What You Do Speaks So Loudly that I Cannot Hear What You Say

John F. Kennedy? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 1960 President John F. Kennedy spoke at that Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah and used a quotation that he attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson [JKU]:

What we are speaks louder than what we say, as Emerson said.

I was surprised when I came across this because my favorite saying about hypocrisy is the following:

What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

I thought these words were written by Emerson, but now I am not so certain. Did Emerson express this idea in more than one way? Did Kennedy employ a misquotation? Surprisingly, I could not find either of these statements in a database of Emerson’s essays. Could you help me to unravel this?

Quote Investigator:The first quotation below is directly from an essay titled “Social Aims” by Ralph Waldo Emerson published in 1875. The other six quotes appeared in the years afterward. Most are credited to Emerson, but one is ascribed to a “great man”, and another is anonymous. It is remarkably commonplace for a popular saying to be simplified and streamlined over time:

1) Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.

2) Don’t talk. What you are thunders so loudly above what you say that I cannot hear you.

3) Be still, for what you are stands over you and speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.

4) What you are stands over you and thunders, and denies what you say.

5) What you are, thunders so loud that I cannot hear what you say.

6) What you are speaks so loud I can not hear what you say

7) What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.

The ordering of the sayings given above is based on perceived simplification and not chronology. All of these items were published on or before 1900. The last item appeared in a sermon published in 1900, and the parishioners were told that the wisdom emanated from Emerson.

The variant that is the questioner’s favorite is nearly identical to item seven which has been ascribed to Emerson for more than one-hundred years. The words “loud” and “loudly” have been swapped. QI thinks that both quotations presented by the questioner are abridged and simplified forms of what Emerson actually wrote.

This belief concurs with quotation expert Ralph Keyes who identified saying number one above as the likely impetus for the modern sayings numbered six and seven [QVRE]. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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