Words in a China Shop
My mom had a saying: Don’t be a bull in a china shop.
Nowadays there are not so many china shops around, but you get the picture. She was advising against going into tight, delicate situations and moving through them clumsily and aggressively. Also, sometimes when we were in the glass-wear aisle of a nice store, she’d give us the same, slightly more literal warning. We kept our elbows in and moved slowly and usually nothing got broken.
Listen to me read this post:
That’s what I do these days. I keep my arms tucked close to my body and move cautiously. I do my best to avoid breaking anything or anyone. I didn’t always operate like this but this is me now: quiet and cautious.
Why, you ask? Because as I’ve aged, I’ve lost some flexibility and it’s more difficult now to pry my foot out of my mouth or someone else’s out of my butt. And I’ve gained some wisdom. The younger me thought, “People don’t really care or remember what I say.”
The older me understands this to be utterly untrue. In fact, not only do folks care and remember, they also view my words through the lens of their own experience and pain. We all do. It’s like viewing an ant through a magnifying glass on a sunny day. The ant gets real big and looks scary, and then it bursts into flame.
In fact, even being polite and standing out of the way can get me in trouble. More often than not I’m asked suspiciously, “Why are you so quiet today?”
This is what I think in response: “You could cut the air around this place with a knife. I’m keeping my head down so I don’t get it bitten off.”
This is what I politely say: “Oh, do I seem quiet? I guess I’m lost in thought today. See you later!”
At meetings, I’ve been asked to speak up and give my opinion. “Lori, we’d like to hear what you have to say.”
What I think: “Oh, no. Trust me. You most definitely do not want to hear what I have to say. Past experience has shown me this.”
What I say: “Thanks for inviting me to speak. Attending this meeting has really given me a lot to think about. I’ll need to give this topic further consideration and let you know.” This last part almost never happens.
When I gaze back upon my less-experienced self with her big mouth and limited foresight, I feel somewhat horrified, slightly amused and occasionally proud. Sometimes I feel these almost simultaneously. She thought she was so funny, this young one, and so did about three other people in the world. The rest of the planet’s reactions ranged from bored neutrality right through to offended rage.
She thought she had brilliant ideas to share and a fresh perspective. Now she understands that it’s all been said before, over and over again, by generations of people throughout time who thought they had brilliant ideas and fresh perspectives. There’s nothing new under the sun and nothing that hasn’t been said before.
I’m convinced I’m not the only person who has ever learned to smile and shut-up as they’ve gotten older. Otherwise, I wouldn’t share this. The way any of us think about anything is kind of personal. It’s just that I know so many of us who have taken this more cautious path and so many others who have cried, “To heck with it! I’m saying what I want to say finally. I’ve been swallowing my words for long enough!”
Neither approach is wrong. One works well in some situations while the other is better suited to different scenarios. I admire both techniques. I respect the courage of those who tell it like it is and the wisdom of those who bring peace into a room with their silence.
My modus operandi has changed over the years. It’s softened. My own ideas don’t matter to me as much anymore because I recognize that my thoughts are fluid and constantly changing. So I hold them lightly like a butterfly. Mostly I err on the side of not speaking because I’ve witnessed the irreversible damage caused by words. Words are powerful and I treat them as such.
Words can be like bulls in a china shop. So I keep my elbows in, my mouth closed, and I move carefully because I can’t predict what or whom my words might break.