The smart know what to say, the wise know whether to say it

Words are powerful. The words we use can heal or hurt. They can arouse enthusiasm, evoke joy, and unleash passion. But they can also provoke anger, inflict sorrow, and crush with despair. When speaking to others, we can use our words as daggers to kill their spirits or we can use them as music to lift their spirits. The choice is ours, but . . .

The problem is most of us are so wrapped up in building our career, raising a family, and paying our bills that little or no thought is given to the power of words. Sadly, unawareness of this great power results in grave consequences. Marriages fall apart, friendships dissolve, and happiness eludes some of us.

Can you see how important it is to be mindful of our words? The Roman emperor Claudius (10 BCE ~ 54 CE) did. For he said, Say not always what you know, but always know what you say. Yes, we need not say everything we know, believe, or feel because our words can hurt others. Rather than blurting out the first idea that comes to mind, we should pause and weigh our words carefully before speaking.

Buddha also understood the power of words. In fact, he considered it so important that he made it the third step of his Eightfold Path. (The Eightfold Path is his formula for ending suffering.) He cajoled his followers to practice RIGHT SPEECH (step three of the Eightfold Path). The Right of Right Speech means that which leads to freedom from suffering. So, “Right Speech” is speech that does not harm or hurt others; it is both gentle and kind.

Buddha taught that the practice of Right Speech consisted of avoiding four types of speech. The first type to avoid is HARSH (unkind, mean, nasty, cruel, irritating). Engaging in unkind speech causes others to suffer. And when we cause others to suffer, there are negative consequences that will lead to our own suffering. For example, if I speak unkindly to everyone I meet, not only will they suffer, but my actions will cause me to become alienated, which will lead to my suffering. As a participant in the web of life, we have a duty to speak kindly. Kindly does not mean ingratiatingly, hoping to get rewards of any kind. Rather, kindly means with compassion, supporting others in their desire to grow.

The second type of speech to avoid is DIVISIVE (partisan, polarizing). Political parties (such as the Republicans and Democrats) fight for power in complete disregard for the rights of those they are sworn to protect. They maintain power by pitting one group against another. Religious extremists, in particular, are masters of this type of speech. In their lust for control, they separate and divide humankind. They oppress, torture, and kill with impunity those who disagree with them. It is this kind of speech that is responsible for the greatest amount of suffering.

The third sort of speech to avoid is FALSE (untruthful, deceitful, deceptive). Some modern businesses shamelessly reap huge profits by manufacturing lies. They rip off consumers without compunction. Ordinary people, at times, destroy reputations with gossip, fibs, and innuendos. Importantly, as we stop lying to others, we grow more truthful to ourselves. It’s good to remember that it is impossible to help the world without helping ourselves. Likewise, it is impossible to harm others without harming ourselves.

The fourth class of speech to avoid is TRIVIAL (worthless, useless, idle). Idle chatter may seem harmless enough, but while engaging in it, opportunities to do good with Right Speech are squandered. Rather than idle banter, we could engage in kind and gentle speech, encouraging and uplifting our friends. We could also improve the world by using words that unite and foster cooperation. Our family life and work environment will also improve if we are honest, truthful, candid, and straightforward in all our dealings. Finally, our companions will appreciate conversations that are useful, helpful, valuable, practical, beneficial, and worthwhile.

Part of the practice of Right Speech is knowing when NOT to speak. Buddha expressed it this way:

If it is not truthful and not helpful, don’t say it.

If it is truthful and not helpful, don’t say it.

If it is not truthful and helpful, don’t say it.

If it is truthful and helpful. . . WAIT for the right time.

Bernard Meltzer, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Law (University of Chicago), is right at home with these Buddhist concepts, for he said, Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.

Also note that we can practice right or wrong speech without uttering one word. After all, only roughly 7% of communication is expressed by words. Approximately 34% is expressed by the tone of our voice, and close to 55% by our body language.

Take a look at this example. Dad is exhausted after a tough day at the office. He comes home, plops into his favorite easy chair and starts to read the paper. Suddenly, five-year-old Tommy comes in, pulls on his Dad’s shirt sleeve and says, Daddy, look at the picture of a dragonfly I painted at school today. Without removing his eyes from the newspaper, Dad reaches out with his arm, gropes around, pats his son on the head and says, Very nice job, Tommy. I’m proud of you.

Dad’s tone of voice was good and his choice of words was excellent, but the message Tommy received gets a failing grade. You see, Tommy could see by Dad’s body language that at this time, the newspaper was MORE IMPORTANT than him. The unspoken part of the message was the most significant, and regrettably, it was devastating to Tommy. So, despite Dad’s good tone of voice and excellent choice of words, he did NOT practice Right Speech.

Here’s something else Dad could have done. When interrupted by Tommy, Dad could have put the paper down, stood up, bent down, scooped up Tommy, lifted him up in the air, hugged and kissed him, and put him down again without saying a word. No words, yet, Dad would be practicing Right Speech, for Tommy would get the message loud and clear: Daddy loves you!

Besides Buddhists, Taoists also refer to and follow the practice of Right Speech. They believe we must be aware of our words and use them to promote harmony, while cultivating the wisdom to know when to speak and when to remain silent.

We don’t have to be Buddhists or Taoists to benefit from their ancient wisdom. If we decide to reflect on what we say, before, during, and after speaking, we can make our words become treasured gifts to others.