The Virtuous Life: Silence

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 10, 2008 · 44 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue, The Virtuous Life

Photo by Millie Motts

This is the second in a series of posts about living the virtuous life like Benjamin Franklin.

Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; Avoid trifling Conversation.

Clearly, Ben was not referring to monastic solitude when he presented silence as a virtue. Instead, he had in mind the ability of knowing the appropriate time and words to speak. A gentlemen has always been judged by his manner of speech, yet our modern age presents a host of difficulties in this area that Franklin never faced.

Whether because of selfishness or simple ignorance, many men are drowning as they attempt to navigate the waters of proper communication. Here are four areas in life where men can apply the virtue of silence and make the world a bit more enjoyable for everyone.

The Cell Phone

Applying the virtue of silence with your cell phone

Much of our conversations now take place over the ever ubiquitous cell phone. Just as World War I was especially bloody because the technology in artillery had progressed faster than the development of new military tactics, so too cell phone usage is an unmannered minefield because cell phone etiquette has not kept pace with growth. But cell phone etiquette is an excellent way to show you are a well-mannered gent. Here are some rules to obey:

1. Don’t talk on your cell phone when you have a captive audience.

Remember in high school when you and your friends drove around yelling and laughing and blasting your music? You thought you were the coolest people to ever exist. Then when you reached your 20′s, you saw those same high schoolers and thought “what a bunch of jackasses.” Things always seem far more acceptable when you are the one doing it. This must be why people have loud and obnoxious conversations despite the fact that other people are trapped in proximity to them. Just remember when you are tempted to do this: you’ve seen that guy; don’t be that guy.

2. Don’t talk or answer your cell phone while talking to ANYONE in person.

Don’t answer your phone while holding a conversation with an actual human being. There are no exceptions to this rule. Think about it: if you were at a party conversing with a friend, and someone else walked up, would you immediately cut off the conversation with the first friend and abruptly turn your attention to the new person? Well maybe you would, but you’re probably a tool.

3. Don’t use your phone in any place in which people expect a certain atmosphere.

There are certain situations in which people expect a respectful quiet to prevail. A cell phone should not burst this bubble of ambience. Thus, you should never use your cell phone at funerals, weddings, classes, church services, movies, plays, museums, ect. By even allowing your cell phone to ring, never mind speaking into it, you announce to the world that your conversation is more important that the ruminations of everyone else in the room. It is the height of arrogance. People will protest that their calls are very important. To which I say, what did people do in the 90′s?? For that matter, what did people do for almost the entirety of human existence? Somehow our ancestors kept on living. You will too.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. ~ Mark Twain

Customer Service

Today men are often pressed for time, stressed, and subject to daily annoyances. These frustrations are then frequently taken out on those in the service industry. Often made to feel like peons in their normal lives, these men see their interactions with people in the service industry as an opportunity to finally be treated like a king and boss someone around.

Applying the virtue of silence with customer service

1. Don’t unload your anger on those who are not at fault for your problem.

Uncouth is the man who takes out his frustrations on whoever is in closest proximity whether it is their fault or not. This guy will yell at the waiter if there is a hair in is food. He will yell at the computer support representative because his computer crashed. He will yell at the person at the airline ticket counter because he was late and the plane didn’t wait for him. Save your indignation for the the real cause of your problem, especially if that person is you.

2. Don’t talk on your cell phone while simultaneously talking to someone serving you.

Some people will talk on their cell phone while they place their order and pay for it. These people believe that the person running the register is just an automaton designed to do their bidding, and thus they need only devote � of their attention to addressing this robot. They also believe the person they are talking to on the phone doesn’t mind being ignored periodically. They are wrong on both counts.

3. Have a little patience

In Italy, people linger over their dinner for hours as several courses are slowly brought out. In America, men blow their top when their blooming onion appetizer comes out 5 minutes too late. And they act like their grandma died if their burger has been topped with the wrong cheese. These men believe that paying $8.00 for a meal entitles them to be king for a day. They are in serious need of some perspective.

4. Err on the side of understanding

Before you berate someone for what you believe is sub par service, take a moment to put yourself in their shoes. Is your waiter slow in bringing out your order? His section probably just got slammed, some kid knocked over his soda on the floor, and one of the cooks called in sick. He may well be doing the best he can. We never fully know what happens behind the scenes of people’s lives. The cranky woman making your coffee was just served with divorce papers. The scatter brained woman checking out your groceries is having trouble concentrating because her child is sick in the hospital. You never know the whole story. So cut these people some slack.

Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.

The Internet

The beauty of the internet is that it allows free flowing communication in an unprecedented way. Yet this also means that communication on the internet is not subject to the same rules of etiquette that apply to public life. Extreme crassness and incivility plague forums and blogs. It’s as if there is a competition on who can come up with the most shocking and caustic thing to say. This severe form of incivility creates an environment of hostility that hinders productive dialogue and debate.

Applying the virtue of silence on the internet

1. Never say something to a stranger on the internet that you would not say to a stranger in person.

The internet provides a cloak of anonymity behind which people feel free to say whatever they want. Yet the words which we both write and speak are our creations. We must take ownership for them. Never write something you would not be proud to have attached with your real name. Before you hit “Send” in an email or a blog comment, stop and ask yourself: “Would I use these words if this person was standing right in front of me?” If not, reword your communication. Just taking the time to think before you publish something on the web can help increase the amount of civility on the net.

2. Don’t attack people personally

Certainly here at AoM, and on the internet in general, you are free to disagree with the ideas of others. But do not personally attack the people behind those ideas. Many a blog user will make a valid comment only to end with “You’re an idiot!” And some will dispense with the valid argument part altogether. Using personal attacks adds nothing to the conversation and only shows that you do not have anything insightful or intelligent to offer.

3. Don’t just debunk things

Here on the internet postmodern deconstruction is alive and well. Many an internet user’s energy is devoted to poking holes in every idea that crosses their path. But cynicism is easy. Chronic debunkers don’t do any of the hard work it takes to create something, and then they barely lift a finger to tear things down. Digg users are notorious for this. There could be a post about a man saving a bus load of lavender smelling babies from a river and some digg user would find a way to make a snide, caustic comment about it. There’s nothing wrong with criticism, but be constructive with your criticism. If you have nothing substantive to add to the conversation, it is better to be silent.

4. Stop the excessive vulgarity

Nothing shows a juvenile mentality and a lack of class like excessive vulgarity. While salty language has been on the rise in normal conversation as well, the proliferation of profanity on the internet is excessive. Because of the information glut on the internet, men feel they must pepper their comments with over the top language to keep them from being lost in the shuffle. But if such additions are needed to get attention, you clearly did not have anything meaningful to say in the first place. Before you publish a comment with the F-bomb used as every other word, try to find another, more respectful way to say it.

If you liked this article, please bookmark it on or vote for it on Digg. I�d appreciate it.

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Charles March 10, 2008 at 9:38 am

Tremendous amount of great advice in this piece … and the world would be a better place if more people would take it.

2 Bogdan March 10, 2008 at 1:37 pm

Very well written advice. Now if only more people would follow it the world (internet especially) would be a lovelier place =]

3 Ivan March 10, 2008 at 2:11 pm

Under “Applying the virtue of silence on the internet” I would add this: Take a break from the internet. I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but sometimes the internet, when abused, feels like noise to the brain. Nice article!

4 SenorK March 10, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Wow, AoM is quickly becoming one of my favorite destinations. Cheers, and keep it up.

5 Virtuous Ambitions March 10, 2008 at 4:20 pm

Stumbled Across your site on Digg. Today. Digger, not a commenter. Have read all the Ben Franklin articles, impatiently waiting on the rest. Great guidelines, will be checking back daily.

6 Virtuous Ambitions March 10, 2008 at 4:22 pm

Also to note. I work in customer service. A good rep will do whatever you ask as long as it’s within our guidelines. If not, we apologize.

7 Patrick March 10, 2008 at 4:26 pm

I completely agree with everything said in this article. However it would be very difficult for me to adopt these ways into my life simply because of the high school environment I live in. Too many people approach me daily in the hallways with the colloquial, “Hey man. Whats goin on?”. Regardless, I will make efforts in applying these words of wisdom to my daily life.

8 Inder Jalli March 10, 2008 at 4:28 pm

This isn’t just for men. It’s for ladies as well. I humbly ask that the authors modify these essays to be a bit more gender neutral unless of course they are directed to topics only men would be able to refer to.

