I recall a Japanese proverb, “犬も歩けば棒に当たる,” of which literal translation is “When a dog rambles around outside, he get a hit with a neighbor’s stick,” meaning, “Don’t come on the surface, don’t try to do anything new, don't say anything, otherwise you’ll be criticized, blamed, or get hurt.”

We have the similar expression, 物言えば唇寒し秋の風 in 和歌 – Japanese classic poem, which can be translated as “In autumn, you feel cold on your lips anytime you utter a word, “ which admonishes you not venture to speak up in public, just be reticent.

It’s understandable that we have a lot of such proverbs and maxims teaching the merit of keeping silent after going through the ages of a tight feudalistic social regime and being severely educated on Confucius doctrines which values silence, and action more than speech, but I wonder if there is the similar saying to “dog and autumn wind” analogies in Anglo-American world where the freedom of speech and the power of eloquence have been highly valued.

I know you have the saying, “Speech is silver but silence is golden” or just "Silence is golden." Are there any other proverbs or set phrases than “Silence is golden.” to admonish you not to speak up, or being self-assertive?

P.S. The focus of my question is "the restraint / gagging of free speech"


12 Answers 12


There are many such idioms, not so many proverbs that I can think of.

Maybe the most famous proverb on keeping silent is from Proverbs 17:28:

Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise: and he that shuts his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

It's repeated in various parts of Scripture in different phrasing. I think it's the basis of the familiar

It is better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

The following is attributed to Confucius:

Silence is a true friend who never betrays.

In addition to the idioms @Dan Bron mentions, there is also flying under the radar, originally meaning avoiding detection, but now meaning avoiding negative attention as well.

However, even wise people often embrace silence, and there is a saying in teaching that no question is a stupid question. How can one learn if one doesn't ask questions?

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    Oh, I really like the second idiom "... speak and remove all doubt". Also "flying under the radar". You should bold or otherwise emphasize that. +1.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 15 '16 at 0:26
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    These do refer more to the possibility of looking stupid, not necessarily being punished for criticism. OP's proverbs are much stronger.
    – Chieron
    Jun 15 '16 at 12:36
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    I've liked the modern spin off of "a rolling stone gathers no moss": "A closed mouth gathers no foot." (I don't post this as an answer because it's the same sentiment as this answer, and I don't think it (or this answer) captures the social pressures mentioned in the question (even if it's been accepted): 'P.S. The focus of my question is "the restraint / gagging of free speech"'. These sayings are more about self-restraint rather than externally imposed silence. Jun 15 '16 at 15:07
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    The one from my high school days was "It's better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 15 '16 at 15:39
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    I would second the comment of @Chieron . These phrases are intended to enhance your humility rather than to protect you from the consequences of speaking out, therefore I do not regard this as a correct answer
    – user181078
    Jun 15 '16 at 22:29

We stole the proverb from you guys¹:

The nail which sticks up gets pounded down.

Unlike the squeaky wheel, of course, which gets the grease.

That the former proverb originated in the East and the latter in the West is sometimes held up as an exemplar of the cultural differences.

But, in contradiction to Kipling's famous observation that never the twain shall meet, an indigenous Western expression, courtesy of the Bard himself is:

Discretion is the better part of valor.

But, unlike the nail proverb, this one focuses more on the positive outcomes of keeping mum, rather than the negative consequences.

And one which is indigenous, and focuses on the negative outcomes, but is still offered as friendly advice, not a reprimand, is:

Keep your head down.

And slightly more of a reprimand:

Don't make waves!

or, in a similar nautical theme:

Don't rock the boat!

I suppose it is not so surprising that the West has passed through some bloody and tyrannical ages itself. Apparently when everyone was on boats.

¹ "[English] don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." -- James Nicoll, rec.arts.sf-lovers, 1990-May-30

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    PS: All the puns were occidental. I promise.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 15 '16 at 0:35
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    "Don't rock the boat" would probably be the most common of these expressions that I encounter in Australia as a native English speaker.. Jun 15 '16 at 7:14
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    @AaronLavers Well, you guys have a lot of boats....
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 15 '16 at 7:24
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    Although you've missed the Prohibition-era pun - "the squeaky wheel gets greased". (For non-English speakers, "greased" is early-20th-century American slang for "killed", perhaps from submachine guns being known as "grease guns".) That changes the meaning of the phrase back to the "tall poppy/nail" meaning, with an added joke included.
    – Graham
    Jun 15 '16 at 15:15
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    The Shakespeare (mis)quote is not about keeping quiet, it is about being cautious rather than rashly brave. It was spoken by Falstaff and was meant to be ironic. Granted, it has been misused so much that it can be said to mean a number of different things in common usage. Jun 16 '16 at 10:02

"Whatever You Say, Say Nothing"

This is the title of a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The phrase itself is from a time and place where it was necessary to keep your head down.

Here's a snippet:

Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,

Quoting from fawbie.com:

A poster put up during the ‘Troubles’, featuring a masked, uniformed paramilitary carrying a sten gun, bore the legend: Loose-talk costs lives In taxis On the phone In clubs and bars At football matches At home with friends Anywhere Whatever you say – say nothing. Composed of amateurish cut and pasted newspaper headings and snippets it was evidently the work of extremist factions. It was threatening.

