The Power of the Unspoken

By Ken Michaels, Guest Writer
Image of Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite on television during the first presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Philadelphia, Pa., Sept. 23, 1976.

In an old comedy routine of disputed origin, two people are present when the telephone rings. One of them answers it and after a brief silence remarks, “You don’t say!” Then, more silence as he listens, then again: “You don’t say!” Another period of silent listening, and another “You don’t say!” Then finally, “Okay, goodbye, then.” The other fellow turns to him quizzically and asks who had called. The fellow who answered the phone replies solemnly, “He didn’t say.”

This skit sometimes comes to mind when I overhear a conversation that involves lots of words but little real communication. Sound familiar? That’s the sort of conversation that we mostly try to avoid participating in.

Instead, I want to draw attention to the opposite of vacuous wordiness: silence.

I recall a broadcast of the CBS Evening News in the early 1970s that concluded with a video released to the international media by Hanoi. The film was a tour of the North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war (POW) facilities that showed healthy-looking “American” soldiers, hearty meals in a brightly-lit dining hall, private and comfortable sleeping accommodations, and other similar footage. The film was narrated by a kindly sounding and heavily accented voice that described the excellent care the North Vietnamese were providing the POWs. When the film ended, the camera went to anchorman Walter Cronkite, who ended the broadcast by saying “And that’s our broadcast for (day, date). Good Evening.”

A casual viewer might have found Cronkite’s closing comment completely unremarkable. But tuned-in viewers found an important message in his choice of words. Regular viewers knew that Cronkite (who also incidentally enjoyed the moniker of “most trusted man in America” at the time) had a signature sign-off. On a daily basis, the CBS Evening News ended with Cronkite declaring “And that’s the way it is (day, date). Good evening.”

The film was obviously a piece of impossible-to-believe propaganda, and Cronkite said as much when he declined to declare “that's the way it is,” as was his custom. In other words, what he didn’t say at the close of that particular broadcast spoke volumes to those in the know.

Things we don’t say may in fact speak eloquently for us on occasion, as it did for Cronkite that evening.

Particularly during this election year (or should I say years?), when there is so much being said by so many, I could do with a bit more silence. More than once recently, I’ve heard an opinion expressed about one candidate or another delivered in a manner that clearly invited comment. I don’t believe in nodding or grunting what can be taken as agreement, and I certainly don’t want to get into an argument in the contentious environment that we have today. A neutral expression and complete silence—no response whatsoever—seems to convey my reluctance to engage pretty well.

Sometimes you say it best when “you don’t say.”

Ken Michaels, retired manager of Visual Communications, Leidos Biomedical Research, is a special volunteer for NCI at Frederick.

© 2016 Ken Michaels, all rights reserved.