The Ethics of Silence and of Speaking Up

The virtues of silence have long been recognized. The popular saying “speech is silver but silence is golden” may date back to ancient Egypt. It probably means that in some circumstances the less you say the better it is. I can imagine that when you are in the company of strangers, discretion would be more appropriate than indiscretion.

Keeping a secret can be a form of silence that is highly ethical.

Silence in some cases is a legal right. If you are being arrested, you do have “the right to remain silent.” The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution permits you not to answer specific questions when you may, by the answers given, incriminate yourself.

Sometimes silence is an obligation as when its purpose is not to disturb the tranquility of others such as in the library or the Amtrak silence car. I am afraid I was oblivious to that obligation last week as I boarded an Amtrak train on my way to Annapolis, Md., to speak to a PRSA Chapter. I asked the gentleman sitting next to me whether he was going to Washington, D.C. He looked at me as if I was insane, which prompted me to question his sanity. He finally, with apparently great self-control, whispered to me intensely: “This is the silence car!” I did not even know Amtrak had one!

Silence can be used in sending a powerful message. The Holocaust survivor and author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel once said that it was impossible to find the correct words to describe the Holocaust, and that maybe the best way would be to find the greatest contemporary actor to appear on the world’s greatest stage and just remain silent.

Moments of silence are used in contemplation, reflection and in remembrance of loved ones that we have lost.

However, remaining silent also can be highly unethical.

We should be careful that our silence is not deceptive, allowing others to believe what we know for certain is not true.

We ought not remain silent when facing injustice and abuse but “speak truth to power.” We should not remain silent when witnessing wrongdoing. In those circumstances, silence is not morally acceptable; we have a duty to speak up.

Remaining silent also can represent a risk. James E. Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA, believes that in today’s world of overwhelming chatter and information overload, “silence is the most toxic strategy” to reputation and integrity. If we remain silent, someone else will fill the void with more made-up chatter and misinformation. He believes that, “Managing your destiny is up to you.” He advocates a very specific strategy to keep your own record straight.

How then should we determine when is the time to remain silent and when is the time to speak?

Rabbi Cutler of Montreal, in an article published by The Canadian Jewish News, suggests we ask ourselves three questions before deciding.

“Ecclesiastes teaches that there is ‘a time to be silent and a time to speak.’” However, “Ecclesiastes doesn’t give guidance as to which situations merit which response. Each situation becomes a judgment call. I ask myself:

  1. Will my voice make a difference?
  2. Does engaging this time mean I will be more, or less effective the next time?
  3. How will I see myself in 20 years if I don’t speak up?”

I believe we should consider the well-being of those who will be impacted by our decision not to speak up.

Two of the fundamental values of the PRSA Code of Ethics are fairness and loyalty. By remaining silent when faced with injustice, we are neither fair to others nor loyal to ourselves and our values.

As William Faulkner once said, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth.”

Emmanuel Tchividjian is the principal and owner of The Markus Gabriel Group, an ethics and communication consulting practice. Emmanuel was for close to 20 years a senior vice president and chief ethics officer at Ruder Finn. Tchividjian was certified Compliance & Ethics Professional from the SCCE in 2006. He is the Ethics Officer of PRSA’s New York Chapter and a member (ex-officio) of National Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

About the author

Emmanuel Tchividjian


  • I agree silence can be good at time, but I don’t think corporate companies have the luxury to choose anymore with the creation of social media. I think it’s the companies responsibility to speak up when certain issues are being debated in society or else they lose the loyalty of their consumers. Just in the last couple of days we have seen various companies speak out against gun violence and divest from the NRA. Saying nothing also says something.

  • Silence is such an important tool, especially in social media. The term “go dark” has been brought up during multiple courses for me, meaning assure that you do not have any queued up social media posts that could be deemed as insensitive with a change in current events. The debate of silence versus speaking out is especially pertinent when it comes to the debate of do or do you not have a right to take a stance on a large tragedy (i.e. Four Loko pouring out a purple can in honor of Prince’s death. While the company is based in Minnesota, his home state, it is still entirely inappropriate and has since been deleted.) Silence and voice each have a time and a place. In times of direct impact, a voice is needed. But if there is no direct involvement, why interject when there is no need? That is when silence does so much more than speaking out.