A society is warned to refrain from unguarded political or religious comments that could cause a violent reaction. Heaney levels his anger against propagandist threats to free speech at a time when the voices of the neutral majority should be raised in protest; equally he deplores the imposition of repressive ‘political’ measures that fly in the face of natural justice. He acknowledges that he himself may not be practising what he preaches.

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    I love literary answers. And this one is new to me. Awesome. In the US the corresponding term is "Loose Lips Sink Ships". Was widely deployed during WWII.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 15 '16 at 1:21
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    @DanBron Yes, the poster's a pretty clear reference to that and to "Careless talk costs lives", another WWII admonition.
    – Dan Hulme
    Jun 15 '16 at 6:42
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    Also a song based on this! Clancy and Makem youtube.com/watch?v=8vm51sR4tRY Whatever You Say Say Nothing
    – Dan
    Jun 16 '16 at 23:11
  • @Dan I just watched & enjoyed the song. I read up now that original song released 1981 by Colum Sands according to columsands.com/biography.html Hard to know if it was influenced by the 1975 poem or if that idiom was already well known in N. Ireland - perhaps both!
    – k1eran
    Jun 18 '16 at 20:42

Not exactly what you ask for, but the first thing that came to mind was

Speech is silver, silence is golden

This is sometimes shortened to just silence is golden, as in the (famous?) Tremeloes song.

  • 1
    OP updated question to include this.
    – NVZ
    Jun 15 '16 at 12:37
  • Hahaha, I had heard that awful, awful song but had not realized it was the Tremeloes, a band I only knew of from the well-known story about how they got their recording contract in the face of very strong competition. Jun 17 '16 at 14:52

Two more:

  • You are a master of an unspoken word, and a slave of a spoken one.

Direct translation from Russian:

  • A word is not a sparrow - you can not catch it when it escapes.
  • I've seen your first one in this version: "Before you speak, you are the master of your words. After you speak, your words become your master."
    – eipi10
    Jun 19 '16 at 0:30

The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut...

While not directly related to speech, this saying means that if you stand out too much you will be the target of negative attention.


Photo credit to Despair, Inc.

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    A popular Australian version of this is “Tall poppies get cut down” (and variations).
    – PLL
    Jun 16 '16 at 9:08

Children should be seen and not heardTFD

Prov. Children should not speak in the presence of adults. (Often used as a way to rebuke a child who has spoken when he or she should not.)

"You may come out and meet the party guests if you'll remember that children should be seen and not heard."

This phrase is specifically targeted at children, and is somewhat dated today, but I believe it's the kind of thing you're looking for.

As I say, it's not really in common usage any more -- my grandparents definitely used to use it when I was young, if we got too noisy or asked too many questions, but I can't imagine many people using it on their kids today.

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    I hope my edit is to your liking, and if not, feel free to undo it. :)
    – NVZ
    Jun 15 '16 at 14:18

A couple spring to mind :-

An empty vessel makes the most noise

Imagine a tin with a single pebble in it. If you shake it, it makes more noise than a tin packed with pebbles, or by implication someone with not much going on in their head, talks more than someone smarter.

The second one is from the North of England

If in doubt, say nowt!

"nowt" is northern dialect for "nothing", pronounced "ow" as in "town".


"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything."

There are plenty of variations of this phrase:

"If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me." - Alice Roosevelt Longworth

"If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." - Thumper

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    Mama says plus one.
    – Mazura
    Jun 15 '16 at 19:19
  • The question is about protecting oneself from negative ramifications of excessive honesty, not protecting other people's feelings. Jun 16 '16 at 13:44
  • @underscore_d You forgot to say something nice, and you know what they say about not having anything nice to say... Jun 16 '16 at 14:02
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    Wow, I should check that more often :-) All those poor people... haha. Fair enough. With any luck, you're right and other readers will find those phrases valuable. Thanks for humoring me! Jun 16 '16 at 14:26
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    Its vintage is quite recent, but I'd add #ElonsLaw from twitter: "You could just say nothing."
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 16 '16 at 15:37

There are two that I can think of.

Shit rolls downhill.

Which means anger, blame, etc. come from those in power to those with little power.

To learn the true source of power, find out who is not allowed to be criticized.

Which means the powerful person restricts criticism of themselves, or else those who do may no longer have a job or a life.

There are also two similar concepts that are related to what you are looking for:

Tall Poppy Syndrome: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

The tall poppy syndrome is a pejorative term primarily used in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and other Anglosphere nations to describe a social phenomenon in which people of who have earned stature in the community are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.

Crab Bucket Mentality: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_mentality

Crab mentality, sometimes referred to as crabs in a barrel. The metaphor refers to a bucket or barrel of crabs. Individually, the crabs could easily escape from the bucket, but instead they grab at each other in a useless "king of the hill" competition which prevents any from escaping and ensures their collective demise. The analogy in human behavior is claimed to be that members of a group will attempt to negate or diminish the importance of any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, spite, conspiracy, or competitive feelings, to halt their progress.


There are few Western proverbs that warn against “speaking up” in front of people because Western culture generally values initiative, speaking up and being a leader.

My favorite is "It's the pioneer that gets the arrows in the back" meaning the innovator takes the greatest risk. However, the greatest risk has the greatest reward.

  • As a follow-up, albeit using a quite different analogy: "the second mouse gets the cheese" [from the trap sprung by the first mouse]. Jun 19 '16 at 17:13

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

That and very similar phrases have been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, the Bible, and other sources.

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