Ben Franklin on Silence: How to Act Like a Wise Man
“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
— Benjamin Franklin’s definition of silence
When Benjamin Franklin participated in the Second Continental Congress — which would decide whether the American colonies should declare independence from Britain — many people were surprised that the esteemed and famous Franklin was sitting in silence most of the time and not participating in the arguments.
In fact, nobody could figure out if he supported those loyal to the British Crown, or those who wanted to declare independence from it. So when he finally said that he supported independence, his view was given extra attention due to the long silence and anticipation that preceded it and those who had not decided yet gave his opinion extra weight as they assumed that Franklin’s decision was not a hasty one formed in the moment of heat, but rather one he had thought long and hard about.
In the end, the congress concluded that independence was the right option as well, and the revolutionary war with Great Britain started.
“Wise men speak because they have something to say;
fools because they have to say something.”
When hearing about the importance that Franklin placed upon silence and his behavior at the Second Continental Congress, you may wonder if he was a deeply introverted man by nature. But it seems that the opposite was actually the case. As a young man Franklin was excessively chatty, voiced his unfiltered opinion about anything and was an endless source of gossip and joking.
However, when he learned that his reputation for trivial conversations was counterproductive to his aim of attracting intelligent company for deep conversations, he started to pay more attention to what he said. In addition, he also reasoned that if he found himself in an intelligent company, he would become smarter by using his ears, rather than his mouth, as with his ears he could learn new things, but his mouth could only repeat things he already knew.
“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
— Benjamin Franklin
The pages of history are full of brilliant minds who could have succeeded more, if they had just kept their mouth shut at the right times. As the saying goes, “Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom is knowing when to say it.”
One of the more colorful examples is General George Patton, who by all accounts was a military genius. He was also a master motivator who would take the demoralized American troops in Africa in the beginning of World War II and turn them into a highly competent and self-confident fighting unit that started to win battles.
His success in winning battles continued from the early victories in Africa. He conquered Sicily from Africa, led his army on a crusade through Europe where his successes reached their peak when his troops stopped the final Nazi offensive of the war during the Battle of the Bulge.
He was the only American general feared by Nazi Germany and Hitler nicknamed him that “crazy cowboy general”. The Russian allies, despite his low opinion of them, also admired him. The British Field Marshal Montgomery saw him as a competitor, but also helt him in high esteem.
Even the Good Lord seemed to favor Patton. During the Battle of the Bulge, Patton desparately needed good weather to advance against the Nazis. So he ordered his field chaplain to compose a prayer for good weather and the skies did indeed clear and allowed his troops to press forward to victory.
General Patton: His deeds speak for themselves.
If only he could have kept it that way…
However, when Eisenhower ranked his generals in Europe, he put Patton in a dismal third place. This was not due to his military ability, as Eisenhower described Patton as the ideal combat commander. The reason for Eisenhower’s low ranking was that Patton did not know when to keep his mouth shut.
In full public to the press, Patton would insult allies, insult his own troops, insult his superiors — insult just about every person you could possible insult. He would say that Nazis were just another political party, like the Republicans or Democrats back in America, that America should take advantage of having the army in Europe and attack Russia as he saw war with them as being inevetiable. He even insulted those soldiers that had died under his command by saying that the wounded ones were the clever ones and those who died were fools, which caused an outrage among mothers to fallen soldiers.
Eisenhower had to step in again and again to stop outraged politicians from sacking Patton, and he dispassionately remarked, that the lack of tact was a flaw that limited Patton’s leadership potential.
While Patton would never have been much of a diplomat, he should at least have acquired enough of the virtue of silence to prevent his big mouth from interfering with his possibilities for getting assignments where he could vigoursly have used his unique talent. Like, for instance, when he was passed over for playing any significant role during the Allied invasion of France.
Good Example: Steve Jobs
Another example from the pages of history is Steve Jobs, the former chief executive of Apple, who like Patton was a man endowed with incredible talents, but also with deep flaws and quirky opinions. But Jobs’ approach to public appearances was as smooth and elegant as Patton’s was clumsy and crude.
Jobs gave remarkable few interviews and appeared rarely in public compared to the norm for celebrity executives. It seems to me that the “less, but better” design principle of Dieter Rams, an industrial design pioneer, that is so pervasive in Apple’s products also guided Jobs’ public appearances.
Steve Jobs rarely spoke in public compared to
other celebrity executives.
When Jobs finally appeared in public, the world would be waiting in anticipation. The product launches of Apple were much looked forward to events preceded by deep silence. Every event was orchestrated by Jobs himself and when he appeared on stage he would deliver a showman performance that would match the great expectations and turn a product launch into a memorable event, which is an impressive feat for mere electronic gadgets.
His other public appearances also follow the “less, but better” principle. He rarely gave interviews and he only appeared as a graduation speaker once, at Stanford University, but it may be the most well-known graduation speech in history.
A Personal View
I really like this virtue, but there are two things I would like to change about Franklin’s definition of it. The first is the name, which I think should be softened up to “quietness” to make it more obvious that the aim of this virtue is not a vow of silence, but rather avoidance of empty talk, while still saying what needs to be said. That is, not saying what is your duty to say, seems like a vice to me.
The second is that I would make it more explicit in the definition of the virtue what you should then do with the time that you would normally have used for talking. I think it’s very simple. You should listen; really listen to what the other person is saying, as silence without listening almost seems worse than someone who cannot stop talking of subjects, which are only of interest to him or herself.
Peter Drucker observed that all the effective executives he knew had made it a habit to "listen first, speak last."
Dale Carnegie, the father of the self-development movement, argued that being a good listener is the key to becoming a good conversationalist. And Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, observed that all the effective executives he had ever known had made it a rule of “listen first, speak last.”
Franklin would have agreed with them, but added that the time you would normally use on small talk and gossip could also be used for getting back to work and getting something useful done, as he laid out in one of his maxims, “Well done is better than well said.”
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