Home > Daily Special

Silence and Betrayal

By Emily Milner

I’m talking with a friend, and our conversation meanders to include a mutual acquaintance. And then somehow I’m listening to an issue she’s had with that person, and I nod, and say “mmm-hmmm,” and “that’s too bad,” and attempt to change the subject. But I’m both uncomfortable saying out loud “I don’t want to hear you criticize this person; if you’ve got an issue with her, it’s your issue not mine,” and I’m also uncomfortable joining in the critique. Silence feels like betraying one friend; speaking up feels like betraying the confidence of the friend I’m listening to.


People often ask me how my father-in-law, who is on disability and lives with us, is doing. About the same, I say. Or fine, I tell them. To speak all the truth, all the complexities of someone who is both dear and frustrating, feels like a betrayal of him. And at some level, my silence feels like a self-betrayal as well. But then again, speaking in moments of frustration, which will pass tomorrow even if it’s maddening today, is just as dishonest as saying “Oh fine.” Maybe the truth lies in saying nothing until you’re certain of what truth is.


All the careful consideration of this edited and re-edited blog post evaporates if you speak with me face to face. I am much more careful online than I am in person; I have cultivated a compassionate, thoughtful online persona, but sometimes it feels like an act. Like that’s who I am online, but in person I am loud, whiny, and most heinous of online sins, judgmental. Maybe online is who I want to be, and is it wrong to speak in that voice, if that’s part of me?


I have a long list of things I wish I’d never said. An infinite list, ranging from something I said yesterday, an opinion too strongly expressed, to things I said years and years ago that continue to haunt me. Silence would have saved me, but I kept talking, because I always want words to be my salvation, instead of quiet. And sometimes I just can’t shut up.


What are your personal rules for silence and speaking up? How are you different online than in person? Are you good at being silent?

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

24 thoughts on “Silence and Betrayal”

  1. When I was taking voice lessons, my teacher once told me to be careful not to try to sing over the piano – "Singers like to hear their own voices".

    As I pondered that advice, I realised that I act like a singer even when I'm not singing; I really like to hear my own voice when I'm talking with someone else.

    Recently I've decided to let other people speak. To stop planning on the next thing I'm going to say, or desperately think of some joke I heard somewhere, but just let the conversation flow and learn more about the other person.

    It is interesting, because I come out of those conversations feeling like I haven't said much, but it doesn't seem to matter anymore.

    I want to be a good listener. I am practicing.

    (However, online, I am incredibly verbose and find it difficult to stop typing… I communicate more freely in print)

  2. I am right there with you in my online persona. But my online persona is who I'd like to be in real life. I like that online I get the chance to write, ponder, re-write, edit, and proofread before it is published. Not so easy when you're actually talking.

  3. I like this post. I have been feeling turmoil lately when a friend shares something she is doing, knowing I know we have both been taught right and wrong. I felt by staying silent I have given my approval of her wrong choices and wonder what kind of friend I am? I think that if I say anything it might appear judgmental and give her reason to feel even more judged. But am I a good friend by remaining silent? It does feel like self-betrayal. When what I want to say is, "what are you thinking"?

  4. I was just thinking about your last point this morning–how I am still haunted by High School Lindsay and Wedding Day Lindsay and Family Reunion Lindsay. I have no filter sometimes, and instead of quitting, I tend to use words to dig myself deeper and deeper. I try to be honest, but sometimes I'm too honest and over-share, sometimes I'm insensitive, sometimes I'm so self-conscious about being awkward that I'm awkward by default. Self-tolerance and forgiveness is a journey, and I'm usually set on the path, but I can't help but replay events in my mind and think, "I wish I hadn't said that."

  5. Old adages addressing when to speak still have much merit:

    First, the litmus test: a) is it true? b) is it necessary? c) is it kind? Can what you want to say pass through these 3 golden doors?

    Second – the only things we have control over is what goes into our mouths and what comes out.

    I've had far more regrets over what I've said than I've ever had over what I didn't. Some in the latter category, but far more in the first.

  6. It the beloved, well-used backspace key that you want to use but can't when talking! Maybe that's why the seriouslysoblessed blog was so popular. It mocked the best print foot forward and all. . .

