Word Clash: Reluctant versus Reticent

This world needs more people who are less reluctant and more reticent. 

Are these nullifying attributes? It may seem so at first glance, but if we look closer at the definitions of reluctant and reticent, you will see that, no, these are not nullifying attributes (and you should be reticent and withhold critique).

This clash of commonly confused words takes place when we want to describe someone who is hesitant to take action. However, one word is used to depict one who refrains from taking action, and the other word describes someone who is restrained in one particular action: communication.

A reluctant person refrains from action because of doubt; a reticent person refrains from speech.

This is a lesser known clash of commonly confused words, but let us unpack it with fervency. 

Reluctant: a confrontation against doing something

Reluctant means to feel or show aversion, hesitation, or unwillingness to do something. It is to be slow to begin or proceed with a course of action because of doubts or uncertainty. 

The origin of the word comes from the Latin reluctant-, reluctans, and reluctari, meaning to struggle against, oppose, wrestle, or resist. 

That is what happens when we are reluctant to do something. We resist it; we struggle and wrestle with the doubt that comes with whatever we are meant to endeavour, perhaps because we have doubts or fears about the activity or we simply do not want to do it. 

When we use reluctant in writing or speaking, the word should be used to describe anyone who is averting or unwilling to take a course of action. 

Reticent: restraining our speech

Whereas reluctance means to have opposition and resistance to do something, reticent means to have restraint and control over one’s own speech.

One who is reticent is “given to keeping one’s activities hidden from public observation or knowledge.” There is an inclination to keep silent or be uncommunicative. In other words, it is a reluctance to speak.

It would behoove most social media users to be reticent. 

The Latins of Latinland again provide us this word. Reticēre means to keep silent as it comes from the word tacēre, from which we also get the word tacit, meaning to be silent or understood without words. 

Reticent can stand alone as an adjective.

Often, you will find infinitive forms of verbs of communication (to speak, to discuss, to inform, and so on) follow reticent. 

  • The newcomer was reticent to speak about his experiences.
  • I was reticent to discuss the issue with you because I know it upsets you.
  • We are reticent to talk at the meeting.

I find this form of writing to be superfluous, however. To fix the above, I would axe the infinite verb or replace reticent with reluctant. Please see below.

Settling the clash

Hello again! When we left off the last paragraph, we were discussing the superfluity of using reticent + to speak, or any other verb of communication. 

Reticent and reluctant are sometimes used interchangeably as adjectives. However, reticent should be reserved to describe someone who does not speak much. We can replace reticent with reluctant if we want to include a verb of the oratory nature.

Sentence with reticentSentence with reluctant + speaking verb
The newcomer was reticent during his first day.The newcomer was reluctant to speak during his first day.
I was reticent on the issue with you because I know it upsets you.I was reluctant to discuss the issue with you because I know it upsets you.
We are reticent at the meeting.We are reluctant to talk at the meeting.

Other Word Clash theatres

Word Clash: Affect versus Effect

Knowing when to use affect versus effect in writing challenges all English speakers — even native ones! Let’s break down these commonly confused words.

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