9 whalt March 10, 2008 at 4:34 pm

I agree with most of your advice but would pick a bit of a bone with your comments about “debunking.” You seem to be confusing snide, snark and cynicism with debunking. I’m not saying that these things might not show up in close proximity sometimes but debunking if it’s done correctly and without too much condescension and arrogance can be a very valuable service. The internet is full of bad information and that information tends to spread faster and wider a lot of times than good information. Having someone provide a sanity check occasionally by supplying relevant facts or arguments is to be commended. A lot of how it is received has to do with tone but then again many people simply don’t want to have their bubbles burst no matter how misguided. Even the example you provided would deserve a good debunking if the story was not true and had been deliberately concocted to give a false impression. Imagine if said rescuer was a corrupt politician looking to burnish his image by inflating his role in the matter. Would one be a cynic and a snark if they brought the truth about it to light?

10 Manly Dale March 10, 2008 at 4:40 pm

Great article about using silence. This is a concept that has been lost on modern day men especially with the advent of instant communication online and even on the phone.

11 Php Shopping Cart Software March 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm

LOL this is pretty interesting, Nice blog! :)

12 Brett March 10, 2008 at 4:56 pm

@ inder- These things definitely apply to both men and women. And we hope this site is enjoyed by both sexes. But it is designed like a men’s magazine, like Men’s health let’s say. While my wife enjoys reading men’s health, the magazine is directed at men. This site is directed at men, but can be enjoyed by all.

13 Deneteus March 10, 2008 at 5:53 pm

A good man who would say nothing in the case of injustice is worth absolutely that.

Also on the case of patience when dining. Every dollar I spend on food that is served improperly is minutes of lifetime that cannot be given back. You can wait patiently to die if you want. No one should ever accept sub par service because apologies do not bring back the dead. There is something to be said about doing the job right the first time.

14 aaf March 10, 2008 at 6:49 pm

Very interesting, I am reminded of an article that caught my attention on the MSN homepage a month or two ago called “The Power of Silence” by Tom Chiarella. It was originally published in Esquire magazine. he has an interesting, if somewhat manipulative perspective on silence.

15 fathersez March 10, 2008 at 7:50 pm

I totally agree.

We have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a very good reason.


16 CHN March 10, 2008 at 10:51 pm

I came across a quote awhile back that is similar to one that you included by Mark Twain. I can not remember who it was attributed to…. “If you keep your mouth shut…you will always get credit for knowing what you are talking about.” I am one who has been cursed with the “gift of the gab”…so needless to say I found your article very applicable. Enjoying the site!

17 Char March 11, 2008 at 4:45 am

@brett- Totally agree. There are plenty of women only places both on the internet and magazines and I don’t hear men complaining. My boyfriend and I enjoy this site a lot and as a woman, I respect that the information is geared toward men. Maybe it’s a social taboo to have *some* things for men only nowadays, but they do make up 50% of the population!

Great article :) More people need to follow this advice- especially those people who walk around with hands free headsets. Those need to be illegal outside of a car! People look crazy when they suddenly just start speaking beside you with nothing in their hands!

18 iamsofaking March 11, 2008 at 5:48 am

The bar to call yourself a man gets lower every day. I do not believe that a site can do much to change the world, but maybe by being here debating some of these ideas we can raise the bar up just a tiny bit. We need it bad.

19 Brett McKay March 11, 2008 at 7:20 am


Thanks for getting it. You are quite right that no one accuses websites devoted to women of being sexist. But I have already been accused of being a misogynist a few times. Strange. I am glad you are enjoying the site!

And I agree with you about the hands free people. They look terribly nerdy, like a Star Trek person. And I always think they are talking to me.

20 inspirationbit March 11, 2008 at 9:07 am

Glad to read some quality advice on the Web. I noticed it said: “Written by Brett & Kate McKay” – nice to see that you two are working so well together, and in silence, I hope ;-)

Char, I couldn’t agree with you more on people talking on the cell phones hands-free on the street – don’t they know they look like lunatics talking to themselves?

21 cosmicdave March 11, 2008 at 12:16 pm

I am quickly becoming a fanboy of In regards to silence and the Internets, there is an equation for dickheadery and assholery that seems to be prevalent: ANONYMITY + A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE = DOUCHEBAG. Just because you CAN post your comment relatively anonymously does not give you license to do so.

22 amy March 12, 2008 at 2:10 pm

brett, what excellent advice and food for thought. thanks for a fabulous article!

23 Franky March 13, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Excellent advice in this article. I completely agree.

