This pithy little maxim was first coined by the British politician and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and adopted as a motto by many other high-ranking Brits — from members of royalty to navy admirals, to fellow prime minsters Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill. The maxim well encapsulates the stiff-upper lipped-ness of the Victorian age, but the timeless wisdom it contains has made it a guiding mantra of powerful, confident, accountability-prizing men up through the modern day.
The “nevers” of course aren’t ironclad and don’t apply to every situation, and even when they should apply, they can be hard to follow through on! But understanding when, where, and why to apply this maxim is truly a great help in becoming a more autonomous and assertive man.
Its four words pack a lot of truth in a small space and work on a few different levels. So let’s unpack them, starting with the meat of the matter — “never explain” — and working backward.
“Never explain — your friends do not need it, and your enemies will not believe you anyway.” –Elbert Hubbard
When Winston Churchill was a young cavalry officer, he was always looking for ways to get to the front and experience battle firsthand. With much persistence, he eventually secured a position in the field as a personal attendant to Sir William Lockhart, who was overseeing the British military’s campaigns in what is now Pakistan. When Churchill first joined the general’s staff, he “behaved and was treated as befitted my youth and subordinate station.” But then one day he saw an opportunity to offer a bit of advice that led to him being “taken much more into the confidential circles of the staff” and “treated as if I were quite a grown-up.”
Churchill heard that the general and his headquarters staff had been hurt and angry to hear that a newspaper correspondent who had been sent home from their camp had published a very critical article about one of their recent campaigns. The officers smarted at what they felt were unfair charges, and the Chief of Staff had written up a thorough rebuttal and mailed it off to the newspaper to be published. Churchill at once spoke up and tried to convince the staff that such a move was ultimately a bad idea, and that the piece ought to be intercepted before it was ever printed:
“I said that it would be considered most undignified and even improper for a high officer on the Staff of the Army in the Field to enter into newspaper controversy about the conduct of operations with a dismissed war-correspondent; that I was sure the Government would be surprised, and the War Office furious; that the Army Staff were expected to leave their defence to their superiors or to the politicians; and that no matter how good the arguments were, the mere fact of advancing them would be everywhere taken as a sign of weakness.”
In this, as in many things, Churchill turned out to be quite prescient and wise. Offering explanations does indeed demonstrate weakness, for several reasons:
Explaining gives power to another. When someone criticizes or insults you, gets offended by something you do or say, or questions your decisions and why you’ve chosen to do something a certain way, it’s natural to want to explain why you think they’re wrong — especially if said party has impinged on your integrity or honor. And some kind of response may indeed be in order.
If the person is someone you know and respect as an equal — someone you consider to be inside your “circle of honor” — and they have said something intelligent and interesting, you may want to explain yourself in order to invite further discussion.
If they’re your boss or a customer, you may need to offer an explanation to hold onto your job or their business.
If they’re someone you care about — a loved one or friend — and you’ve had a gross miscommunication, you may want to explain yourself in an effort to preserve the relationship.
But, if the critical/offended/skeptical party is someone you don’t know personally (like a stranger online or the public in general), don’t care about, and/or don’t respect as an equal — someone who shouldn’t have any say or sway over your choices — then taking the time to explain why they’re wrong, or why you’ve made the decisions you have, is ill-advised.
To be concerned with what someone outside your circle of respect thinks, is to allow yourself to be pulled down to his or her level.
Explaining yourself is essentially an attempt to seek another’s approval. It shows you’re stung that they’ve withdrawn that approval, and desirous of getting it back. When you show that you care about an opinion that you, and any observers, know you really shouldn’t, you show weakness. In losing the fight between trying to ignore them and craving the catharsis of engagement, you demonstrate a failure of self-control.
Further, when a chucklehead elicits a response, you validate his importance. He’s made you do something against your better judgment. You’ve given to him two of your most precious resources – your time and attention. You’ve gone from the offensive to the defensive. His status goes up and yours goes down.
People — whether irrationally angry customers, estranged family members, or a controlling significant other — will often demand explanations for what you do. They’ll say you are weak if you don’t offer one. But this is the cleverest of ploys! By targeting your pride, they’ll get you to hand over your power.
Of course restraining yourself from responding to someone who’s goading you on is easier said than done! As someone who’s subjected to a constant barrage of feedback on my work, day after day, I find I am able to successfully ignore about 98% of it. It’s when someone says something that impinges on my honor (even when I know they’re not part of my honor group), or when they seem like a dude I can have a good debate with that I get in trouble.
When someone is clearly off their rocker, it’s easy to ignore them as really out there. And when someone has something critical but intelligent to say, engaging them can actually be interesting and instructive. It’s the people who greatly distort who you are/what you did/what you said, but mix together sensible sounding discourse with nuggets of crazy, who prove the most irresistible. They almost sound like someone you can have a reasonable discussion with; it almost seems like you could explain to them why they’re objectively off the mark. But as it invariably turns out (and this is a lesson I have to learn over and over!), if someone’s mindset/mentality is such that they’re able to grossly misinterpret something, no amount of explanation — no matter how thorough and well-reasoned — is going to change their mind. Quite to the contrary — they’ll simply dig in their heels all the more!
“Never complain; never explain” doesn’t necessarily mean not saying anything to your doubters, complainers, and critics, but limiting your response to a sharp rejoinder. Disraeli in fact formulated his maxim after hearing the advice of fellow politician Lord Lyndhurst, who said: “Never defend yourself before a popular assembly except with and by retorting an attack.” Thus, a short, pithy rebuttal or a humorous, yet withering sarcastic quip (Churchill was the master of these) may be in order. Then you turn heel and don’t engage further.
Of course, even a simple retort may draw you into an argument you never wanted to have, which often makes compete silence the best possible response. In fact, nothing drives someone nipping at you heels crazier than to have their questions and demands go utterly ignored and unacknowledged.