3 Times to Shut Your Mouth
In many situations, the wisest response is to keep your mouth shut. As the Dalai Lama said, “Silence is sometimes the best answer.”
But that’s not what I’m talking about.
When I say “shut your mouth,” I actually mean “keep it closed.” Literally. Obviously, there are lots of times when it’s good for your mouth to be open. For example:
- You get out of the pool, your nose clip is still on, and you need to breathe. Breathing is good.
- You need to put something in your mouth, like food. Food is good. (Of course, you then close your mouth and keep it closed until it’s empty and ready for more food. Right??)
- You need to spit something out of your mouth, like toothpaste. Spitting is… gross. (Hopefully, the general public doesn’t get to see your mouth open for this reason.)
- Sounds are coming out of your mouth because you are talking, singing, laughing, yelling, screaming while on a rollercoaster or being chased by a bear, etc.
There are lots of great reasons to open your mouth. But unless you’re wearing a nose clip or have some other nasal obstruction (common around here during ragweed season!), don’t open your mouth to breathe. Not only is mouth-breathing hard on your health (check out James Nestor’s latest book, Breath, to find out all its deleterious effects), an open mouth can send negative nonverbal messages. Here are three times when shutting your mouth will improve the way you come across to others.
Shut your mouth when…
1. You’re listening.
If your mouth is open, you look like you’re about to speak. And maybe that’s the case. But then you’re not really listening, are you? You’re preparing to speak.
Or you may actually be listening but that message isn’t getting across because of your nonverbal communication. You need to demonstrate that you’re listening to the speaker in order for them to feel heard. Accomplish that by stopping what you’re doing, closing your mouth, and making eye contact or taking notes.
There’s one exception when you’re listening: shock. It’s natural for your mouth to fall open when you’re shocked. If it’s appropriate to express shock at what you’ve heard, you might look like you’re not listening if your mouth doesn’t fall open! But outside of that, close your mouth when you’re listening.
2. You’re pausing.
Many people don’t pause in conversations or presentations due to fear. Specifically, you might worry that if you pause you’ll be interrupted or you’ll look awkward. Valid concerns! Many people do interrupt and awkward pauses do happen. And yet nothing adds more weight to your message than a well-timed and well-executed pause.
Here’s what makes your pauses awkward: Your mouth is open and you’re holding your breath. To make pausing more comfortable for yourself and everyone around you, shut your mouth and breathe (through your nose, of course). This automatically makes the pause smooth and natural. To avoid interruptions, hold up your hand or index finger as a signal.
As a side benefit, if your mouth is closed, sounds won’t come out, such as “um,” “uh,” and “you know.” Shutting your mouth and breathing automatically clears out all the little filler words and noises that ruin a powerful pause. With your mouth closed you look composed and confident.
3. You’re Thinking.
When your brain is chugging away—trying to figure out a problem or come up with an answer to an unexpected question—breathing will help you think better and shutting your mouth will make you look better. Don’t stare up at the ceiling with your mouth hanging open. This is common, especially among highly visual thinkers. But then you look like a codfish. And you look about as intelligent as a codfish, too.
It’s natural to want to break eye contact to think. But if you train yourself to look down with your mouth closed, then it appears you’re simply collecting your thoughts—intelligent, relevant, useful thoughts. That’s good! At least, it’s better than looking like a codfish.
Essentially, these three situations come down to one basic rule of thumb: If words aren’t coming out of your mouth, keep it shut. You’ll be amazed at how dramatically this one simple habit improves others’ perceptions of you.