24 Alexandra March 15, 2008 at 1:26 am

Hey, enjoy your blog. Just one quick thing – you say not to attack people personally, that “you are free to disagree with the ideas of others. But do not personally attack the people behind those ideas.” Yet, earlier in the same article, you suggest that anyone who would answer their phone while in a conversation with another person is “probably a tool.” Now, maybe I’ve misunderstood, but those two seem to be at odds with each other a bit. As you ask people who disagree with ideas not to make it a ‘personal issue’, shouldn’t you also be condemning the action (rude cell phone usage) but not the person? Perhaps they’re simply unaware of proper cell phone etiquette.

(Alright, nitpicky comment over. And I really do enjoy your blog!)

25 Tiresias March 15, 2008 at 3:33 pm

“3. Don’t just debunk things

Here on the internet postmodern deconstruction is alive and well. Many an internet user’s energy is devoted to poking holes in every idea that crosses their path. But cynicism is easy. Chronic debunkers don’t do any of the hard work it takes to create something, yet they barely lift a finger to tear things down. Digg users are notorious for this. There could be a post about a man saving a bus load of lavender smelling babies from a river and some digg user would find a way to make a snide, caustic comment about it. There’s nothing wrong with criticism, but be constructive with your criticism. If you have nothing substantive to add to the conversation, it is better to be silent.”

Two words… YouTube commenters

26 Jeremy Neal March 19, 2008 at 7:12 pm

Ben Franklin’s life is a timeless inspiration. You’re applications are right on, especially about the cell phone. It drives me nuts when people are talking to me and answer their cell phone. I always walk away when this happens, even if we were in the middle of something.

27 Gabe Smith April 1, 2008 at 10:41 pm

Good stuff especially about the cell phones. I think the only exceptions to these rules are doctors or emergency responders since their phone calls are very likely more important that whatever I’m talking about with them.

28 Len April 2, 2008 at 3:54 am

Loved it. AoM is one of my favourite places to browse. One question about this piece: The intro mentions “Here are four areas in life…” and then I read about the Cell Phone, Customer Service, the Internet, and, er, … Did I miss one (or perhaps, did you)? I’d be happy to read more on this subject.

There are few things I find more annoying than to be speaking to someone when they take a cell phone call. Also when people conduct a cell phone call in a busy place. While I know I shouldn’t, I have occasionally joined in, offering advice on the part of the conversation I can hear (and often the volume is turned up sufficiently to hear the other side as well). For some reason people take offence at this, although I can’t think why – after all, they’re conducting an open conversation. Ph well, sometimes you just have to laugh.

29 Brett McKay April 2, 2008 at 8:12 am


Ah, good catch! I’m surprised no one noticed until now. I think we started with four areas, and the fourth was going to be gossip. And then the post was getting too long, so we decided to hone in on etiquette problems related to modern advancements. Gossip got cut, but we never edited the intro.

30 arkanabar t'verrick ilarsadin May 25, 2008 at 7:15 am

@Deneteus on March 10th, 2008 5:53 pm: do you believe that human error is unacceptable? What about learning curves? What about breakdowns in equipment? I waited tables for years. The restaurant where I spent the most time gave the most difficult section to the most inexperienced server. This is normal. Good sections are rewards for demonstrated capability, loyalty, and experience, and dealing with a bad section demonstrates all three. Was it the green server’s fault that nobody wanted to sit by the bathroom until the rest of the nonsmoking section had filled up? Like a plate spinner, we depend on starting with the second table when the first has their drinks, the third when the first has their appetizers and the second their drinks, the fourth when the first has their entrees, the second their appetizers, and the third their drinks, and the fifth when the first has their desserts, the second their entrees, and so on. The cooks multitask in very much the same way. That section would get up to six tables of two to four people all at once, all expecting to get served simultaneously. It takes empathy, good people skills, and some uncommon knowledge to be able to stretch time differences of a few seconds in seating to as much as ten minutes in service.

Is it her fault if the ventilation hoods over the grill blew her order ticket off the rack and behind the stove? Or if the cook was a sexist pig who made her life crap because she had the sense to turn him down? Or if she didn’t know all the ins and outs of punching your remarkably complicated order into a point-of-sale terminal on her fourth day? Or if the three tables next to you send her on four trips for drinks — each — instead of just one?

The point of all these questions is this: if you can’t deal with problems in other people’s lives, and develop some tranquility, you make your own life much more difficult thereby.

31 indigoblue July 16, 2008 at 12:25 am

Good piece with some useful advice there :)

32 John August 12, 2008 at 7:15 pm

When I first read Ben Franklin’s virtues, this one stuck out as being the least sensible. You are sort of re-interpreting it to fit the modern era. But look at the original virtue: “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; Avoid trifling Conversation.” In other words, no small talk. Does talking about the Lakers game benefit you or your friend? No, so it’s best to be avoided. Etc.