  7. I loved this post. I agree with what everyone has said. Its rare I regret keeping my mouth shut. My mom would also use the classic Bambi advice "If you can't say something nice don't say anything at all." This is so much easier said than done.

    An interesting scenario: I was with a group of adults and they brought up the last testimony meeting where one of the speakers had, admittedly, given a quite bizarre testimony. (You know the kind.) So, in the car, they brought it up and were joking about it and I was feeling uncomfortable and attempted a conversation changer ("So, tell me about your trip.") and they called me out on it! The comment was "whoa, don't try to change the topic, I want to hear about this…"

    I had never encountered that before. Some people.

  8. Oh, I hear you.

    After a rash of gossip in a former ward, a friend and I made an agreement to not speak unkindly about others to each other. 12 years later, we've broken that pact a few times, but we still try to give people the benefit of the doubt and we're mostly pretty good.

    I've found that when I avoid negative talk about others (and sometimes even myself) I feel better about relationships, but man, I still OFTEN blow it.

    So, in other words, I don't know. I'm no help on this subject. I try to be kind when speaking about other people, but when I need to vent about someone who has really hurt me, sometimes I break that rule, then feel guilty. And is venting worse than exploding at the person because emotions are pent up and never released? I just don't know… I guess I need to do some more pondering on how to be more Christlike in my personal relationships. Thanks for the food for thought.

    (And have you noticed that it's way easier to be funny when you're being unkind? I caught myself in this bad pattern a few weeks ago…and it was hard to break after even a few days.)

  9. Kerri! That is so true—"it's way easier to be funny when you're being unkind." This is a trap so common for many of us. We are very clever, and we love being clever, and so we use it against people often less clever than we consider ourselves to be. Sigh…I'm guilty.

  10. To add another wrinkle: I know (very well, actually) some folks who use silence as a verbal weapon. They remain silent to intentionally make others uncomfortable in moments where they might have made some kind of polite noise (and where polite noise could be reasonably expected).

    In music, the rests communicate as much as the notes. In speech, it isn't only words that carry barbs.

  11. Thanks, everyone, for adding your thoughts and making me think more about this. I guess I struggle to know when to speak and when to hold my tongue, and I'm still learning. It's good to know we are all learning together; it makes me feel not so alone.

    Latter-day Guy, I agree that silence can be a weapon too. Sometimes it is better to speak.

  12. I haven't really had rules, and maybe that's part of my problem! Currently, though, my main rule is to observe quietly before I jump in and involve myself. Additionally, I think I'm just trying to cultivate a really quiet mind AND mouth!!! ^_^ This is definitely contrary to my nature!

    I never used to be good at being silent. And there are currently only a very few (read: I can count them on a few fingers) people with whom I spill all.

    I try to ask my friends to leaves names out of our conversations about people we both know, where possible. You see, I believe strongly that we humans feel a great need and desire to be able to speak freely with a few chosen other people about our experiences. Sometimes these experiences necessarily include names, but much more rarely than we (I?) have had a tendancy to use them.

    One thing I've been wondering a LOT lately is this: How important is it REALLY to be true to "self"? I mean, if we look to the Word of God, it seems like it's really NOT high up there on His priorities for us. Ya know? So maybe those moments of self-betrayal for the good of those we love as well as others' opinions of/about us (if they truly understand the nature of criticism) is best? Just something I've been pondering on lately.

    My online persona is more how I'm trying to be: much more careful with my words. I love words and have a tendancy toward verbosity (can you tell!? ^_^), so words just run away from me in person to person conversation MUCH more than online. *sigh* working on this!!!

  13. Up until a few years ago my standard response to "How are you?" was "Fine" even though things were far from fine. I knew that the person asking didn't really mean to find out how I was doing. But I kept feeling like it was a lie. Now I reply "I'm hanging in there" if I'm really not doing well. The ones who really want to know how I'm doing will inquire further and the others can just move on. "Hanging in there" feels a lot more accurate than "fine."

  14. Maybe the truth lies in saying nothing until you’re certain of what truth is.

    Yeah…I've been operating on that assumption for 20 years, and have come no closer to truth. And the person I would have spoken it to is probably going to die today. Maybe another 20 years will clear things up.

