“What You Do Speaks So Loudly I Cannot Hear What You Are Saying”

What Ralph Waldo Emerson really said.

This is one of my favorite quotes, and it’s been cited many times – even making an appearance in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address in 1960.

But I’ve always been a bit confused about what Ralph Waldo Emerson really said. Sometimes the quote reads “What you do speaks so loudly…,” while other times you see it beginning with “Who you are speaks so loudly…

So which is it?

Either makes for a good lesson on the notion that talk is cheap and that actions speak louder than words. It’s your ethos and how you carry yourself in the world that makes a big difference.

But as it turns out, Emerson didn’t write the quote either way. This is one of those passages which seems to have been transmogrified over the years to the point where what’s attributed to Emerson now isn’t that close to what he actually wrote.

I am indebted to The Quote Investigator for the real scoop on what Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind – pointing out that back in 1876, Emerson published one of his final works, Letters and Social Aims.

A look at a passage from that book shows some semblance of what is attributed to Emerson, but with a much deeper and richer context.

Let us not look east and west for materials of conversation, but rest in presence and unity. A just feeling will fast enough supply fuel for discourse, if speaking be more grateful than silence.
When people come to see us, we foolishly prattle, lest we be inhospitable. But things said for conversation are chalk eggs.

“Chalk eggs”? I’m not sure I catch the reference here, but the passage seems to reflect Emerson growing weary at the notion of making small talk, when a “just feeling” can power up a more meaningful exchange of views.

Then there’s this part:

Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.

There’s so much more drama in these words … the ones that Emerson actually wrote. It’s true. What you are does thunder so loudly that it creates dissonance with whatever you happen to be saying.

Anyway, food for thought – and remember, keep those “chalk eggs” out of your conversations today.