Never complain; never explain.
This pithy little maxim was first coined by the British politician and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and adopted as a motto by many other high-ranking Brits — from members of royalty, to navy admirals, to fellow prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill. The maxim well encapsulates the stiff-upper lipped-ness of the Victorian age, but the timeless wisdom it contains has made it a guiding mantra of powerful, confident, accountability-prizing men up through the modern day.
The “nevers” of course aren’t ironclad and don’t apply to every situation, and even when they should apply, they can be hard to follow through on! But understanding when, where, and why to apply this maxim is truly a great help in becoming a more autonomous and assertive man.
Its four words pack a lot of truth in a small space and work on a few different levels. So let’s unpack them, starting with the meat of the matter — “never explain” — and working backwards.
“Never explain — your friends do not need it, and your enemies will not believe you anyway.” –Elbert Hubbard
When Winston Churchill was a young cavalry officer, he was always looking for ways to get to the front and experience battle firsthand. With much persistence, he eventually secured a position in the field as a personal attendant to Sir William Lockhart, who was overseeing the British military’s campaigns in what is now Pakistan. When Churchill first joined the general’s staff, he “behaved and was treated as befitted my youth and subordinate station.” But then one day he saw an opportunity to offer a bit of advice that led to him being “taken much more into the confidential circles of the staff” and “treated as if I were quite a grown-up.”
Churchill heard that the general and his headquarters staff had been hurt and angry to hear that a newspaper correspondent who had been sent home from their camp had published a very critical article about one of their recent campaigns. The officers smarted at what they felt were unfair charges, and the Chief of Staff had written up a thorough rebuttal and mailed it off to the newspaper to be published. Churchill at once spoke up and tried to convince the staff that such a move was ultimately a bad idea, and that the piece ought to be intercepted before it was ever printed:
“I said that it would be considered most undignified and even improper for a high officer on the Staff of the Army in the Field to enter into newspaper controversy about the conduct of operations with a dismissed war-correspondent; that I was sure the Government would be surprised, and the War Office furious; that the Army Staff were expected to leave their defence to their superiors or to the politicians; and that no matter how good the arguments were, the mere fact of advancing them would be everywhere taken as a sign of weakness.”
In this, as in many things, Churchill turned out to be quite prescient and wise. Offering explanations does indeed demonstrate weakness, for several reasons:
Explaining gives power to another. When someone criticizes or insults you, gets offended by something you do or say, or questions your decisions and why you’ve chosen to do something a certain way, it’s natural to want to explain why you think they’re wrong — especially if said party has impinged on your integrity or honor. And some kind of response may indeed be in order.
If the person is someone you know and respect as an equal — someone you consider to be inside your “circle of honor” — and they have said something intelligent and interesting, you may want to explain yourself in order to invite further discussion.
If they’re your boss or a customer, you may need to offer an explanation to hold onto your job or their business.
If they’re someone you care about — a loved one or friend — and you’ve had a gross miscommunication, you may want to explain yourself in an effort to preserve the relationship.
But, if the critical/offended/skeptical party is someone you don’t know personally (like a stranger online or the public in general), don’t care about, and/or don’t respect as an equal — someone who shouldn’t have any say or sway over your choices — then taking the time to explain why they’re wrong, or why you’ve made the decisions you have, is ill-advised.
To be concerned with what someone outside your circle of respect thinks, is to allow yourself to be pulled down to his or her level.
Explaining yourself is essentially an attempt to seek another’s approval. It shows you’re stung that they’ve withdrawn that approval, and desirous of getting it back. When you show that you care about an opinion that you, and any observers, know you really shouldn’t, you show weakness. In losing the fight between trying to ignore them and craving the catharsis of engagement, you demonstrate a failure of self-control.
Further, when a chucklehead elicits a response, you validate his importance. He’s made you do something against your better judgment. You’ve given to him two of your most precious resources – your time and attention. You’ve gone from the offensive to the defensive. His status goes up and yours goes down.
People — whether irrationally angry customers, estranged family members, or a controlling significant other — will often demand explanations for what you do. They’ll say you are weak if you don’t offer one. But this is the cleverest of ploys! By targeting your pride, they’ll get you to hand over your power.
Of course restraining yourself from responding to someone who’s goading you on is easier said than done! As someone who’s subjected to a constant barrage of feedback on my work, day after day, I find I am able to successfully ignore about 98% of it. It’s when someone says something that impinges on my honor (even when I know they’re not part of my honor group), or when they seem like a dude I can have a good debate with that I get in trouble.
When someone is clearly off their rocker, it’s easy to ignore them as really out there. And when someone has something critical but intelligent to say, engaging them can actually be interesting and instructive. It’s the people who greatly distort who you are/what you did/what you said, but mix together sensible sounding discourse with nuggets of crazy, who prove the most irresistible. They almost sound like someone you can have a reasonable discussion with; it almost seems like you could explain to them why they’re objectively off the mark. But as it invariably turns out (and this is a lesson I have to learn over and over!), if someone’s mindset/mentality is such that they’re able to grossly misinterpret something, no amount of explanation — no matter how thorough and well-reasoned — is going to change their mind. Quite to the contrary — they’ll simply dig in their heels all the more!
“Never complain; never explain” doesn’t necessarily mean not saying anything to your doubters, complainers, and critics, but limiting your response to a sharp rejoinder. Disraeli in fact formulated his maxim after hearing the advice of fellow politician Lord Lyndhurst, who said: “Never defend yourself before a popular assembly except with and by retorting an attack.” Thus, a short, pithy rebuttal or a humorous, yet withering sarcastic quip (Churchill was the master of these) may be in order. Then you turn heel and don’t engage further.
