‘Shut Up and Listen’ in AA?

 More “Tough Love”

Anyone who has spent some time in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) will have inevitably heard some crusty old-timers wax lyrical about the supposed glory days when newcomers were advised to “take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” Another variant of this piece of wisdom suggests newcomers should, “Sit down, shut up, and hold on!” Both these statements, repeated ad infinitum, have seemingly become an accepted part of the AA fabric.

However, are these enduring slogans helpful or even in line with AA principles?

Weighing the Pros and Cons

The truth lies somewhere between yes and no.

The Positive Side

Yes, it is a constructive practice for AA newcomers to observe and absorb the atmosphere before actively participating. This principle applies broadly across life’s experiences. Gaining context and insight from observation can significantly enhance one’s likelihood of success when integrating into a new group.

In the group where I found my sobriety, newcomers were advised not to share for at least 30 to 90 days. This practice offers two key benefits:

  1. Being free from the burden of having to share allows individuals to focus more on listening and understanding.
  2. Concurrently, newcomers can explore the Big Book to build a foundational comprehension of the program.

Another helpful suggestion was for the newcomer to regularly attend the same meetings, facilitating relationships with sober individuals and observing their behaviors outside of meetings.

Finally, attending speaker meetings, where sharing is often not required, allows newcomers to hear from those with more sobriety and experience. Such meetings also present opportunities to identify potential sponsors.

Thus, the idea behind the slogans – essentially, to sit down, listen, and learn – is fundamentally sound.

The Negative Aspect

The issue arises from the harsh and abrasive nature of these slogans, which can be unnecessarily off-putting to newcomers.

Though I have admittedly repeated these clichés at meetings myself, a passage I recently read in the Big Book got me reconsidering:

“The very practical approach to his problems, the absence of intolerance of any kind, the informality, the genuine democracy, the uncanny understanding which these people have were irresistible.” (Big Book, p. 160).

This passage doesn’t exactly convey the sentiment of “shut up and sit down.” The spirit it invokes is something entirely different.

So, perhaps it’s time we rethink how we convey the importance of observation and listening to newcomers, and find a gentler, more encouraging approach.