game between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The announcers were Mel Allen and Red Barber.

"Mantle to the plate," intoned Allen. "The pitch is high—ball one—here's Erskine's offering—strike one—fouled back—strike two—"

What else do you need to know?

Does anyone remember the late Ray Scott of CBS football?

"Packer ball, first and ten," was a real mouthful for Scott.

CBS fired him—too dull. Now we have John Madden, Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson analyzing fans' barbecuing techniques as they draw yellow circles around sausage sandwiches.

"Silence is golden"—

Thomas Carlyle

If you have been a motor mouth all your life, I now beseech you to abandon your tedious ways. Although the challenge is daunting, with grit and determination you can overcome.

As an inducement, remember that once you pipe down, you will become one of a vanishing species—the good listener. These are so few and far between that a field guide is required to identify one.

But if becoming a good listener isn't glamorous enough for you, then perhaps you would like to be thought of in the same light as these well-know personalities of precious few words.

  • GARY COOPER: Tall, handsome and laconic, Cooper was known all over the world as the strong, silent man of action.

  • GRETA GARBO: Hounded by cameramen and reporters, Garbo refused to speak to the press. The more reclusive Garbo became, the more alluring and mysterious she was to her fans.

  • JOHN WAYNE: A bigger than life figure who played roles as a leader of men and as a crusader for just causes. Wayne spoke little. But as his director and close friend John Ford observed, "What he said meant something."

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.