Law 4: Always Say Less Than Necessary
The 48 Laws Of Power Summary Series
“When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinx-like. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.”
This is one of my favorite laws of all time. It’s well understood people love to talk about themselves and their lives. Let’s be honest here, they like to talk about a lot of bullshit. We all have fallen victim to this. This law exemplifies how and why this can be extremely harmful.
Transgression Of The Law
In 450 BC there was a great military leader by the name of Coriolanus. People looked up to Coriolanus as an awe inspiring hero. He decided to leverage his reputation to enter politics. He stood for election to the high rank of consul. When Coriolanus made his public address he used his dozens of scars he had accumulated over 17 years of fighting for Rome to prove his valor and patriotism to the people. His speeches were so inspiring it moved many to tears.
When polling day finally arrived Coriolanus made entry into the forum and he was escorted by the entire Senate and by the city’s patrician’s (some of the wealthiest people in Rome). The common people who saw this were disturbed by such a show of arrogance. Once Coriolanus spoke, his words were arrogant and insolent. He boasted his battlefield exploits, made sour jokes that only appealed to the patricians, voiced angry accusations at his opponents and speculated on the riches he would bring to Rome. Suddenly people realised this legendary soldier was also a common braggart.
Once Coriolanus slandered the common people with insults news of his speech spread quickly. The people turned out in great numbers to make sure he was not elected. Some weeks later a large shipment of grain arrived in Rome. The senate was ready to distribute this food to the people, for free, however just as they were preparing to vote on this question Coriolanus appeared on the scene and took the senate floor. He argued the distribution would have a harmful effect on the city. Several senators appeared won over and the vote on the distribution fell into doubt. Coriolanus did not stop there. He went on to condemn the concept of democracy itself. He advocated getting rid of the people’s representatives — the tribunes — and turning over the governing of the city to the patrician.
When word of his latest speech spread to the people, their anger knew no bounds. Riots broke out all over the city after Coriolanus refused to appear before the tribunes. The senate fearing the people’s wrath finally voted in favor of the grain distribution. The tribunes were appeased but still demanded that Coriolanus speak to them and apologise. If he repented and kept his opinions to himself, he would be allowed to return to the battlefield.
Coriolanus appeared one last time before the people. His speech started softly and slowly, as he went on he become more and more blunt. He hurled insults, yet again. The more he spoke the angrier the people became. Finally they shouted him down and silenced him. The tribunes conferred and condemned Coriolanus to death and ordered the court to take him to the top of Tarpeian rock and throw him over.
The patrician’s managed to intervene and the sentence was commuted to lifelong banishment. When the people found out that Rome’s greatest military would never return to the city they celebrated in the streets. No one had ever seen such a celebration, not even after the defeat of a foreign army.
So how does this link to power? How does this link to always saying less than necessary and concealing your intentions? Well, the more Coriolanus spoke the less powerful he appeared.
A person who shows he cannot control his own words and tongue shows that he cannot control himself, and is unworthy of respect.
That is exactly what happened in Rome. If Coriolanus had simply kept to himself he would have maintained that powerful aura. He would have maintained that reputation of being such a hero. Instead he yearned for even more power and control. Through the cloud of ego he could not see the possible repercussions of his actions.
“The human tongue is a beast few can master. It strains constantly to break out of its cage, and if it is not tamed, it will run wild and cause you grief power Power cannot accrue to those who squander their treasure of words.”
A beautiful quote to exemplify the majority of people in our society people.
People love to talk. They love to dominate conversations with superficial fantasies. If you sit back and listen to the contents of one’s verbiage you will come to understand how full of shit many of us can be. You may discover that most of what a person is saying is not real. “Not real” in the sense that what they’re saying is of little significance to moving forward. But who am I to judge what is significant for you? In any case, we lose a lot of time talking about things that don’t make a lot of difference. I encourage you to analyse the content of your own, (and other’s) speech and ask yourself, does this really matter?
People love to gossip and drama. It’ easy to shroud the mind in alluring fantasies and illusions. Whether it be a movie, TV show or simply basing your conversation’s off of a reality that isn’t your own. Modern media is a great example of this. Now, I’m not trying to condemn TV Show’s or movies as bad thing’s that we should avoid at all costs. No, I understand everyone need’s their escapism. What I am trying to demonstrate is that when those false realities take up the majority of your conversations than you have a problem. You are showing the world, and more importantly yourself — that you prefer living within the fantasy of someone else’s reality, over your own. This self destructive cycle retards growth.
Observance Of The Law
A representation of someone who abided by this was Louis XIV. In the court of Louis XIV, nobles and ministers spent days and nights debating issues of state, as we do similarly now. Two men were represented to approach Louis XIV on two different subject matters. After deliberating the minutia of what they should say and how they should say it they finally approached Louis XIV. Louis would sit in silence with the most enigmatic look on his face, he wouldn’t say anything as they would talk on length. All Louis responded with was, “I shall see.”
