I thought of this topic, “You can’t be in the conversation if you don’t open your mouth” while thinking back on situations where I perceived post action grumbling by people who did not participate in discussions or decisions. Specifically, there have been many times over the years when, during, for example, a staff meeting, some employees did not appear to have anything to say. No questions, no comments, nothing. They seemed to be trying to be invisible and get out of the meeting as soon as possible. I observed this in high school, college and graduate school when working on group projects and I am sure it is the norm, based on my study of organizational behavior. Yet, when one does not participate, one is not part of the conversation, or solution, or answer. However, in an employment setting with or without participating, one is expected to abide by the decisions or plans made. This is where I’ve sometimes heard the grumbling, post facto. Not terribly often, but when it occurs it frustrates me because the person had, but missed, an opportunity to add his or her voice. I know not all workplaces are open and collaborative, and I know the boss has to make the final decision. But, as a boss, I want others’ input and I want to be able to determine whether the idea is worth considering. I realize some live by the adage “better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.” But, if one has achieved anything, including being hired, one must not be a total fool. Remaining silent has another drawback as well – it deprives the individual of an opportunity that will lead to career growth. When engaging in conversations, individuals get to test their mind, their voice, argue a point and back it up with information. These skills will always help expand career options; thus, any opportunity to be in a conversation should be taken. This is equally true in our political and social world. Complaining about politics or social inequities can never be as beneficial as doing something about things that concern one. Voting is a first step and, in the United States, where voting is not required, the number of those who simply do not vote is astounding. Making your voice heard means opening your mouth, and doing something about it.
There are plenty of times when I do not wish to participate in a conversation. These include when conversations involve: (1) people I don’t enjoy being around; (2) topics I am not interested in discussing; (3) someone’s attempt to obtain my professional advice without remuneration; (4) someone’s attempt to engage me in “tie breaking” discourse when there is a disagreement between one or more people; (5) disclosures of personal information to people who are not my friends; and many more. In fact, most of the time, I prefer to listen while other people are talking (some, more incessantly than others!). However, in light of the fact that participating in conversations is a requirement of my professional life as a psychologist, my role as the co-owner of a business with employees, and many other scenarios, I have learned it is rarely socially acceptable to sit back and not say anything. And, as David points out, there are times when saying nothing is erroneously interpreted by others as acquiescence. And, acquiescence sometimes sets a dangerous precedent by communicating to others that one agrees with a particular point of view when, in fact, one’s silence is due to other factors such as not wanting to engage in a confrontation. A recent example of my having to make a quick decision about whether to avoid confrontation, thereby conveying agreement with a point of view contrary to mine or speak up, thereby engaging in confrontational behavior, arose when David and I were in the presence of one of my childhood friends and my friend’s spouse and child. The spouse of my dear friend informed me their darling child was being sent to private school so that the child would be protected from views other than theirs, the child’s parents; in particular, views expressed by gay teachers who, according to this person, were not hired at the child’s private school. Seeing my expression, my friend’s spouse said, “Surely, Melissa, as a psychologist, you know what I mean about gay teachers’ attempts to convert children into their way of life” to which I responded, “NO! I do NOT know anything of the sort. And, it is obvious you don’t know what you are talking about.” In addition to putting an end to a horribly prejudiced person’s chosen topic of conversation, there was no doubt among anyone in attendance about where I stand on this topic! I am a firm believer in freedom of speech, regardless of whether it is in the workplace or other forums. And, I hope when I speak, I always have something to say, lest I, too, be thought to be a fool.