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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

When is silence golden?

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Woman zipping a zipper over her mouth.
When is it best to zip our lip? And when do we need to speak?

To speak or not?

Depending on the situation, speaking up or keeping silent will be the better choice.

Both are important. Important enough to be declared human rights in the United States Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees us the freedom of speech. The Fifth Amendment guarantees us the right to remain silent.

When to speak and when to keep silent? That is the question.

When we think of communication, we are more likely to think of speaking than of silence. However, both speaking and silence communicate in powerful ways – both can be helpful or harmful. Knowing when each is appropriate is an essential communication skill.

The phrase “silence is golden” comes from an ancient proverb: “speech is silver, silence is golden.” In other words, both are precious, with silence considered the more valuable.

Silence can certainly be the harder of the two, but not always. And just because silence is “golden” doesn’t make it the right choice in every situation. Let’s answer the question…

When to speak and when to keep silent?

Fundamentally, the answer to that question lies in what the outcome will be whether you choose to speak or be silent.

Speak up when…

  • your words can bring about needed change. Speak out against injustice, bullying, and wrongdoing. Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. Speak with conviction.

  • your words can express how you feel. When others say hurtful things, let your feelings be known. Speak with kindness, gently yet firmly.

  • being silent could be seen as agreement or consent when in fact you disagree. Give your point of view matter-of-factly. Speak calmly.

  • your opinion is requested. Although unsolicited advice is unwelcome, feedback that is requested deserves a response. Speak with honesty and empathy.

  • you have something of value to contribute. Think before you speak. Support what you say. Speak with confidence.

  • you are presented with an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Speak up or regret being silent later.

Keep silent when…

  • you have nothing to say. Filling a pause or lengthy silence with senseless jabber is no reason to speak. Keep quiet.

  • you are unsure of what to say. Take time to collect your thoughts, observe the situation, and formulate a thoughtful response. Be silent until ready, then speak.

  • you are tempted to say something hurtful. If what you want to say is better left unsaid, don’t say it. Hold your tongue.

  • listening is what is needed. Pay attention, make eye contact, give nonverbal feedback, and listen fully. If you speak, make it a prompt for more information or an acknowledgment of what you heard. Listen well, ears open, mouth shut.

  • you have not been asked for your advice. Unsolicited advice falls on deaf ears. Until you have a receptive audience, don’t waste your words. Keep silent.

  • you are tempted to gossip or spread a rumor. Verify the facts of a story before speaking. Speak up gracefully to discourage others from gossiping and keep silent when tempted to share.

  • you have been entrusted with a secret. Keep silent to keep a secret.

  • you are angry. Take time to collect your thoughts and feelings. Take control of your words so that you can speak constructively.

  • you are being drawn into an argument with someone unlikely to change their point of view. Disagree without being disagreeable.

  • you are negotiating. After stating your case concisely and with confidence, close your mouth and allow the other party to respond. Silence is powerful.

Silence may be golden because there are more types of situations in which silence is the better choice. Speak up when needed and speak well. When silence is needed, keep silent. As the good book says…

"To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven… A time to keep silence, And a time to speak…" ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1,7b

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