  • In today’s society, we almost expect companies and organizations to say something. Because of social media and the quick ability for a CEO to release a statement at the touch of finger to thousands of followers, there is not really a valid excuse to remain silent. But I also believe that if the comment or statement is going to be controversial or unpopular, silence could be more beneficial for a company.

    • Actually, in my opinion, that is exactly when we should speak up – when something is controversial or unpopular. That’s what he’s people thinking and learn to consider others views.

  • What an insightful column, and I appreciate these guiding principles.

    Interestingly, I encountered an opportunity to speak up and voice concerns to an organization I belong to just this past year, about a range of ethics issues that I had witnessed, all backed up with documented facts. When I had an opportunity to speak with the organization’s ethics board about the issues during a Q&A session on the issues at hand, one member of that board advised me that – now that I had made my “case” on the matter – that I needed to “move on” so that my concerns would no longer “be controversial and painful to all.” I was rather shocked, disheartened and confused.

    In the context of that experience, I especially note Mr. Tchividjian’s comment here, “By remaining silent when faced with injustice, we are neither fair to others nor loyal to ourselves and our values.” How true.

    I hope that those of us who ever serve on ethics boards or any kind of adjudicating bodies to review ethics concerns voiced by others will remember that “remaining silent” isn’t only a matter of concern for people who are in a position to report wrong-doing. Colleagues who are in leadership or in a role of ethics authority / decision-making shouldn’t remain silent or look the other way, either.

    In my case, my concerns and the fact that I voiced them were ultimately vindicated with substantive recommendations for change in the organization, which I appreciated. But – I will never forget the manner that someone whom I entrusted my faith for an objective process of ethics review seemed to dismiss me with the “move on” comment . . . alongside the notion that by voicing legitimate concerns, I was the root-cause of “pain” or “controversy” (as opposed to the troubling actions by others that I had witnessed and therefore reported).

    This experience taught me a lot about needing to be self-reliant on my own gauge of what’s right and wrong, and that sometimes, when others make undermining comments or actions, “moving on” with continued action necessary to serve justice, accountability or systemic change (sometimes all three) may be just the thing to do.

    After all, there is a big difference between “moving on” and “going away.”

  • With the current day being so politically charged, staying silent can end up actually hurting your image. During the 2016 election Taylor Swift stayed quiet as she was writing her latest album and a lot of people on the internet took her silence as support for Donald Trump. This hurt her reputation, seeing as he went against what she once stood for. On the other hand, the celebrities who voiced their politically charged opinions still lost fans. When you’re given a platform to speak about something that could potentially help someone else, you should use it. It’s a hard line to cross, knowing when to speak up and when to use your right to stay silent. But if along the line it’ll help someone else and not cause any harm to you, then what’s the point in not speaking up?

  • I agree with this article not only because I believe that people have more power than they think they do but because I also believe that if you’re saying nothing, nothing will change. While I do agree with the statement in this article stating, “Keeping a secret can be a form of silence that is highly ethical”. I also believe that standing up for what you think is right is a totally different story. With all of the controversy in the news regarding gun violence and safe school environments, speaking up is becoming so crucial in taking the next step to bettering our country and community. Although we always have the right to remain silent, I do not think we always should. I agree with this article as is shares two sides to staying silent. One can be ethically silent, like when remembering a loved one or one can be unethically silent, like not saying something to defend someone being bullied, or maybe not stating their beliefs in order to help a community or others. The three questions in which this article asks make me question my role as a member of my community. Will my voice make a difference? Always. Does engaging this time mean I will be more or less effective next time? No, I can always make a difference. How will I see myself in 20 years if I don’t speak up? It depends on the issue; I believe that if it crosses my mind to say something to help another person, I believe that I should.

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