Skillful Speech

Q. My friend and I have fallen into the bad habit of gossiping about another friend. It began with the good intention of making suggestions to help her overcome a difficult situation. But when our efforts fell on deaf ears and her problem persisted, we carried on the conversation in private. When this got back to our friend, she understandably felt betrayed. I feel as if I have already learned a valuable lesson, but would appreciate your comments and suggestions.

A. We are all graduates of the school of good intentions. Speaking for myself, I am still a full-time student. We see others through a more objective lens than we see ourselves, and because we want others to be happy, we think our suggestions will be helpful. Our good intentions begin here, but don’t always work out as we imagined. There is an old folk saying that goes something like, “the tongue is a boneless weapon trapped between teeth.”

Gossip didn’t start out as a bad word. In olden days in referred to news that was shared by a familial acquaintance, like a godparent. And during Shakespeare’s time, a gossip was someone who sat with a woman throughout labor and childbirth, which is how gossip came to be associated with women. Going back even further, researchers theorize that life in small tribal groups may have forced our ancestors to exchange vital information to ensure survival. They likely competed for resources and allies, carefully deciding whom to trust and partner with. If this is true, then gossip was a way to bond with others, as well as a tool to isolate those who did not support the group. I wonder if things have changed that much!

In its most innocent application gossip helps us to bond with friends – talking, listening and sharing stories brings people together. And it teaches us lessons. We tend to relate better to stories than to data, and gossip is a form of storytelling. Sharing our stories teaches us how to act in certain situations. Humans are curious. For better and worse, we have a powerful drive to know about other people’s lives. But as our communication technologies have sped up, so has our ability to spread gossip. Celebrity gossip, which we are all too familiar with, is an industry worth more than three billion per year.

Very few people proudly admit to gossiping, but we all do it. The negative side of gossip is often rumor based and includes sensational or intimate information. It can be derogatory, judgmental, and betray a confidence. Negative gossip takes pleasure in the misfortune of others. Those who take part in it reassure themselves and boost their own confidence by speaking unfavorably about those who are different. It is an indirect way of speaking well about our selves or being grateful that someone else’s misfortune is not ours.

Most of us don’t give gossip much thought until it becomes personal. And by then it’s usually too late to stop the ball from rolling downhill. The same is true of secrets, a separate but related topic. When we say we have been the “victim” of gossip, that’s exactly how we feel. The lure of being in the loop can be seductive, and trading gossip has become a standard currency in our culture.

The Buddha considered skillful speech essential to personal and spiritual development. His view was that speech should be truthful, moderate and uplifting. It should not be malicious, unkind, crude or harsh, or useless and meaningless. Malicious talk is speech that destroys other people’s friendships, or damages their reputation. Harsh language includes verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, and excessively blunt or belittling criticism.

The Buddha’s own guidelines by which he decided whether to speak or remain silent were based on this: If he knew something was untrue, incorrect, or not beneficial, he would remain silent. But when his words were true, correct, beneficial and timely he would speak, even if his words were unwelcome or disagreeable. This is uniquely different than remaining silent unless you have something “nice” to say. The Buddha is said to have been deeply compassionate and focused on people’s well-being, but he was not a people pleaser.

It would be great if we could follow these guidelines all of the time, but because our habits are so strong, whenever we open our mouths, words just seem to spill out. In situations where a conversation is about to spin out of control I remind myself to become mindful again as quickly as possible. When I am tempted to speak in ways that are not even close to being mindful, I try to remind myself that there is nothing to be gained by my speaking, but nobody gets hurt by my keeping quiet. Sometimes it works, but I have lots of room for improvement!

One of the more important resolutions I make each year includes doing my best to think before I speak, and to use words that awaken, support and encourage others. I imagine never having to regret anything I say. One of my teachers would often remind me to check my valuables before they left the house – a not so veiled reference to the importance of words. She also suggested washing our words at least as often as we wash our dishes. A good test of skillful speech is to stop and ask our selves, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”

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