What to Do When You “Don’t Know What to Say”

Speaking too soon

Some people talk too soon, some too late, some too much, some too little. Oh yes, and there are those who talk too loudly, too softly, or too close (in your face).

One of the most common regrets I heard in my clinical practice was from patients who felt that they didn’t have the right word at the right time. Something had happened — usually an offensive comment had been made by another person — and they didn’t know what to say, at least in the moment. Sometimes they’d figure out the right words about three hours later. Others couldn’t imagine a good repost even after three weeks.

There are too many ways to go wrong in everyday conversation and even more in public speaking, especially if you don’t have much to contribute. Adlai Stevenson II told the following story at the Princeton Senior Class Banquet in 1954. It seems that a young and none-too-impressive new member of the British House of Commons approached his party leader and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli:

“Now, Mr. Prime Minister, I’ve just come to the House; do you think it would be well if I participated actively in debate?” And the Prime Minister looked at him appraisingly for a moment and said, “No, I think it would be better if you did not. I think it would be better if the House wondered why you didn’t speak rather than why you did!”

Even though none of us have had the benefit of Disraeli’s wise counsel, most of us have thought of ourselves as Disraeli did of the young member of Parliament: that we’d embarrass ourselves by opening our mouths. Well, sometimes we will and certainly we all have done it in the past. But few will remember our gaffes and there is no chance of making an impression that is clever, wise, or enlightened without actually saying something. No amount of potential eloquence does us any good if we always have the mute button on.


I’ve made some unfortunate comments myself.

When I was still in school I visited a cousin whose mother had died after a long and especially gruelling struggle with cancer. I extended my condolences, of course. But, as so often happens during such visits, we got to talking about other things. It wasn’t long before I mentioned some minor misfortune that had recently happened to me, characterizing it as a “fate worse than death.” Oops. Too late to suck it back in, no way to un-ring the bell. I apologized, of course, and my cousin didn’t take it badly, thank goodness. She was dealing with the real thing, death itself, not something trivial and stupid such as my comment.

Tactless remarks happen, as uncomfortable as they are. But, as I said earlier, we more often find ourselves wondering why we “didn’t know what to say.” Some people simply are more fluent than others. Their wittiness comes naturally. They also have the confidence to deliver a line that others might keep to themselves.

While I can’t give you a natural eloquence, I do have a few suggestions to increase your chance of saying the right thing at the right time; and avoiding the wrong one:

      1. Make a recording of yourself in conversation. There is nothing like actually hearing yourself to discover what might be imperfect about the way you speak. Yes, it could fuel your self-consciousness temporarily. But the project of self-improvement rarely comes without some courage and some pain.
      2. Learn to tell at least one joke that isn’t dirty or politically incorrect.
      3. Cut out the following: “uh,” “um,” “like,” and “you know.” Limit how often you say “awesome.” And never put these words altogether: “Uh, you know, like, um, it was awesome!” Don’t say “fail” when you mean “failure” and “reveal” when you should use “revelation.” You will automatically sound 20% more intelligent once all this is accomplished.
      4. Wait a bit before speaking, at least some of the time, to give yourself a chance to formulate what you have to say. Conversation isn’t a race to be the fastest person to respond. If you are clever you will automatically say some quick and witty things. Don’t make it into a competition.
      5. If you expect someone to put you down (usually because he has in the past) prepare some comebacks in advance. There are even books on this sort of thing, so you don’t have to be original. Don’t forget, however, that sometimes the best put down is silence; and ending the relationship will occasionally be a necessary remedy.
      6. Try to sound au courant (a French expression meaning “up to date”or “fully informed”). A good start would be to read something other than an internet story on the progress of Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy.
      7. Learn some new words. Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary has been around since 1942 and is a worthy place to start.
      8. Don’t circumambulate (circle the idea that you are trying to express). Get to the point relatively quickly so as not to lose your audience.
      9. In general, especially if speaking in public, wait until you have the attention of others. Trying to speak over people is frustrating. Asking conversation partners to stop texting probably should happen much more often than it does.
      10. Most people who are nervous tend to rush what they have to say. Instead, think of your oral communication as if it were the painting of a landscape, where the words become the foreground and the silence becomes the background. You need some silence to put your words into relief.
      11. Consider going to Toastmasters. It is an organization whose meetings are “learn-by-doing” workshops “in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere.” And they’ve been doing it since 1924.
      12. One last piece of advice comes from an anonymous author:

Be careful of the words you say,
Keep them short and sweet.
You never know, from day to day,
Which ones you’ll have to eat.

