Saying something often better than not

Civil public engagement can be fruitful when questions arise.

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

This particular version of the well-known adage was delivered by the nauseeatingly cute rabbit character Thumper in the Disney classic Bambi. Given the double negative and, oh, the fact he’s a fictitious forest critter, it’s unlikely Thumper was previously exposed to much in the way of fancy book learning. I also question the wisdom of saying nothing at all.

Recently, I was contacted by a number of individuals who had something not entirely nice to say about someone else. The calls weren’t related – not even from the same communities – but there were commonalities. These included a mix of concern, speculation/accusation and seemingly zero communication with the “perpetrator” (for lack of a better word).

Technically, the complainants did choose to say something over not saying anything. But they chose to say it to me, a newspaper reporter. Of course I’m always keen to receive story ideas and tips. However, I’m not thrilled about rocking boats without cause, especially when the complainant might have quickly and even amicably quelled his or her concerns simply by speaking with (not to) the subject of their complaint.

Not having something nice to say about someone shouldn’t justify saying anything. It’s all in the delivery right, an exercise of civility and manners.

This exchange can begin with a question as innocuous as, “Hey, what’s going on?” People are always curious, and there’s no reason to suspect you might suspect something isn’t quite right. Additionally, people, at least in my experience, are usually OK with sharing a word or two at the very least about what it is they’re doing.

Allow me to elaborate.

You: “Hey, what’s going on?”

Me (walking through the neighbourhood with a six-foot ladder and screwdriver in hand): “Hey, I’m finally going to remove the Home for Sale sign the former owner of my house placed high up on a hydro pole about a year ago.”

You: “When did you buy your home?”

Me: “About a year ago.”

(This exchange might have happened had the two people walking by me actually bothered to stop and chat, instead of commenting between themselves at ample volume about how suspicious I appeared with ladder and screwdriver in hand. As for my procrastination in removing the sign, well, that’s fair game.)

I get how it might be easier to call the local media than risk becoming entangled in real life confrontation. Perhaps our capacity for this has been dampened by the Internet, where the antithesis of civil debate is rampant. Case in point: comments sections linked to most major newsmedia websites, where folks appear to have little reserve about badgering and belittling others with differing opinions; where Internet trolls typically hide behind pseudonyms and the knowledge they likely won’t be held accountable for their comments or have to face the recipient of their vitriol.

Things don’t seem to work that way when you engage people in the real world. People usually respond. There’s no guarantees though, and the answer you receive may justify further digging. Or giving the local paper a call.

Should you choose to say something to someone, and their reply is along the lines of, “None of your bloody business” (or something more colourful), and they happen to be brandishing a large, blunt instrument in a threatening fashion, it’s probably better to keep moving. In the process, maybe consider saying something else – ideally to the authorities.