Big-mouthism is not a birth defect. You can do something about it.
Jeff could hardly wait to share his news. So when he burst into the crowded locker room to change for P.E. he just blurted it out. “Guess what?” he shouted over the din (noise; commotion). “I was just in the office and I heard the secretary say the principal’s leaving at the end of the year. Old Man Jenkins is graduating ahead of us!”
The raucous cheers that went up around the dressing room were an accurate indication of Mr. Jenkins’ popularity as principal. “Where’s he going?” someone asked.
From the other side of the room a voice responded, “Who would have him?” Laughter echoed around the lockers.
Then Jeff jumped up on a bench and shouted for attention. “Remember all those speeches Jenkins used to give about school spirit? It sounds like he’s finally found a way to create some!”
The laughter erupted again and someone started to cheer, “Hip, hip, hooray.”
As he stepped down off the bench, the dressing room door opened and closed again quickly, but not too quickly for Jeff to see who had slipped out. The instant he saw the back of Randy Jenkins head, the grin on Jeff’s face froze. Randy was Mr. Jenkins’ nephew.
Jeff sagged to the bench like a deflated tire. As the laughter and jokes continued around him, he dressed silently, thinking how he would have felt if he’d been stuck in a roomful of people making fun of his own uncle. He guessed he’d feel sick and angry, which was just how he felt right then – sick at the hurt feelings he’d caused his friend Randy and angry with himself for starting the whole mess by blabbing his mouth to the whole P.E. class.
We can all imagine how Jeff felt.
Even if we haven’t experienced quite as serious a case of foot-in-mouth, we have all had times when we’ve spouted off without thinking, or said too much. The gabbier ones of us make an unpleasant habit of it; the rest only suffer occasional verbalitus attacks.
It’s not surprising we occasionally wish we’d swallowed our words instead of spitting them out. According to one estimate, we babble between 25,000 and 30,000 words a day. That’s equivalent to a small paperback or a thesis for a master’s degree. Multiply those figures by 6.5 billion people in the world and you have to figure there’s an awful lot of excess verbiage flying around.
Of course, there are days when you don’t talk nearly so much. Like a Saturday when you want to ask your dad something really important. You can’t get up the courage until late in the evening. So you probably say no more than 5,000 words the whole day. But the next day – after he’s agreed to your bright idea – you feel so good and talkative you might hit 50,000.
We all let our mouths get us into trouble from time to time. It’s a problem we have to live with.
We can’t really argue with the wisdom Solomon wrote in his proverbs. One piece of his advice was: “Don’t talk so much. You keep putting your foot in your mouth. Be sensible and turn off the flow.” Another time he wrote, “The man of few words and settled mind is wise; therefore, even a fool is thought to be wise when he is silent. It pays him to keep his mouth shut.”
The problem of shooting off our mouths becomes a little more serious when we see what God Himself thinks about our words. Jesus came down pretty hard on the Pharisees when he asked, “How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For a man’s heart determines his speech. A good man’s speech reveals the rich treasures within him. An evil-hearted man is filled with venom, and his speech reveals it. And I tell you this, that you must give an account on Judgment Day for every idle word you speak.”
Some of us are going to have a lot of explaining to do.
That isn’t to say everyone ought to become a quiet wallflower. Jesus wasn’t suggesting that; His point was control of the tongue. And Jesus’ disciple James echoed that message with a warning that “the tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do. A great forest can be set on fire by one tiny spark. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It … can turn our whole lives into a blazing fire of destruction and disaster…”
The question is: how do we control that fire and prevent the kind of damage caused by a case like Jeff’s? We can find all kinds of books in our libraries telling us how to talk more – more convincingly, more clearly, more humorously. But what about the need to talk less? How do we put a leash on our runaway mouths?
There are a few effective strategies.
We need to relearn how to listen. In our word-flooded world, very few people really know how to use their ears. Yet listening is a very valuable skill. A wise man once said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while, he knows something.” It is amazing what you can learn if you really listen to other people.
There’s such a shortage of listeners in our world that some people pay $45 – $75 and more per half-hour if they can find a good one. (He usually also has a degree in psychology, but often that’s beside the point. He has learned to be a good listener, and that in itself helps his patients immensely.)
This doesn’t mean that in everyday life at school you ought to become a human audio sponge, soaking up everything anybody feels like talking about. You still retain the right to turn off the bores; no one holds a lease on your ears, not even a DJ or a TV comedian.
But if something worthwhile is being said, you do yourself (not to mention the speaker) a favor to listen – really listen. It takes great concentration to get involved in what is coming from another mind. But it’s worth the effort. And it has the nice side effect of keeping your own mouth shut during the process.
We ought to weigh our words before they get to our lips. We need to think about our words and censor many of them for the simple reason that, as a famous designer once said, “Less is more.” That sounds like nonsense – until you stop to realize what he meant. Fewer lines or elements in a picture or display, handled more carefully, often carry a more smashing impact than a lot of jumbled gingerbread. And the person who doesn’t open his or her mouth until he actually has something to say usually carries more weight than the blabbermouth.
We can try to copy a good example. One problem talker admitted he eventually got tired of being a big-mouth. “One day I thought about how I was embarrassing myself and everyone else by blurting out things that weren’t appropriate,” he said. “I decided, that’s enough. I’m going to change. I’m going to become worth listening to, and the rest of the time I’m going to shut up. I chose as my model an older guy at my school – a person I respected very much. Kyle was well-liked by everyone, but he was naturally quiet. He talked only when he needed to. ‘That’s my man,’ I said to myself. ‘I’m going to be like Kyle.’
“You know what? I did it. I made a major shift in my temperament. I proved to myself that big-mouthism is not a birth defect. You can do something about it.”
Perhaps the best example of someone who got control of his mouth was Peter in the New Testament. He was a classic big mouth. Time and again Peter tried to argue with Jesus, telling Christ, “Don’t say that” or “That will never happen.” He was quick to boast about his loyalty and even quicker to lie his way out of it when he got in a sticky spot.
Peter was what you might call a public relations nightmare. If anyone could have been counted on to torpedo the new Christianity, it was big-mouth Peter.
But something happened to the fisherman not long after Jesus left. Peter quit trying to do everything under his own power. He let God take control of his whole life, even his tongue, when God’s Holy Spirit invaded his life.
Over the next few years, Peter became the spokesman for all Christians. He debated in front of hostile crowds, he defended his beliefs before enemies in the government, and he settled arguments among his friends when they quarreled. Peter became a model of verbal wisdom and restraint –all because he understood the most important strategy for taming the tongue.
We need to realize that God doesn’t ask us to do impossible things. If, as Jesus said, idle words are a serious matter, then the Holy Spirit (which is Christ’s Spirit present in our lives as Christians) will help us do something about our verbal overflow. In fact, one of the benefits of the Holy Spirit in our lives is self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). That means that God will help us develop the ability to keep ourselves, even our big mouths, in check if we turn Him loose in our lives.
That’s not to say we’ll all be instantly transformed into strong, silent types or dynamic orators who can control crowds with our words. But we can count on God to help make us sensitive to what we say and should say. And with practice we can learn the habit of keeping our mouths tightly shut to hold in those hurtful and unnecessary comments. It may take a while, but we really can hold in those extra 10,000 or so words each day that would be just as well left unsaid.
Miller Clarke, Adapted from “Help I’m a Big Mouth” by Dean Merrill.