There are times when a point can be made by keeping your trap shut.
You may have come across one or two yourself, like that time you had a pretty good argument going, and blew it.
Suddenly you couldn’t think of anything else to say but “Oh, yeah?” and knew, even while you were saying it, that you’d just lost the argument by finishing on such a lame note – even though you might have been miles ahead when you did it.
You’re thinking, “Why did I do that? If I’d just clammed up, he’d have kept on blabbering, and hung himself without a lick of help from me.”
But he won, you lost – and maybe you learned something from it; namely that there are times when shutting the heck up is saying a lot.
Another good example is the situation when, in the middle of an otherwise intelligent discussion your opponent says, “What do you think I am, some kind of idiot?”
Bingo! He has just sprung his own trap, and that’s when you win the argument by saying nothing.
All you need do is just let the silence hang there, and if your opponent has a lick of sense, he’ll either concede or eventually realize that he isn’t going to get any more argument out of you and stomp off, muttering to himself.
Either way, you win.
(You really can’t be blamed if you smile – just a teeny little bit - but don’t let him see you do it.)
Of course, the wiser ones among us have already recognized the fact that this is an especially clever little ploy to use when your opponent is bigger than you are, or more likely to turn physical. (However, if you’re smarter than the average bear, you avoided that particular cretin in the first place.)
The point here is that brute physicality can be avoided by using carefully chosen words and even more carefully chosen silences, so the situation never decays to the point where you have to strike his fist firmly with your eye.
After all, it was a very wise man indeed who observed that ‘discretion is the better part of valor’ – especially if you can avoid drawing blood – and even more so when that blood could be your own.
Yes, it’s true. Many times, speech may be silver, but silence is golden – and it’s safer, too!
The same is useful in the printed word, as we find there are quite a few parallels, since there are times when a single printed word can get a point across, but to crowd the space with word after word would be overkill, drawing attention away from the subject.
This is ‘using white space’, and it can be very effective indeed.
For example, do you remember the time you retrieved the morning paper from the doorstep, and the first thing that caught your eye was the huge, bold headline of the single word, WAR!?
Man! You couldn’t get to the story below fast enough, and it proved to be war all right – except the war was between neighbors over who had the right to the apples falling off the backyard tree beside the fence – but that big single word surrounded by blank space stood out like a sore thumb, grabbed you right away, and made you read the whole story.
The same tactic can be used in any number of ways.
Let’s say you’re reporting on a scandal in which someone ran off with the collection plate at church.
Instead of using a longwinded title like “Corruption Exposed, Vicar Steals Church Funds” you simply title it “Holy Sin” and leave the rest of that wide headline blank.
Those two words surrounded by nothing take on added emphasis simply because they stand out, all alone out there. Then the reader’s imagination takes over, and he’s dreamed up a half dozen sensational scenarios in the split second that lies between reading the headline and moving his eyes down to the story itself.
It’s part of human nature, but not because we’re looking forward to the juicy scandal that’s hinted at or to eagerly devouring the efforts of some muckraking psuedo-journalist mudslinger. It’s simple curiosity, triggered by that unusual phrase, "Holy Sin." It sounds a little sensational or even lurid, and we want to know more of the juicy details.
It’s not because people are nosey.
It’s because people are human.
And we remembered how to get your attention by saying nothin’.
— Newton columnist Mike Morton writes weekly for the Kansan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org