At first glance, it may seem odd that social media places a premium on less. The internet makes vast amounts of information and images available instantly, yet Twitter limits “tweets” to 140 characters. Snapchat allows captions on photo and video message “snaps,” but the entire message disappears one to ten seconds after it is displayed.
Striving to say much with few or no words, however, isn’t unique to today’s popular communication pathways. Scripture actually shows it to be quite an ancient practice, older than Christianity itself. The Book of Sirach, written originally in Hebrew before being translated into Greek after 132 B.C., teaches us to “[b]e brief, but say much in those few words, be like the wise man, taciturn” (Sirach 32:8). This Old Testament adage referring to oral communication could serve as a slogan for social media in the 21st century.
After counseling brevity, Sirach goes on to urge us to imitate the wise man. Wisdom is an ability to think and act based on study, life experiences, original insights, common sense and, if we pray, divine guidance. Sirach confirms that wisdom isn’t an instinct; it requires reflection more than reflex, develops best with doses of deliberation, and usually increases as we age.
For social media users, both young and old, wisdom in the Sirach sense may mean simply taking extra moments to review items before posting them, avoiding harmful content and hurtful comments in the process.
Sirach also imparts an important lesson for our web ways with a single, unfamiliar word. “Taciturn” means tending to be quiet or not speaking frequently. We might interpret it more simply as judicious silence. To be sure, we find such silence in short supply today with status updates that constantly broadcast where we are, what we eat, how we shop and with whom we’re hanging out.
Yet Sirach cuts through the chatter of our day to get to the essence of communication. The term taciturn allows listening to emerge as a quality to be treasured when so many people go online merely to vent their spleen or reinvent their image. It presents a place for patience in dialogue. When we speak sparingly and from the heart, we show that we respect our obligation to listen as well as our right to be heard, and a true exchange of ideas can take place.
Earlier this year, in his 48th World Communications Day message, Pope Francis called for the faithful to “become citizens of the digital world” by boldly navigating the “digital highway” of the internet, a place he characterized as a “street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope.” The Holy Father observed that the Church “needs to be concerned for, and present in, the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ. She needs to be a Church at the side of others, capable of accompanying everyone along the way.”
Small word count standards don’t necessarily signal a generation suffering from attention deficit disorder. Sharing the wisdom of the Gospel – using words if necessary – demands careful attention to the tone, content and etiquette of our public posts. Sirach provides good advice for effective communication that is just as appropriate for today’s digital highway as when friends met face-to-face on dusty roads over two millennia ago.