  15. Loved this post. I wrestle with this almost daily. I hate the feeling of regret, but then sometimes also feel like I can't really learn if I don't make some mistakes along the way. And I feel the weight of my weakness and its potential effect on others. And while I love the thought of not speaking unless it's truth, isn't sometimes the process of finding truth to speak and discuss and sort through thoughts?

    And yet…. I think you have hit on something there. I'm far too quick to speak when I am not in a good place, or feeling too smug, or…or…or.

    I can see why Moroni plead for the Gentiles to have charity, because when you see the weakness of your words, that's what I think you want to pray for the most — that when others see your weakness they will have charity.

    And yet, I'm struck by the Lord's response in Eth 12. He covers us in our weakness if we are trying to be faithful.

    I still want to pray for those who are affected by my weakness, because it's plentiful.

  16. That friend thing is hard. I hate gossiping about my friends, but sometimes other friends just need to vent, you know? Mostly when somebody says, "Our mutual friend drives me crazy," I default to something like, 'I'm sorry you feel that way.' One time I was so flustered about what somebody said about a friend of mine that I simply fumbled around and said, 'I've never heard that. I've never gotten that feedback at all." We're talking about friendship and I'm using the word FEEDBACK? What you said is true–the silence feels like a betrayal of the friend being bashed, and defending them feels like a betrayal of the basher. Tricky stuff.

    And I think we all have long lists of things we wish we'd never said. Sometimes I pray that in addition to that list, there is a list of things I've said that have helped instead of hurt, and somebody I'll get to see that list, too.

  17. They have a phrase in Mozambique where we are serving a mission that I like. When you ask someone how they are doing, they might respond "Normal". That sort of covers it, doesn't it?

  18. I suck at being silent. If a beloved friend is ticked at an equally beloved friend, I usually try to turn it into a joke. Usually, said friends are beloved to each other, anyway. If the situation involves less beloved criticizing beloved, I laugh and say "I love her; she's so human."

    This has worked for me in setting boundaries, too. "Are you crazy? I would die for you, but watch your kids? I'd rather be gang raped by Chechen rebels!" My kids hate how I turn everything into a joke; it's a coping method, but a good one, I think.

    Actuallly, I'm seldom in the situation of someone criticizing my friends, though, because they know they're my friends.

    I'm often in the situation of criticizing other peoples' friends, though. Awkward. Yeah, I hope I learn to shut my mouth before I die.

  19. As I read this, and the comments, I thought yes, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Which I agree with. Completely. Until I don't. Years ago, I got into a disagreement with the Primary President, under whom I was chorister. I don't remember the specifics, and don't need to, but then a couple of weeks later, I passed a friend, B, crying in the foyer. I asked what was wrong, and eventually she told me she had gotten yelled at by this same woman, and B's feeling were hurt. I started laughing, which I know didn't match B's expected response, but then I told her that after I had had my problem with her, another friend had seen me upset and told me *she* had had a run-in. By the end of the conversation, B and I were laughing together because she had now joined the good company of no fewer than 7 women who had been blindsided, then hurt, by this one woman. Had I either ignored her, or chided her into not "gossipping" all of us would have felt alone and invalidated. I validated B's feelings, as another friend had done for me. We all learned that it wasn't my problem, or B's problem, it was the primary president's. Criticizing is hurtful, but sometimes an offhand comment can open doors to help us see another perspective.

  20. annegb, Your comment: “Are you crazy? I would die for you, but watch your kids? I’d rather be gang raped by Chechen rebels!” made me laugh out loud. I am going to borrow it for the next time someone asks me to babysit for them! HA!

  21. I love this post. I am late, but I love it. I think the concept applies in so many relationships. Do I express opinion that someone is hurting herself? Do I say that to my husband, when no good will come to either of us if he knows I feel a certain way? I almost never regret silence unless I wonder if I could have stopped a wrong.

  22. Emily M, your the type of friend that people love to have! It is hard to balance the times when a person openly needs a reality to check and a listening ear with people just be petty or catty. I think your boundaries are good as you care so much. However, there may be times when it would be good to be more open and it might help you being a caregiver. You have know who to trust though. And you are a person one can trust from what you have shared. I should mention that I think there are certain private issues that should only be between a husband and a wife and only if necessary a professional or clergy person and that such intimate details should not be shared with even an extremely close friend in my opinion.


Leave a Comment