The sentiment behind the saying actions speak louder than words is expressed in many cultures. There are certainly references to sayings like it in antiquity, but it may have been first expressed in English in the 1700s. The first reference in English very similar to it is in the book Will and Doom, written by Gersham Bulkeley in 1692, who speaks of actions as “more significant than words.”
The basic idea of Bulkeley’s, which was not new in expression, is that actions speak louder than words as a greater determinant of behavior and character. People can say anything, but when what they say and do are contrary, it’s easier to judge by what is done instead of by what is said. The phrase “saying one thing and doing another,” is related to this idea.
Another way of looking at this old saying, “actions speak louder than words,” is as a guide for how to live life. Actions should meet verbal obligations or sentiments, and they should not contradict them. If a person constantly talks about the plight of the poor but never thinks of donating to a charity or in any way mitigating that plight, their words have a hollowness or empty quality.
Similarly, when people ascribe to certain belief sets, like various religions, that emphasize humility, but then do not act in a humble way, their actions are more telling than their professions of faith. The car with the bumper sticker “What would Jesus Do?” that cuts a person off and drives recklessly is sending a dual and contradictory message. St. Francis noted this in particular when he suggested that people preach the gospel but “use words if necessary.” His idea is that preaching could be active instead of verbal, and that words were secondary to action, and could be expressed in the common phrase, “practice what you preach.”
There is actually legitimate and ongoing scrutiny about whether actions speak louder than words all of the time and in all places. Words are important, and people do listen to them. They don’t always wait to judge whether words are backed up with action, though this might be the wiser course.
Words certainly have the capacity to harm or elevate, and they may sometimes speak louder than actions. Even in ancient Greece, Plato was strongly against the Sophist teaching of rhetoric because it might be used in immoral ways to convince people to think in unethical ways or draw false conclusions. Some of his contemporaries, like Isocrates, stressed that the power of language had to match the power of morality, and that rhetorical language should only be used in an ethical manner. Isocrates also embodied the actions speak louder than words philosophy, and very much used his rhetorical skill to attempt to bring about unification of Greece by frequently writing to Grecian leaders of city-states to plead for this.
In one form of journalism, called “gotcha journalism,” writers and newscasters attempt to catch people either contradicting themselves with other words, or acting in a manner inconsistent with what they’ve said. Gotcha journalism has certainly become easier with the Internet, since people can search anyone’s words and find out if they’ve matched actions, and it’s becoming increasingly common for the average citizen to perform these kinds of searches, especially on politicians or well-known figures in the media. It’s not always known whether actions or words become the determining factor in the popularity of celebrities or politicians; despite actions to the contrary, sometimes words win, and persons not entitled to popularity retain it because of their skill with language or other forms of appeal. It appears Plato’s concern about rhetoric is occasionally justified.
However there is certainly evidence that actions speak than louder than words in a variety of circumstances. The parent who tells a child not to smoke and then lights a cigarette is unlikely to convince that child of the evils of smoking. This has been proven by statistical information showing the greater likelihood of children becoming smokers if their parents smoke. Clearly, in some instances, actions will influence more than words, and though words remain powerful, how people act may mitigate the effects of language, or prove its power.