In Buddhism, there is a term for speaking “well” – “right speech.” You could say that this is a guideline or a step toward enlightenment – you could also say that this is a way to limit your own and others’ suffering, and encourage your own practice of not harming any person (including yourself). I think this is a worthy practice for anyone seeking to better themselves and their lives and relationships, regardless of spiritual / religious preference (if any).
I’m not sure anyone is perfect at this practice, except those who are enlightened. I don’t believe I know any of them personally. Even the Dalai Lama, whom I’ve seen speak at Radio City Music Hall, says that he’s not enlightened. So I consider Right Speech part of my practice, along with the other precepts (training lessons) of Buddhism – something I’m not expected (by myself or others) to get right all the time, but something that I will continue to work at.
As much as this is important in face-to-face communication, I think that the further removed we get from each other, the more carefully we must speak. It’s too easy to shoot off an email, text, IM or tweet without censoring the path between your mind and your fingers. If you don’t see the person’s reaction – if you don’t see their face – it’s too easy to fool yourself into thinking that what you said was taken as a joke, or that the person won’t care or be affected. This isn’t surprising, nor is it something to take lightly. This fact is important enough that the high school youth group at my church used “Social Networking as Unitarian Universalist Youth” as the focus of the Sunday morning service that they lead on February 12, 2012. (Well-worth a listen!) What they said was comprehensive enough that I could just end my article here… but I’ll go ahead and put my own (UU-Buddhist) spin on it. :)
Right speech is defined as saying only what is truthful, helpful, kind and timely. I’ve also heard it described as speaking to the right person at the right time about the right thing, only what’s necessary, truthful, helpful and kind. Here’s Ken McLeod, a Buddhist teacher’s, take on it. (His suggestion is to say everything out loud, as if someone were saying those words to you. How would that make you feel?) I have elaborated on the traditional teaching by adding in notes from the basics of having a “clean fight.” In this case, we’ll call it a “clean disagreement.” (I learned these a long while ago, in relation to relationship dynamics. If couples have clean fights, they’ll stick together. If they have dirty fights, they are more likely to divorce. For my Christian friends, here’s a minister’s take on the same stuff.)
It sounds easy enough (!) – until you try to do it. Let’s break it down:
- Truthful: What you say should be truthful. If you don’t know the facts, you should be honest about how much you do or don’t know. If you are stating your opinion, say so.
- If what you know is based on some source, you should cite (or be prepared to cite) the source. Ideally, you would make sure that your source is unbiased — but in this day of “everyone has an angle,” that’s not always possible. Perhaps, for your own understanding, it’s best to go to as clear a source as possible, rather than a source that is providing “commentary;” again, however, it’s not always easy to find the original source. And sometimes that original source is written in legalese (or medicalese or an ancient language) that is almost impossible for the lay person to understand.
- Don’t exaggerate / generalize / polarize. Very few things are actually “always” or “never,” very rarely black and white extremes. There are always exceptions to stereotypes and almost always exceptions to everything else.
- Just do your best – and remember: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Partial truths or omitting details doesn’t count as the whole truth.
- Helpful: Is what you are about to say going to help the person or situation? This is where you need to be truthful with yourself and your motives.
- Talking about a third party is never helpful, unless you are talking about how to legitimately help that person.
- Trying to convince someone whose mind is completely made up about an issue that they are wrong, and you KNOW from the start that you will not change their mind — that’s not helpful. It frustrates you and irritates them. Maybe you are trying to persuade or convince or save them – unless they are open to entertaining the slightest possibility that they are wrong, you are wasting everyone’s time and energy. Move on to someone who is more willing to listen. (Or listen yourself to their point of view with an open mind, and engage in dialogue with the idea of understanding each other, rather than changing each other.)
- Don’t dredge up the past / keep it relevant. Whether or not you had problems with this person in the past, you are currently discussing a current disagreement between the two of you about a particular topic.
- The right person: Here’s the kicker, only occasionally recognized. We often lash out at people (especially those we care about) when we’re really upset with someone else – perhaps someone at work that we don’t feel empowered to confront, or society at large, or a large group of people that perhaps this person represents to us. If we aren’t particularly needing something from *this* person, then is this conversation helpful? Are they in a position to change the platform of their political party or the policies of the company that you’re angry at, even if you did convince them to agree with you?
- If you extend this beyond ‘helpful’ to ‘necessary,’ imagine how many things won’t be said. Twitter is the antithesis of sharing only what is necessary. Facebook isn’t much better. Any small-talk chit-chat would be dropped. No one needs to comment or be commented to about the weather, unless there’s a horrible storm and you’re trying to stay safe. No one actually NEEDS to know what you ate for your lunch, unless you are speaking with your doctor or caretaker or diet-consultant (which could be a friend, certainly). Am I advocating the cessation of all small-talk? No — but it doesn’t hurt to be mindful when that’s what we are doing.
- Kind: This should be a no-brainer. But I’ve seen a lot of unkind things said in person, and even more online. This is where cyber-bullying comes in, folks. If you recognize your own behaviors here, please take heed. There is no line behind which “it’s okay.”
- No name-calling. Recognize that your issue is with an action / belief, not with the person. The person is not a bad person (of whatever label you choose to use), but has *perhaps* made a bad decision, which is what you are discussing.
- Use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. “I am offended by your use of that word,” rather than, “You are such a bigot!”
- Focus on resolving, not winning. Yeah, you aren’t going to win every disagreement. That’s your problem, not anyone else’s. Generally, no one “wins” in a disagreement; at some point there’s a truce called.
- Don’t raise your voice. Online this would mean using all caps or exclamation points.
- Don’t use sarcasm. An addendum for online: Using emoticons does not negate whatever you’ve said. If it was mean, it’s still mean, just with a winky-face after it.
- This is a great place to practice the “Say it to yourself as if someone else was saying it to you” tool. If someone said that you must be a sheep that doesn’t think for itself, how would you feel? Not so good, I’m guessing.
- Timely: Are either you or the person you are talking with tired or hungry? Did you have a bad day? Do you need time to cool-off before responding? Is the person you want to talk to in the middle of performing open-heart surgery – or in the bathroom – or chopping vegetables with a big knife? Now may not be the time for this conversation. Not only that, but is the information that you want to convey going to help the person more now, hearing it from you, or would they understand it better if they learned it some other way – through another person, or through their own experience?
Whoa! That’s a lot. Ken McLeod talks about the fact that someone might feel like they are acting a part, if they try to follow all these rules. But, in my mind, it all can be summed up with one rule, the one that is common to all religions:
Christian version: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you”
(Luke 6:31, New English Bible)
Hindu version: “Let not any man do unto antoher any act that he wisheth not done to himself by others, knowing it to be painful to himself”
(Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, cclx.21)
Confucian version: “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you”
(Analects, Book xii, #2)
Buddhist version: “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself”
(Udanavarga, v. 18)
Jewish version: “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah”
(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a)
Muslim version: “No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself”
(Hadith, Muslim, imam 71-72)
Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu, Amen, and Blessed Be.