“I do not chose to run for president again in 1928.” When president Calvin Coolidge uttered those words, he left the public stunned. He was repeatedly asked to reconsider. His approval ratings were through the roof. And people adored him. He would have won the presidency again very very easily.
Yet, his record was just ok. He didn’t do anything great. When people rank all the American presidents today, he is consistently and rightly ranked to be in the bottom half of the list.
How did a president who didn’t do much during his term get so many people to wish him to continue? Why was he liked by all? Coolidge was liked because he played a great defense game. He remained guarded and spoke less. The conservatives thought he was a conservative and the liberals thought he was a liberal.
He didn’t give anyone a chance to catch him in a gaffe.
The gaffe that accelerated the cold war
In 1956, Nikita Kruschev, the first secretary of USSR gave a speech to the Polish embassy in Moscow. And a sentence he uttered over there almost started the third world war. It accelerated the cold war drastically.
He spoke in Russian: “It doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. My vas pokhoronim!”
What Kruschev meant with “my vas pokhoronim” was to say “we will outlive you!” But unfortunately, it was translated very literally to say “we will bury you!”
One flippant sentence mistranslated ruined the relationship between two countries for decades.
But mistranslations are not necessary to lead to deep hurt.
One day in May of 2020, Elon Musk woke up and wiped out 10% of Tesla’s stock price. Out of kinks, he tweeted: “Tesla stock price is too high imo”.
Because Tesla’ is a public company, SEC had to get involved. Over the years, Musk has had to give up Tesla’s chairmanship, has paid over $20 million in fines, and now needs a lawyer to read his tweets if they mention anything Tesla does before it can be published. And yet, he has a need to keep on using Twitter.
This was however not the worst gaffe made by a businessman. That record would go to Gerald Ratner. Ratner had joined his family business and become the CEO of the Ratners Group – which was the world’s biggest retailer of diamonds. He had transformed the boring jewelry business to… tacky. Learning lessons from the petticoat market in his childhood, he believed that the person who was the loudest and gave the best offer would win – against just a best offer giver. And so, he converted his stores to have fluorescent posters showing amazing bargain prices!
And it worked. Business boomed. Brands under Ratners group grew to over a 1000 stores! Until he gave a speech:
“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”, I say, “because it’s total crap.””
Word about his speech got into the papers. Sales crashed. And 500 million pounds was wiped out because of one stupid comment. Gerald Ratner was fired from his family business. And things didn’t get better until the company name was changed to Signet!
But stupidity is not required for gaffes either.
Adam Osborne had come up with the Osborne 1 computers in 1981 which were a hit! In early 1983, to drum up sales for his future release of Osborne 2, Adam started showing the prototype of the new computer to a few key dealers and media people. They were given fixed instructions and were under embargo. They could talk about the new computer only after a few months.
But word got out. And existing dealers cut their Osborne 1 sales! Cashflow dried out. Adam started selling the Osborne 1 at 50% discount, and yet sales didn’t come in as people just wanted to wait for the newer better version! With no money coming in, the company imploded!
Good intentioned gaffes
Ali Partovi tells us about how once he killed off a $125 million deal. He was a cofounder of LinkExchange and had worked up a $125 million deal to sell his startup to Yahoo!
On the eve of signing the documents, he was talking with Jerry Yang of Yahoo. How excited he was to join Yahoo. Amidst the talks, he told Yang that another startup Viaweb looked really good too.
Yang said that they had looked into it but they were not impressed. So Partovi pushed: “Jerry, your guys are wrong: the Viaweb team is amazing. Their engineers are probably better than yours. They are hands down better than us.”
Next thing he knew, Yahoo dropped the acquisition and ended up buying Viaweb instead!
The solution to gaffes
Gaffes can arise from anywhere. They can be caused by stupidity or by good intentions equally!
The only thing gaffes are immune to is silence. And Calvin Coolidge knew this.
One day, a journalist sought Coolidge out. “Mr. President, what do you think of Prohibition?” “No comment,” replied Coolidge.
“Will you say something about unemployment?” “No,” said Coolidge.
“Will you tell us your views about the world situation?” persisted the reporter. “No.”
“About your message to Congress?” “No.”
The disappointed reporter started to leave, but as he reached the door Coolidge said “Wait.” Hopeful, the man turned around. Coolidge cautioned: “Now remember – don’t quote me.”
Why is it difficult to remain silent?
Coolidge was given the nickname “Silent Cal!” It was easier for him to remain silent because he didn’t like his own voice. But for most people it is difficult to remain silent. Because we love to hear ourselves speak!
In fact, Diana Tamir and her colleagues – psychologists from Harvard University conducted an experiment that showed that people forgo rewards if they were given an opportunity to keep on talking about themselves!
We are social animals. And so, communication has become addictive. How do you break this addiction?
Marty Nemko, a NPR radio show host recommends a traffic light system to talk less. In every minute of conversation, the first 20 seconds are green. Talk about the relevant topic. The next 20 seconds are yellow and start winding down because the other person is inadvertently thinking about themselves. And the last 20 seconds are red. You better stop or you’ll be in danger.
You’ve got to reflect on your conversations. Did you manage to follow the traffic lights? Did you manage to speak less than the other people present? When you notice that you’ve spoken less, reward yourself. Condition yourself to talk less. Because talking more only causes trouble.
Be like Coolidge. When a guest sitting next to Coolidge for dinner told him: “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you” – Coolidge simply replied: “You lose” and went back to eating in silence.
- Silence is golden. It allows you to avoid gaffes. It makes everyone like you more.
- Reward yourself every time you manage to talk less.