Of course, even a simple retort may draw you into an argument you never wanted to have, which often makes complete silence the best possible response. In fact, nothing drives someone nipping at you heels crazier than to have their questions and demands go utterly ignored and unacknowledged.
Explaining demonstrates a lack of confidence in your choices/creations/principles. Have you ever been looking at a book or product on Amazon and seen that its author or manufacturer has jumped in and responded to people’s negative reviews? I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, even if the negative reviewer sounds like a real ding-dong, and the rebuttal is reasonable, well-done, and conciliatory, I still end up thinking less of the author/company, and cringing a bit on their behalf.
Most everyone knows that authors and companies check in on their reviews at least occasionally, but when you give people demonstrable proof that you’re hovering around, you confirm your insecurity and/or vanity and thus show weakness and a lack of confidence in your work. In stepping from the ranks of the creator, to that of the consumer, you lose status.
If you arrived at your creative vision or set of principles for good reasons, if you said everything you wanted to say, in the best, clearest way you knew how to say it, and endeavor only to put out your very best work, then you can be content to let your decisions and your work stand on its own. You have nothing else to add. People either get what you do and are about, or they don’t.
There will always be those who twist your words, or misinterpret your meaning, or don’t find your design sense to their liking and mistake their subjective taste for objective truth. If you’d rather make money than stay true to your creative vision, then by all means, try to explain and change the minds of those unhappy with your work. Try to hold onto all the customers you can. I don’t mean this sarcastically; sometimes products are not vessels of your values, but merely utilitarian, and it can make sense to be very connected to the needs of your customers.
But, if you’d rather fail and have to try something else, than change your ideas and principles to suit the tastes of others, then choose to be like Jack London, who felt that the public continually misunderstood his work, and contented himself by deciding: “The world is mostly bone-head and nearly all boob.”
Or as the British academic Benjamin Jowett put it: “Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl!”
Explanations easily turn into excuses. Naturally, even when you endeavor to give people your best, unforeseen problems do sometimes arise. When you’ve objectively messed up, should you explain to people what happened?
People do typically appreciate a little explanation as to the what, when, and why of your blunder. But the explanatory part of your apology should be kept short — for as Lord Acton, yet another explanation-spurning British politician warns: “Beware of too much explaining, lest we end by too much excusing.” You should pivot as quickly as possible to taking responsibility and saying how you’re going to make things right. In the words of an old proverb: “Don’t make excuses; make good.”
A perfect example of this principle in action arrived in my mailbox just the other day from a company called Guideboat. I had ordered Kate something from their catalog for Christmas. I didn’t experience any problems with my order, but I guess some other folks did, which prompted the CEO to send out this letter along with a $50, no-strings-attached gift card to me, and apparently thousands of other customers:
Good customer service and corporate accountability are so rare these days, that I found this letter positively astonishing. Minimal explanation, no excuses, and an attempt at making amends. That folks, is how to do business right.
While “never explain” and “never complain” are two discrete parts of the couplet, a common thread runs through them: autonomy and accountability.
Once you understand why you should rarely explain, you should understand why you should rarely complain. You simply put yourself in the shoes of the party you’re seeking an explanation from, and act accordingly.
If a person or company has failed to meet their own clearly delineated standards, you can of course ask for an apology or file a complaint, asking for your money back or what have you. Keep the explanation for your unhappiness short, moving as quickly as possible into what you’d like them to do to make it right.
If you think your feedback could help someone improve something, offer it in a constructive way.
If you’re in a situation where a complaint will accomplish nothing, then common sense dictates that you should remain silent.
If you’re in a situation where complaining will accomplish far less than going about trying to make the desired changes yourself, choose action over whining.
And if you’re tempted to complain about something on the basis of subjective taste, reconsider. For the party you seek to complain against has a purpose and vision outside of your own needs and desires.
Take professor evaluations in college, for example. Some students will complain that the professor “sucks” because his coursework is challenging, while others students will praise him because the coursework is so challenging. The professor has a purpose and a set of principles all his own, and while you might disagree with him, and decide never to take another of his classes, why complain that his priorities are not more like yours? If people complained against your vision or work, you shouldn’t care, so why should he?
I once read an interview with Ben and Jerry — the ice cream makers — in which they said they wished they could forward one set of the letters they received to the senders of another set. Because some people would write saying they wished their ice cream had less/smaller chunks of things, while others would write saying they wished the chunks were even bigger and more numerous. Which complainers did Ben and Jerry listen to? Neither, of course. They stuck with their own vision of what constituted the best kind of ice cream, and the heavens rained down dough of both the monetary and cookie varieties.
I’ve gone out to dinner a couple of times where the experience was so bad, I felt I couldn’t wait to get home to write a bad review of the place online. But invariably, that feeling would dissipate, and I’ve never written a bad review of anything in my life. Because ultimately…who cares? Maybe my experience was atypical, or maybe some people like the food that I thought was completely gross. The restaurateur is doing things the way he wants to do them, and I’m content to let the market decide whether his vision is a good one or not.
The world doesn’t exist to meet my expectations, and if they’re not met, I figure I can do one of two things — go somewhere else, or create something myself more to my liking.
I never complain because I don’t think I should have to explain myself to other people, and I don’t think other people should have to explain themselves to me!
Last updated: February 17, 2017