The Power of Saying Nothing

harassment, silent treatment, insulting women, 2016 election, Carly Fiorina, Hillary Clinton

To be taken seriously, you must take yourself seriously. You must speak from a position of authority—and if you are secure enough in your own authority, you can speak volumes without moving your lips.

Women of the world, it is time for us to shut up.

Shut up, I mean, in the face of particular kinds of provocation, which is very much in evidence these days, thanks to the high profile of certain female presidential candidates. I’m talking about Donald Trump insulting Carly Fiorina’s looks. Or Lindsey Graham playing a drinking game involving which prominent female politician he would date, fuck or kill (although, being a nice Southern boy, he put it in more genteel terms). Or this little evergreen nugget:


I could go on, but you get the idea. We have all encountered stuff like this: disgusting but not actionable, stupid but not threatening. (There’s a whole other level of online trolling targeting women that is both actionable and threatening, and I’m not talking about that.) Generally, there are two kinds of reactions to these. One is a kind of dignified silence which pretends it didn’t happen; the other is vocal outrage. Frankly, neither of these works. A dignified pretense that you are not aware of the comment/video/”joke” doesn’t work because of course they did happen, and the best you can expect from injured dignity is sympathy, which makes you a victim. Not cool. Vocal outrage is way more satisfying and adrenalin-producing, but it doesn’t work either. It feeds the energy and gives offenders a chance to chortle and nudge each other and say, “Boy, can’t take a joke, can she?”

I propose a third way, a combination of old-fashioned etiquette and skills I learned from parenting. It is called the Moment of Icy Silence, and here’s how it works:

GUY or WTOW (Woman Trolling Other Women): Stupid remark masquerading as joke.

WOMEN AT LARGE: Pause. Look at offender. Allow a moment of silence. Resume what you were doing.

How is this different from Dignified Silence? The difference is that there’s no pretense that the offense didn’t happen. We notice. Oh, yeah, we notice. We make it painfully obvious we have noticed. But, having noticed, we don’t think anybody has said anything remotely worthy of a reply, much less the energy it would take to explain to him exactly how he is being offensive. So we simply let an icy silence collect for a moment while we look the offender in the eye, and we then resume as if this person did not exist—because, in etiquette terms, he doesn’t. We have just erased him from the face of the earth.

That’s how old-fashioned etiquette used to work, back when women were Ladies and people in Society fully understood what it meant to be “cut dead.” It’s a wonderful technique and deserves to be resurrected. But—and here is where the parenting skills come in—it must be done from a position of psychic strength.

Anyone who has ever dealt with children knows they have a radar that helps them assess the threat level. “Maddie, it’s time for dinner” can mean either “Sweetheart, Mummy would really love it if you could maybe put down your iPad for just a few minutes and join us in the dining room, please?” or it could mean “Get your ass downstairs in the next 30 seconds or go hungry.” It’s all in tone of voice, and in whether the speaker has mentally determined beforehand that by God, she is not kidding. Kids know which is which; so do adult men who are channeling their Inner Shithead.

But to be taken seriously, you must take yourself seriously. You must speak from a position of authority—and if you are secure enough in your own authority, you can speak volumes without moving your lips. It’s mysterious but true: people who expect to be listened to and obeyed usually are. But this is something men tend to use to their advantage more often than women. Women are conditioned to be people-pleasers—so this is one area where men can teach us a lesson. Back when the late, great Ben Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, was running daily news meetings, he used to keep a little noise-maker at hand that made a rat-a-tat-tat sound like an old-fashioned machine gun. If somebody spoke up in the news meeting and pitched a really lame story, or made some stupid, time-wasting remark, Bradlee simply aimed that little buzzer at the offender, pressed the button and (symbolically) mowed him down. Bradlee was the personification of the Alpha Male. He did not waste time with stupid people. But let me tell you, people lived in fear of that little machine-gun buzzer.

See what I mean? It all boils down to claiming that inner authority. We all have it, whether or not we realize it. Carly Fiorina knows this, which made her response to a question about Donald Trump’s comment in the first Republican debate so devastating: “I think every woman in America knows what Mr. Trump meant.” ‘Nuff said. Hillary Clinton knows it, too. If you watched her during the most recent Benghazi hearing, you could see that—after previous appearances in which she had seemed testy, or patronizing, or defensive—she had finally found that sweet spot. “I can do more than one thing at a time, thanks,” she said at one point, when one of her interrogators offered, with faux courtesy, to give her a moment to read something. Asked if she wanted to respond to Lincoln Chafee’s remark about the email thing in the first Democratic debate, she said simply, “No.”

Idiots—or people who have lapsed into idiocy for a moment, a condition I guess none of us are immune to—always want something: an outraged or hurt expression, a rant, a nervous laugh—almost anything will do, as long as it’s a reaction. Silence is the deliberate withholding of energy. Combined with the message I saw what you did, and I am not afraid, the silence in which you can hear the proverbial pin drop is the nightmare of every bully and doofus and lame jokester ever born.

So the next time you encounter an idiot in your life, give him/her The Moment of Icy Silence. Or one of those machine-gun buzzers. Those work, too.

You can find Tracy Thompson at her website,, and at her blog, The Blockhead Chronicles. Her most recent book is The New Mind of the South.

Image via Depositphotos

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