The cartoon is called Conversation by Richard Melo da Silva, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Getting to Know You: On the Difficulty of Making Close Friends


What happens when the wish to be known conflicts with the fear of being known?

Why is it that we so desire someone — someone — to know everything there is about our story and then say, “It’s OK. I’m still lucky to have you as a friend.”

Does anyone know you in this way?

Do you know anyone in this way?

It took several years before one university professor friend told me about “doing time” in a federal prison. This friend is, I must add, as fine and decent a person as I know.

The individual took a risk in the disclosure, hoping (based on knowledge of me acquired over long experience) that I would not summarily judge or reject. I felt privileged and grateful that my acquaintance would tell me this; and this kind soul was, I think, equally pleased that I reacted in the way that I did.

It only made us closer.

But the question is, how did we get there? Get to the point where a risk like that could be taken: a depth of knowledge, confidence, and intimacy.

Both psychological research and ancient philosophy tell us that nothing will make you happier than friendship.

“The factor found to be most important for subjective well-being is that of social relationships with family, friends, and others,” reports Sissela Bok in Exploring Happiness. And ideally, these relationships are not just the superficial kind, but those that go beyond “How about those Cubs?” and “Hasn’t the weather been great” and conversation about cars and shopping and business.

Like the kind I have with the friend just mentioned. The kind you rely upon when the rawness, ridicule, and roundhouse punches of life get to you.

Most who obtain such companions find it enormously gratifying to be “fully known” (warts and all) and still valued and cared about by another: someone who helps you to feel less alone in the world and more alive to what it offers.

So maybe a few tips are in order as I discuss the challenge that achieving this kind of closeness presents.

The most intimate platonic relationships are obtained by a kind of emotional strip tease; a denuding that substitutes the removal of personal defenses for the clothing that is taken off by the exotic dancer.

Like the seven veils worn by Salome in her biblically recounted dance, each veil falls to the ground one at a time. What is left at the end is almost complete openness — nothing hidden, nothing protected — a state close to total vulnerability to the other person (who you hope has moved in-synch with you and will not take advantage of your unguarded state).

There is certainly danger here, my friend.

James Baldwin described the dilemma as a sort of love without love-making:

Love takes off the masks we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Some never get over that fear and keep vulnerabilities protected behind a screen of surface calm and unblemished “appearance.” Call them “masks” or veils or armor, these coverings keep us “safe,” but keep us alone.

Until you give up that safety, you can never answer the questions, “What if he knew? What would he think of me then?”

And if you worry about those answers, how can you ever be self-confident?

Unless you are enormously self-assured, unguarded, and out-going, there is a journey from strange to familiar, from casual acquaintance to close friend; an emotional distance that must be traveled.

In the days of trench warfare, there was an expression known as “going over the top,” which meant coming out of the protected cover of your army’s dug-in, underground position to make an assault on the equally defended emplacement of the enemy. To do this, you  entered “no-man’s land,” the several yard’s between the two trenches, where you were exposed and open to fire.

For more people than you might think, taking the social risks needed for true friendship feels a little like this.

Some part of it can go back to messages learned at home. “Don’t tell the neighbors” is an expression that informs you there is something to be ashamed of and that the people “out there” will take advantage of one’s household secrets.

Of course, they just might.

