My grandfather was a Meiji man, born during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). When I was a young child, he once gave me a piece of advice on how to speak. “If you really think you are saying the right thing, you don’t have to shout. Speak in as small a voice as possible,” he said.

For some reason, his advice comes to my mind often these days, possibly because this is an era filled with loud, vociferous voices.

Aggressive tweets, loud exchanges of insults and all kinds of noisy disputes involving so many people characterize our age. Small voices seem to be good-for-nothing things doomed to be drowned out and ignored.

What did my late grandfather really mean? I found one intriguing passage in a book written by Masahiko Abe, a 52-year-old professor at the University of Tokyo.

“Words that are overwhelmed, weak and ineffective sometimes have rather greater significance in society,” Abe writes.

I visited Abe and asked him about my grandfather’s advice. Although I abruptly brought up the question, the English literature scholar enlightened me.

“English speakers, when they say something important, sometimes purposefully use the word ‘perhaps’ to tone down the rhetoric instead of trying to emphasize the importance of what they are saying,” he said. “The small voices (your grandfather talked about) may have the same effect.”

Strong, assertive language can be counterproductive when you try to convey important messages.

When we whisper words of love, for instance, or when we have lost loved ones, or try to communicate something that is hard to be put into words, we have traditionally used rather weak and vague expressions, Abe pointed out.

Noriko Ibaragi (1926-2006), a Japanese poet, composed a short poem titled “Iitaku nai Kotoba” (Words best unsaid).

“Words that are stored/ In the bottom of our heart/ With strong pressure applied/ Would immediately lose their power/ If they are uttered/ Or written”

My grandfather, perhaps, meant that forced, barely audible voices could be a better vehicle for communicating an important message to others.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 15

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.