A friend of mine has a five year-old son who’s likely to wave, nod, or smile when you greet him, but not actually say anything.  It’s not because he can’t or doesn’t talk.  He just doesn’t tend to greet people with words.  This, as you can imagine, makes many people uncomfortable.  His mom told me she’s amazed at how offended people get, how quick they are to criticize him for it: “Why don’t you say hi?” “How come you’re so quiet?”  The interesting thing is that his attention is fully on the person he’s greeting, which in my experience is truly rare and quite refreshing and powerful.  But that gets missed because it’s the words that put us at ease, not the quality of an interaction.  We’d rather a child shout “Hi!” over a shoulder as they dart off or mumble “Hello, Mrs. So and So how are you today” while staring flatly into our faces.  We’re so busy expecting words that we don’t notice the kind of presence and attention a person can convey otherwise.

I thought of this child yesterday when a similarly quiet electrician arrived at my house to do some work.  He’s an employee of our usual guy; I was meeting him for the first time.  I don’t think of myself as a big talker, but I quickly began to sound very noisy to myself.  It went something like this:

(blank lines intentionally left blank)

Me: Hi!

Him: (small smile) I’m Josh.

Me: Thanks so much for coming.  Gosh, it’s cold this morning.

Him: (another smile)

Me: (feeling awkward) So, did Andy tell you what we need done?

Him: (with a small nod) Two outlets?

Me: (walking toward the stairs) Yeah; when we bought the house we didn’t use this room so we didn’t know that these two outlets weren’t working and then when we… (this is the point at which the sound of my voice has begun to hurt my ears, so I decide to dial it back) Well, you’ll see.


Me: (at the top of the stairs, pointing) It’s these two over here.

Him: (nodding)


Him: (several minutes later) So, all of this BX cable is dead.  Something might have happened when this other circuit went in.  I’ll just have to refeed it, OK?

Me: Sure.

He was perfectly pleasant, cheerful, responsive.  He just didn’t say very many things.  He did the work quickly and carefully and communicated with me as much as he needed to.

There are more words flying around the planet than ever before.  The internet and all the associated devices have us more or less buried in words.  The more of them there are, the harder they can be to hear and the more their meaning can get lost.  We might be wise to stop trying to get the few among us who choose carefully to talk more just so they’ll seem more like everyone else.  And while we’re at it, we might consider following their example from time to time. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone try to talk less just because some people are naturally economical with their words.  Trying to get everyone to be one way never works very well.  I just think we might want to make sure we’re not just talking because someone told us we should, told us that that’s what polite, normal, social, looks like…

And while we’re on the subject of words, have a look at this new TED talk from John Bohannon


One Response

  1. That TED talk is one of the best I’ve seen — thank you so much for telling us about it! Amazing!!! If only, if only…

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