Louis XIV was a man of very few words. However Louis was not always this way. As a young man he was known for talking on length and delighting people with his eloquence. But Louis’s taciturnity was self imposed, it wasn’t real, it was an act, a mask he used to keep people off balance.
If people don’t know what you’re saying let alone thinking, they can never predict your next move.
As a king, this was extremely beneficial. Especially in a time where many spies were trying to uncover information to undermine a leader’s power.
Understand: People will use your words against you. Through exemplifying taciturnity you will increase your potential to gain power and control over your situations. People will have less to say about you, thus less to use against you.
“No one knew exactly where he stood or could predict his reactions. No one could try and deceive him by saying what they thought he wanted to hear because no one knew what he wanted to hear. As they talked on and on to silent Louis they revealed more about themselves, information he would later use against them to great effect”
Louis’s silence kept those around him terrified and under his thumb. It was one of the foundations of his power. As Saint-Simon wrote,
“No one knew as well as he how to sell his words, his smile, even his glances. Everything in him was valuable because he created differences and his majesty was enhanced by the sparseness of his words.”
Imagine if more of us applied that lesson to our lives. Imagine if we could be silent for one minute and let the other person talk? How much information could we learn? From a human behavior perspective, people are generally afraid to hear pauses in conversations. People associate pauses in conversation with “awkwardness”, it makes them uncomfortable. If you get easily uncomfortable and awkward then that’s going to be a issue. You’re probably going to be nervously talking to fill the silence as you reveal information.
I would encourage you to try this. Experiment with being quiet and letting a long pause in a conversation go on. Most are too afraid of that void, so they attempt to quickly fill it with nervous empty words. BUT, if you can sit back for 10 seconds and confidently pause, reflect and think as you watch the other person stammer for words than you may not only learn more, but become more comfortable with yourself.
Keys To Power
“Power is in many ways a game of appearances and when you say less than necessary, you inevitably appear greater and more powerful then you are. Your silence will make other people uncomfortable. Humans are machines of interpretation and explanation; they have to know what you are thinking. When you carefully control what you reveal, they cannot pierce your intentions or your meaning.
Your short answers and silences will put them on the defensive, and they will jump in nervously filling the silence with all kinds of comments that will reveal valuable information about them and their weaknesses.
They will leave a meeting with you feeling as if they had been robbed, and they will go home to ponder your every word. This extra attention to your brief comments will only add to your power. Saying less than necessary is not for kings and statesmen only. In most areas of life the less you say, the more profound and mysterious you appear.”
Coriolanus’s social blunder’s is a perfect example of this, Unfortunately (but fortunately) we don’t murder people or banish people from a city for ‘saying too much’. But if you were born a thousand years ago and you had a large degree of power you had to be very careful with what you said. Otherwise bare the risk of a fate alike to Coriolanus’s; being banished from a city and nearly dying.
In 1825 there was a Russian uprising and one of the leaders named Kondraty Ryleyev was to be executed. Ryleyev stood on the Gallows, noose around his neck. The trap door opened — but the rope broke, dashing him to the ground. Ryleyev was saved from execution. As he got to his feet he called out to the crowd and said, “You see in Russia they don’t know how to do anything properly, not even how to make a rope!.”
A messenger immediately went to the Winter Palace with news on the failed hanging. Ryleyev was to be pardoned because the rope breaking symbolised innocence to them. The Czar was about to sign his pardon but then asked,
“Did Ryleyev say anything after this miracle?”
The messenger replied,
“he said that in Russia they don’t even know how to make rope.”
“In that case,” said the Czar, “let us prove the contrary,”
and he tore up the pardon. The next day Ryleyev was hung again. This time the rope did not break.
Saying something foolish often will not get you killed, depending on where you are of course. But more often than not, if you live in a Western society, saying something foolish probably won’t get you killed. Nevertheless the repercussions can be still be dire.
“Be particularly careful with sarcasm: The momentary satisfaction you gain with your biting words will be outweighed by the price you pay.”
Sarcasm is not always the best utility to use in conversation. I am an example of someone who has used sarcasm too excessively in the past. I believe the best method of practice is to be conscious of the habit’s you execute in conversations, use them sparingly and intelligently depending on the context you find yourself within. Not everyone is going to interpret your witty sarcasm as playful humor, you may slowly create silent enemies in the process.
There are times when it is unwise to be silent. Silence can arouse suspicion and even insecurity, especially in your superiors; a vague or ambiguous comment can open you up to interpretations you had not bargained for. Silence and saying less than necessary must be practiced with caution, then, and in the right situations.
By talking more, and making yourself appear weaker and less intelligent than your mark, you can practice deception with greater ease.
All this means to me, is be strategically silent. Don’t be silent for no purpose, don’t do anything without a purpose. Know why you say the things you do. Practice silence with caution, to avoid suspicion…be strategic with your silence.