The Right To Remain Silent Or Not

You have the right to remain silent. Actually, you don’t unless you are in a sticky situation in which you have been read your rights, or are in extreme circumstances that risk invading your privacy, although there are some personal situations such as rape, bullying and so on that require speaking up, even if they are private.

Otherwise, silence, when misused, preserves atrocities such as the ones above not to mention the likes of apartheid, slavery, xenophobia. It also breaks deals, starts wars, ruins marriages, separates families and so on. In addition, the misuse of silence can lead to both physical and mental-health problems.

Let me be clear: this is not about freedom of expression in the name of hate. No one has a right to do that, but we all have a right to speak out in the name of healthy resolution.

If you have ever hung up on someone, had it slammed down on you or ignored important correspondence, evaded phone calls, or stewed on the receiving end of the silent treatment, then you get my heart-hammering, pulse-racing drift. This is anything but a healthy resolution.

It is no surprise then that silence is anything but golden at times such as these. So why then do so many people resort to silence in the face of conflict, or difficult or awkward situations?

I know people who would not speak up about poor service in a restaurant, a hotel, any place, or to a service provider, even if their life depended on it. Then there are some who won’t open their mouth in a potentially contentious situation at work or at home until it’s gone too far. Then they fly off the handle.

Now that is the other side of silence, which can also lead to health hazards and a dead end. So, how do we exercise our right to speak up? There are some simple measures to take, but why do so many people misuse silence?

Many researchers agree that fear is one overriding factor that drives people to silence. Whether it is fear of isolation or rejection, fear of simply being misunderstood, or fear of negative consequences, most people would rather witness or stay in an untenable situation than speak up.

Furthermore, some of us think our opinion doesn’t count or nothing will change anyhow, or worse yet, we will be labelled as a difficult person, even if we don’t come waving a red flag. So, why bother?

It’s simple. There are times in life when silence is not an option. Over the last five years, I’ve had a lot of experience in the area of speaking up. A few years ago when my mother-in-law fell ill, I found myself speaking up all the time; then again, a few years later, when my own mother got sick; and now, on behalf of my father.

To this end, I have learned a thing or two about speaking up:

  • First, it’s futile to pitch a fit, have a temper tantrum and so on. Best to stay focused on the issue. That means ignoring personal attacks and not handing them out either. Think of them as distractions. In a recent health-care situation, I listened to a group of patients consistently attack the provider over and over again, and then admit to themselves that nothing would ever change. Sure enough, weeks later, nothing has changed. All the complaints were attacks on character, rather than focusing on the relevant issues. And the few relative complaints were lost in rage – the other side of silence – which likely lead to a dead end. Best to stay on an open road.


  • Next, I try to remember my responsibility to communicate and remind people of theirs if necessary. Whether a personal or professional situation, people have a right and a need to know what is going on. Recently, while making a connection in a busy airport, I rushed to the gate to find that my flight had been delayed. The gate agent remained silent until a couple of us gently reminded her that people had a right to know what she knew, even if her announcement was inconclusive.


  • Also, I’ve learned to consider the incentive for communicating, even if fear is threatening to engulf me, or breaking the silence is the last thing I want to do. Often when it comes to talking to a health-care provider, for example, I take a deep breath, air out my dirty laundry on paper and put it aside until I can call or send a correspondence, thus focusing on the issue. Never mind the rest. The person on whose behalf I am communicating stands to gain if I succeed. But if I don’t, my loved one might lose out.


  • Another tip is to sidestep the red tape; don’t get caught up in it. Again, in a recent situation, I was told that the company’s policy prevents staff from emailing or responding to my emails, which is as red as red tape gets since I am in England and the other party is in Georgia, USA … not to mention that we live in the Technology Age. Anyhow, whether this is correct or not doesn’t absolve the company’s responsibility to communicate and my right to receive some communication. Thus, it has occurred to me to toss the tape aside, at least for now, until there is time to unravel it. In short, all I need to know is how we will communicate moving forward. That’s the only thing that matters.

Never mind what I think of the policy, the bottom line is that sometimes silence is simply not an option.