We could learn some things from the Old West. The American Cowboy possessed a quality that many modern men are deficient in: discretion. He considered what words he would say, and ensured they actually had meaning.
In the Old West, words were few. Men chose what they said carefully. Work was more important than chatter. They lived a rough life that demanded a great deal of labor to settle it; they had little point in saying more words than required.
If something was important, you said it. If it wasn’t, it didn’t need to be said. This is not to say that cowboys didn’t joke and have fun, spinning yarns or telling stories. They did, and often did it better than a Hollywood script writer today. But, they chose the time in which they would hold their tongues and when they would speak. They knew that it was better to speak less and say more.
Here are four lessons on discretion we can learn from the American Cowboy:
Value Your Words
What a sharp contrast from our modern day! Now, words are cheap: they are everywhere, constantly bombarding us with useless information and trivial tweets. Heartfelt letters to a lover are rare. More often, we see texts sent with emoticons and mutilated misspellings.
The sad truth is, few of us place value in the words we speak. We open our mouths to hear the music of our own voices, rarely considering the worth of what we are saying.
Throughout his book, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, Owen Wister describes his protagonist as laconic, someone who speaks little or is choosy with his words. The Virginian is a picture of the common cowpuncher who chose not to say the first thing that came to his mind, but would say what he knew needed to be said.
Reckless Words Affect Reputation
A man’s reputation can be ruined by loose lips. Just look at politics. The more we say, the more likely we are to say something stupid. The sheer volume of words issuing from our mouths statistically invites idiocy. We all have had moments when we’ve made everyone laugh a few times, but it all stops when we say something off-putting. The humor quickly evaporates, leaving us with reddened faces.
Especially when dealing with our bosses or members of the opposite sex, we can be tempted to avoid awkward silence by filling it with even more awkward chatter. This can inevitably lead to saying something regrettable and possibly offensive.
Talk Less, See More
The less we talk, the more we observe! Our idle words that flow from our mouths with little consequence, are often the outpouring of our minds chattering away. When we stop talking, restraining our words, we will find that that the voice inside also grows silent. This allows us to get out of the world in our heads, and look at the world around us, seeing things that we might not have noticed before.
On the range, inattention to the world around you was dangerous. The very land itself was ready to kill you at any moment. If you were idly talking about nothing with your guard down, you wouldn’t have noticed a hostile enemy creeping up behind you with knife in hand.
While we don’t necessarily need to be worried about being scalped at the office, being absorbed in our world is still dangerous. It can range from not seeing the car pulling out in front of you or failing to observe a girl is interested in you. When we pull ourselves from the constant flow of words in our minds and out of our mouths, it frees us to really see what is going on in our lives.
Think Before You Speak
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Is it the right time or place? – When speaking to others, it is good to keep what you are saying in the right tone. Telling jokes while attending a funeral isn’t often a great idea.
- Is it worth saying? – Is there impact to what you are about to say? When you speak, you should have a better reason for what you say than, “I wanted to.” Ideally, everything you say should have a purpose or reason. Maybe your friend is feeling down and you know that he loves a good joke. Your girlfriend has had a bad day, so you tell her something encouraging that you love about her. The goal is to reduce the amount of unnecessary things you say, because it’s usually the unnecessary words we later regret.
- Will this hurt someone? – No doubt, at times a cowboy would give someone a piece of his mind, regardless of whether or not it hurt the other’s feelings. This was done with courage because it could easily provoke a gunfight and had more behind it than mere spite. Today, we don’t often come to blows or gunfire over insults, but that doesn’t mean we should weigh the consequences less. Speaking the truth hurts at times. Saying off-handedly to your wife or girlfriend that the dinner she made was OK may not seem harmful; but the comment may hurt them more than you realize.
- Does this hurt me? – At the end of the day, we don’t have much more than our reputations. A Cowboy certainly didn’t. We should take care that our words don’t reflect badly on ourselves. The easiest way for a powerful man to seem foolish is to run his mouth off, revealing to all how little control he actually has over himself. What we choose to say often reveals our character.