Do You Really Need To Say That?: When To Shut Up

How the number of people listening should raise your quality threshold.

Posted Dec 14, 2012

dinner party

Dinner parties this big require multiple conversations

Recently at NYU a student accidentally emailed around 40,000 people on campus with a "reply all." Once the other students realized they could do this, lots of people decided that what they had to say was important enough, or good enough, to also reply all with their own comments. 

Some of them were genuinely funny (to me, anyway), such as "Can I borrow a pencil?" But many of them were emails asking people to stop emailing. 

This is an extreme version of a situation we find ourselves in often: when you have a group of people as a captive audience, how often should you speak? 

What if you're all alone in a conversation? It might sound strange to say this, but situations like giving speeches, talks, or recording a podcast episode all by yourself are examples of when you're the only one talking for an audience. In this case, you can say whatever you want without being rude to other people-- because nobody else can say anything, you're not interrupting or stealing their moment in the sun.

Let's move on to two people. Conversational etiquette suggests that if you're talking much more than your conversation partner, you're dominating the conversation. Exceptions exist, of course, as in interviews or if one person is teaching something to the other. When someone else is speaking, you might think of something to say-- a comment, or a joke, an anecdote-- but you'll often resist because you are respectful of your conversation partner. Of course there are people who seem to have no filter, and speak whenever they like, interrupting or never giving others a chance, but this is considered rude.

When we get to three and four people, as one might find at a book club or a small dinner party, if you speak as often as you would in a 2 person conversation, you're going to be taking more than your fair share of speaking time. 

Which suggests a rule: when you think of something to say, you should evaluate how good it is. And by good, I mean important, funny, pertinent, etc. The more people have the opportunity to speak, the better that thing needs to be to warrent you actually saying it. 

Once I went to see fourth of July fireworks with about seven comedians. Having one or two commedians around is a great thing. They function as the comic relief characters in the narrative of your life. But with seven, the constant stream of jokes started to get oppressive. It seemed that at any given moment someone had something funny to say. 

Once you get to four or more people, the conversational dynamics seem to take an interesting turn, and the conversation starts to be dominated by the most aggressive people. I'm one of these aggresive people, but when I'm in these situations, I make an effort to include the quieter members of the group, and specifically ask for their contribution, lest they just get run over. 

I have noticed that some people will have something good to say, but rather than say it to the group, they will turn to the person sitting next to them and speak only to him or her. The good thing about this is that it does not consume the group's limited "stage time," and it might foster a connection between the two people, but the downside is that not everyone is privy to the contribution, and it risks the conversation breaking off into a bunch of small ones rather than a group activity. 

What I'm advocating here is an ethical version of the famous bystander effect from social psychology (Darley & Latané, 1968). The bystander effect is the reduction of a person's probability of helping someone based on how many other witneses there are. For example, if Jill sees another single person in trouble, she is more likely to help than if Jill is one of ten people seeing another person in trouble. 

It's a good thing to keep in mind when you see a car accident. Don't assume someone else has called the police just because there are lots of people around. Everyone else might be experiencing the bystander effect too. Since I learned about this effect, I always act unless I specifically see someone else already helping.

However, in conversation, a little bystander helps. Everyone needs a chance to speak. Try to take only your fair share of time. 

And make sure it's good. 


Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). "Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8: 377–383.

Pictured: A dinner party that is probably too big for one single conversation. In situations like this, people will tend to have smaller conversations with the people immediately around them. From Wikimedia Commons.