Perhaps this made sense in Franklin’s era, when the path to success lay in getting back to the typesetting machine instead of schmoozing. But here in the future, creating and developing a variety of relationships is far more important. That’s why I’m strongly in favor of small talk.

33 encryption October 1, 2008 at 6:36 am

Of course it’s true. Most of them doing the same thing again and again… but no one realizes till now

34 Keith Maven October 2, 2008 at 10:51 pm

thanks for the great advice
i think 6 packs are manly. i’m using truth about abs to build my abs, and its working so far

Truth About Abs

Keith Maven

35 Donna December 31, 2008 at 2:02 am

I am obviously a girl, but love the wisdom of your site. After a search on google, I stumbled onto your site, after coming across the word, moderation, in my bible reading, and wanting more insight into its meaning, so I could put it into practice. The Virtuous life has helped me a lot. The “gender” thing does not bother me; we are all human, after all. Who cares as long as it is helpful, right? My boss gave me some great advice once, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”

In regards to the cell phones, which I have grown to almost despise because of the constant interruptions in my life, when working and family just calls to say hi, because it is convenient, drives me crazy. Cell phones should not be used on demand.

Just because people have cell phones and no matter where they are or what they are doing, they are able to call a person anytime they want, does not mean the person on the other end can answer the phone on someone else whim. Please, use courtesy when calling other people constantly, just because you can. It is very annoying and rude to the other person, who has to answer every call, text, and sm because it could be a customer. Worse, when these calls go unanswered, the voice mails take up all the memory and important calls cannot get through.

Please , be considerate. Although cell phone use is convenient, its use should not be used flippantly, without regard to the respect of the person on the other end. Many people use their cell phone for both: work and family.

36 Blake Helgoth March 19, 2009 at 7:58 am

Great post. I think it all boils down to being a gentleman, which means thinking about those around you and being truely concerned for their needs and feelings. I’ve learned in business that, while technology is useful, it can also ruin the moment. After all, business is about relationships with other people. When I meet with someone I let them see me silence my phone and even say, “Let me turn this off so we won’t be interupted.” That says, you are important and right now you have my undivided attention.

37 increase vertical August 11, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Great stuff, I consider myself a gentleman.

38 Larry Lee October 2, 2009 at 6:51 am

Great website with great insight. Please do not ever stop making your articles gender specific as if you are writing for a male-only audience. One of your posters above requested that your articles use a more neutral way of speaking where possible. There are ENOUGH women-only areas on the Internet, magazines, local clubs, etc., so please let “” be directed towards the male audience. If I visit a website aimed at women, I would never dream to request the articles be written more male-inclusive. Why would I? Its bad enough that women are infiltrating every other area of what was previously a male’s sanctuary such as the local barbershop. Ladies, if you are reading this, when you take your boy to get his hair cut I beg you to drop him off and go shopping or something. Do not impose on the last of the male frontier. There are no longer any public places left where a boy can passively learn what it is to be a man. Testosterone is at an all time low throughout the world. Estrogen-laden males are becoming far too common. John Wayne would die at the sight of things today if he wasn’t already dead! Nancy’s (feminine male’s) are prancing around everywhere imitating their favorite boy-band in this kinder, gentler female-driven society.

39 Oscar January 14, 2010 at 11:35 am

A friend of mine came over to a party I was throwing. As soon as he arrived I introduced him to the people that had already arrived. As I was doing this his cell phone rang and he answered it and walked away. This happend twice more in the space of 10 minutes. My question is – what do you say to someone in this situation? Leave cell phones at home? It was the height of rudeness and unless people are told, they will keep on doing it. The Truth About Abs

40 Joseph February 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Because some woman got served divorce papers is no reason to be cranky while she serves my coffee; The grocery lady scatter brained due to her child being sick is an excuse, but rarely if ever is there an excuse to be cranky while serving someone. I despise cranky, poor workers regardless of their situation. Be nice.

41 Truth About Abs March 3, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Very nice post. A friend of mine came over to a party I was throwing. As soon as he arrived I introduced him to the people that had already arrived. As I was doing this his cell phone rang and he answered it and walked away.

42 Gerald March 15, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Another excellent article! Thank you!

43 Augustin May 11, 2013 at 2:00 pm

“Don’t talk or answer your cell phone while talking to ANYONE in person”

You never know… it could be an emergency.

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