Speaking up -- or out?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

A list of "20 Things 20-Year-Olds Don't Get" includes tthe following:

Speak Up, Not Out - We're raising a generation of sh-t talkers.  In your workplace this is a cancer.  If you have issues with management, culture or your role & responsibilities, SPEAK UP.  Don't take those complaints and trash-talk the company or co-workers on lunch breaks and anonymous chat boards.  If you can effectively communicate what needs to be improved, you have the ability to shape your surroundings and professional destiny.
It has always seemed to me that there is a subtle distinction between speaking up and speaking out, although not quite the narrow one made here. The closest thing to the above or to my own distinction that a cursory search yielded this morning was the following pair of definitions:
  • speak up: to end one's silence and speak negatively and publicly about someone or something
  • speak out: to say something frankly and directly; to speak one's mind
Of the two, which many seem to regard as equivalents now, the first seems, at least to my mind, more old-fashioned, dignified, and without connotations of being unnecessarily confrontational. (I am dubious that it necessarily has to entail speaking negatively about something.) The latter has always seemed "noisier" to me. The one makes me think of conveyng information over noise, be it in a literal sense or figuratively, in the sense of overcoming a common prejudice. The other connotes shouting to me, including the possibility of being part of a noisy gang getting ready to intimiate any dissenters. The one overcomes noise, the other contributes to it. The one has struck me as courageous, but unassuming; the other as cowardly, but posturing.

Perhaps this is just me overreacting to the predilection I have observed among rabble rousers for demanding that people "speak out" about the pet cause du jour. Is this all in my head or have you, gentle reader, observed the same? Either way, feel free to speak up about it in the comments.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, I enjoyed that article myself, but I didn't really think about that turn of phrase until you brought it up. Now that I think about it, I don't like it at all. For me, "speak up" fits fine, but the two-faced grumbling he labels "speaking out" doesn't fit at all. "Speak out" would be close to synonymous with "speak up," and seems chosen out of a desire to be memorable. What would I say in its place? Perhaps something like "speak up, don't bite back" or, better, "talk, don't skulk.". But really, neither of those is great. It's simply 'slogan fail.'

Steve D said...

Well, the prepositions 'up' and 'out' have distinct connotations but the literal difference between the two phrases is minor due to the predominance of the word 'speak' in their overall meaning.

I think you have to consider these phrases somewhat metaphorically to detect that subtle a difference; 'up' and 'out' imply two different directions in which speech can be projected. So, if ‘up’ means to rise above the noise (vertical) and ‘out’ means directed outwardly towards the noise (horizontal), then your supposition would seem to be correct.

On the other hand, I would suspect that the subject matter of the speech will far outweigh the phrase used and in the case that the wrong one is used but you agree with the argument (or vice versa), you likely wouldn’t pick up the difference.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! Leave it to me to post something inviting feedback, and then forget to check my email.

Still, 2/2 people I personally know to be reasonable and intelligent don't see it. I guess that explains why I found nothing!

dismuke said...

I have always differentiated between "speak up" and "speak out" based on the context of the person doing the speaking.

"Speak up" is something one does when one is a legitimate participant in some sort of discussion or engagement and expresses facts or viewpoints that would otherwise not be brought up. It doesn't necessarily have to be negative. It could be a positive comment or a mere suggestion. It just has to be something that would not be put on the table if one, for whatever reason, chose to remain silent. For example, bringing something up in a meeting at work.

"Speaking out" suggests a more activist position and very often the person speaking out does so in the context of an outsider.

For example, if a city council member brings to the floor of a council meeting evidence of massive corruption and ethics violations on the part of the mayor he is speaking up by virtue of the fact that it is part of his job to raise such issues of concern in council meetings. But if victim of the mayor's corruption makes a denunciation in a public denunciation or initiates a petition to force a recall of the mayor he is speaking out.

Speaking out usually involves taking an adversarial position. But it doesn't have to. For example, one could be an activist that speaks out to bring greater awareness to a little known threat or danger.

Frequently one has a responsibility to speak up if one takes one's job or position seriously - even if it involves a certain amount of risk. Speaking out is usually more optional - especially if it involves risk.

I think that is why you are inclined to regard speaking up as being more dignified. Usually it is because one is already an accepted or even welcome participant in the dialogue. Speaking out is necessarily more confrontational because, in doing so, one is initiating the dialog and often in a manner that unwelcome to those being criticized.

Sometimes the difference can be blurry. Offering criticism of Obama administration policies in a letter to the editor or by calling a talk show is "speaking up" because one is an active participant in a forum that seeks such opinions out. But if one buys advertising space or time from that same newspaper or radio station to offer the exact same criticism one is speaking out because one is seeking to proactively thrust one's views on people one currently do not have a relationship or dialog with.

Gus Van Horn said...


This makes lots of sense to me, and incidentally reconciles what was said in the quote with my distinction. Thanks for explaining how you make yours.