Some languages even use words to institutionalize and formalize the distance between two people. The German words “Sie” and “du” both mean “you” in English. The first is used for formal relationships, people with whom you are not intimate. Should this barrier be overcome, there is a tradition that goes back to the middle ages to commemorate your new closeness. It involves a mini-celebration toasted with alcohol called “Brüderschaft trinken;” becoming “brotherly,” in effect, so that you are permitted to use “du” to refer to one another.

You can be married to someone, but not really know your partner. You can be sexually intimate and wildly uninhibited when the clothes are off, but much more “closed-off” when you dress up again.

You know all the fears: of being cast-away, condemned, cut-off and criticized — a loss of power and control in the relationship with the possibility that others will harm you.

We worry that “fair weather friends” won’t stand with us, for us, and by us when the going gets tough. We tremble at the thought of “friends of convenience” who can’t be bothered to give us nearly as much as they get from us. We dread the possibility that our “friend” will share our secrets with others and betray our trust. Or that the friend will ask for our money in such a way that we cannot say “no,” but never pay it back.

We choose between the risk of being hurt by others on one side vs. quietly hurting ourselves in the self-imposed isolation of the other side; a depth of loneliness that sometimes makes physical pain seem preferable.

Friendship of any kind usually starts with shared experience or small talk. Taking the same bus every day, going to the same classes, working for the same boss on the same projects, we begin to chat about what we do and what we see.

If this is difficult for you and you “don’t know what to say,” consider a few of these topics:

  • Where do you live?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What movies or TV programs do you watch?
  • Do you have any hobbies or play any sports?
  • What music do you like?

Music is a kind of proxy topic. It stands in for those probing questions that might determine whether you share the same sentiments or the same view of life. The early stages of a relationship represent a kind of feeling-out in which the two people are both passing the time and attempting so see whether they have much in common. Some go so far as to make lists of things to talk about; not a bad idea if you are a bit unsure.


The next stage usually takes the pair to the possibility of some shared activity. Coffee? Dinner? A ball game? A concert? Shopping? It can be as simple as time together giving someone a ride. Of course, there is the risk that he is too busy for another relationship or doesn’t want your company.

No risk, no reward.

Some people prefer (or find it less threatening) to be part of a group rather than one-on-one in the early stage of making someone’s acquaintance. That’s fine, of course, but if you really want to get below the surface you’ll need to spend some time alone with the person.

If you have a significant other, convention can dictate that you meet new (or even old) friends in groups of four or more — couples with couples. But unless all four of you know each other awfully well or are unusually open, group topics tend to stay on the surface of things, revealing little that is personal or private; in other words, little that you would reveal only to a close friend.

Finally, by intent or by magic, you can reach a point where you begin to reveal more about yourself and ask more about your new friend. Things like the kind of family you come from, past romances, job problems, a history of therapy, religious and political views.

You also begin to rely on the other to do what he says he will do, show up to help you move to a new residence, help solve a problem, lend you a small amount of money to pay for dinner or visa versa. You will notice if he pays attention to you and helps you fit into any new group of which he is already a part.

If these “tests” are passed, you just might have a new friend worthy of the name.

The revelations don’t always come at once. Usually, dropping your guard takes time. You wonder whether the “other” will “understand,” treat your concerns with respect, “be there” when you need him.

And then there are those revelations that wait decades to occur. I was recently told the story of two childhood friends who had lost touch and lived on opposite coasts. Keeping to the family requirements as most children do, they’d never shared the troubling things that had happened in their homes. Instead, their contact was based on playing together, going to parties, talking about school, and so forth.

Meeting again at a class reunion, one caught the other’s eye and they quickly embraced.

Then, without any preceding word, the first woman spoke the thing that she’d been told never to say.

“I was adopted.”

It was something she knew even as a child, but was forbidden to utter. Only now, it had become the thing that needed to be said to close the distance of time and disunion.

What do you call this?

Catching up, for sure.

But I’d call it a new start — a deeper start — to an old friendship.


The top 2008 image is called Two Friends by fotoguru.it. The second picture is entitled Friendship by “Nina, from Australia.” The bottom photo is called Friendship by “Gideon, from Paris, France.” All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.