18 Oct 2023

In Praise of Reticence

Being reticent, according to the dictionary, is “not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily”. This quintessentially British characteristic was much valued at a time when it was considered entirely inappropriate for money, illness or sex to be discussed in polite society. Indeed, any assertion of individuality or tendencies towards self-expression were seen as “unfortunate” and were ruthlessly suppressed by a rigorous and disciplined educational system.

Reticence is manifest in a firm sense of individual privacy, and a feeling that it is intrusive to ask personal questions. While in many countries, detailed interrogation about family, children, educational qualifications and personal wealth is the norm, many Britons will recoil from such honest scrutiny. If they are curious about someone else, they are prone to ask oblique questions or to try and establish credentials by roundabout means.

Look up synonyms of reticence and you will find words like “reserved’, “bashful” and “shy”. All these terms, with their slightly negative connotations, are misleading. Reticence is a positive choice, not emanating from feelings of social awkwardness but rooted in a strong sense of individual boundaries.

Today, personal revelations are the very stuff of celebrity and reality tv culture, we bare our all on social media and self-expression is seen as a fundamental human right. Undoubtedly, some of this new freedom is a natural reaction against a rigid and formal society, although many traditionalists feel that the cult of self-expression has swung too far.

In the social context, chattiness is seen as a desirable social skill. Talkative people are sought-after guests, guaranteed to break awkward silences and keep conversations going. Loquaciousness is frequently associated with extroversion, positivity and self-confidence. But we are all aware that it can bring its own problems. A person who likes the sound of their own voice can all too easily turn into a bore, who harangues an audience – frequently trapped by social conventions and unable to escape – into a state of somnolence. Chattiness may well morph into disinhibition; gossip, questionable revelations and unsolicited confessions may all follow and lead to social embarrassment. Ultimately, words may be spoken that should never have been uttered – resentment, anger and self-pity may be unleashed by disinhibition and alcohol.

Reticence, on the other hand, is a discreet character strait. Reticent people are careful listeners, confident enough to resist social pressures to perform and ready to speak only when they have something valuable, interesting or pertinent to say. They are thoughtful and self-controlled, liable to pause for careful thought and consideration before pressing that fatal ‘send’ button, and unleashing torrents of self-revelation and rage on an unsuspecting world.

There is a danger, however, that in social situations they will be seen as withdrawn and reserved, sideline spectators who are unwilling to throw themselves into the fray. It is therefore important that reticence is combined with excellent manners. At best, a truly reticent person will be skilled at the give and take of small talk, and adept at fielding intrusive questions with ironic rejoinders or smooth subject-changes. If their opinion is solicited on a controversial topic or participation is demanded, they will be able to deflect these demands without appearing to be stand-offish or critical. They may be relied upon to make the odd quizzical remark, ask a probing question or query an assertion, thereby making a contribution and providing balance, as well as demonstrating that they are engaged and interested.

Social occasions will inevitably be more successful if reticent and voluble people are mixed. Passionate, impetuous talkers inevitably need a counterbalance to check their wilder excesses and a thoughtful and restrained listener will act as a helpful moderating influence.


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