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Knowing how to shut up: too much sincerity or too little?

Hello friends!

A common question I get here on the site is about sincerity. In this text, I am going to comment with you on a criterion that I came to know a little while ago about when and how it is better to speak and about when and how it is better to remain silent.

As everyone knows, we learn to speak around our first year of life. But learning to speak, that is, having wisdom in speaking is something rare. How many and how many fights and disagreements could not be avoided, if we were all wiser in our ability to understand what is more appropriate to express, right?

With a little soul-searching, we will surely be able to remember moments when we should have kept quiet and, also, moments when we should have said…

So let’s go!

This text, in itself, is less about psychology and more about reflection, in which I will use a famous concept from Kant’s philosophy and what we can call “universal wisdom”, which, although we can locate it in the East, was present in the Greece, in the times of Socrates and Plato.

Philosophy always seeks criteria that are universal, total, general. The contingent, the relative, that which varies with time or place is avoided. Thus, if we are going to ask ourselves “When should we speak and when should we be silent”, for philosophy, we have to find a formulation that is always valid, regardless of the person, the place where he is and the historical time.

For me, the most incredible criterion ever formulated is Kant’s so-called Categorical Imperative. Roughly speaking, we can define it as the need to think of each behavior as being – or not – possible to be done by anyone in our place. In principle, it is related to the thought that we should not do to others what we do not want others to do to us. But the Categorical Imperative goes further: “Act only according to a maxim by means of which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

That is, if in saying “don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you” the value judgment is subjective (what you want to receive), in Kantian thought the value judgment must be universal.

For example, is it okay to steal? If we imagine you or me or anyone else stealing, would that be valid? Evidently not.

If we imagine, then, another behavior. Is it right to help other people? Would any person, helping another, be doing a valid behavior? We will say yes.

Well, if we then move on to the issues of saying and keeping silent, we will have – with the Categorical Imperative – a problem, because for Kant we always have to tell the truth. For telling the truth is universally valid. Truth cannot be relative (depending on circumstances). So, in Critique of Pure Reason, one of the examples used by the philosopher is that, in a situation in which we are impelled to tell the truth, even to the detriment of a friend, we must tell the truth. That is to say, if a police officer interrogates us about the whereabouts of a friend, and if by telling the truth we are handing over our friend, it does not matter, because telling the truth is more important than the immediate consequence for our friend, in this case , the prison.

So that for Kant, it would be necessary to always be sincere. Like those people who always lose their friend but never lose the fun. After all, there is probably a bit of truth behind a joke.

We arrived here at the issue that I would like to address in this text, should we always be sincere? As we have seen, for Kant, in the search for universality, yes, we must always be sincere. We always have to tell the truth. In my opinion, that’s not good. Especially those of us who work with psychology know that it’s not quite there.

A Criterion of Wisdom

There is a criterion which, while not as universally valid as the Categorical Imperative, seems to me more relevant to the question of sincerity. In fact, there are 3 criteria.

1) Is what you are about to say true?

2) Is what you are about to say beneficial?

3) Is what you are about to say accepted by the other person?

If the answer is yes to these 3 questions, you say. If the answer is no to one, two or all three, you shut up.

First, we have to assess whether what we are going to say is true. Let’s say we’re about to tell a story about someone. (What we could describe as gossip). Now, is what we are going to say about someone true? Do we know for sure that it is true? If we don’t know for sure or if we know it’s a lie, we shouldn’t say it. A lie, a false witness, a defamation is something that will be bad for the reputation of others. But, if we think about it, it will also be negative for the one who is saying it, since fame will also fall on her, as a lying person.

The second criterion already goes beyond, therefore, the Categorical Imperative, is the content of what we are about to say beneficial? I mean, will it help? Will it bring a direct or indirect benefit or will it be harmful? This second criterion is also very interesting. It is important to say that it is not just aiming at a selfish end (one’s own benefit), but understanding that a saying that is harmful, malicious, inappropriate will be useless. If it’s not going to bring anything good, neither for who is speaking, nor for who is listening, or even about something or someone, why talk?

This criterion is perhaps the most difficult, because we generally mean whether we are helping or not. A banal example would be when we are asked if a dress looks nice. It may be true that it’s ugly, but saying it’s ugly won’t usually be beneficial, maybe it just hurts other people’s feelings. Just like saying a person is fat…

These are relatively banal examples, whose harm would be mild, but we can imagine much more serious situations, in which the proverb “silence is golden and words are silver” would be perfect.

And finally, the third criterion concerns acceptance by the listener. Sometimes we know it’s true, we know it will be beneficial, but it’s just not the right time to say it. The correct thing, in this case, is to wait for the right time, when the beneficial truth will be really beneficial and accepted. For parents and educators it is simple to observe this third criterion. We often have to wait a little longer to guide…

Well, with these three criteria, we can train our speech. Talking is a behavior we learn early. But it is only with life, with experiences, that we see how complex it is to know when to speak and when to remain silent. Knowing how to shut up is more difficult than learning how to speak…

For psychology, this whole issue is very expensive, because in the clinic – contrary to what many people think – we are not in a position to give advice, say something to change someone else’s life. In many, many cases, as they say, the hole is much lower. We can know the origin of a symptom, its purpose, and all the intricacies of a psychic situation, but playing dead (as Lacan said about the position of the dead in bridge), that is, staying still, is almost always the most adequate. Not total silence, but the silence that is only broken when the three criteria of truth, benefit and acceptance are met.

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