In 1992, George H.W. Bush committed what was considered a fatal error during a debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. As an audience member asked him a question, he glanced at his watch. The gesture was seen as rude and inexcusable, one more indication that this president, born into wealth, was out of touch and uninterested in the rest of us.
Fast forward to the infamous two-minute clip of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz shouting insults at each other during a recent debate. A candidate glancing at his watch would not even be noticed these days.
Disdain for political correctness has taken over the national conversation, leading to the rise of Donald Trump, a candidate whose bigotry and hateful words only elevate him in the eyes of his fans. His bigotry has emboldened other candidates to sling verbal excrement freely, while social media and the rise of anonymous commenting have encouraged the rest of us to unleash toxins into the conversation.
This has left me longing for the days when a candidate for the presidency could be chastised for something as subtle as looking at his/her watch. Consternation with our deteriorating ability to speak to each other with civility and respect has led me to commit even more deeply to a practice I began almost 20 years ago: right speech.
Fueled by a conversational faux pas I made that still makes me cringe, I decided to make speaking mindfully a core practice back in the ’90s. The effort to speak mindfully seems to be an endless learning experience, one I suspect I will never master.
The Buddha placed Right Speech third on the Eightfold Path, just after Right View and Right Intention, and ahead of Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Speech is powerful. I’ve learned over the years that speaking mindfully is not as easy as it sounds. The Buddha outlined five parameters for speech that I’ve listed below. Because mindful speaking is a very complicated practice, what I offer here is just a short synopsis, a few thoughts to consider.
Speaking truthfully means refraining from speaking what isn’t true. This includes not only outright lying, but also shading or exaggerating the truth, and lying by omission. Sometimes we lie to keep ourselves out of trouble, or we exaggerate to make ourselves look a little better—maybe padding our resumes or taking credit where it isn’t due. While little white lies seem harmless, telling them reinforces the habit of not telling the truth. The more we get away with telling little white lies, the easier it is to do it again.
Speaking truthfully simplifies our lives. If you’ve ever told a lie and had to then tell other lies to keep propping up the original one, you know how complicated this can be. Telling the truth eliminates a whole lot of stress.
Practice speaking only what is true. Notice when your mind wants to exaggerate or shade the truth.
Refraining from Gossip
Gossiping seems to be an addiction. It’s so often what our conversations turn to. But most of the time, gossip serves only to divide. Talking trash about people who aren’t present isolates them, without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves. It is always one-sided.
There are times, of course, when speaking about a person who isn’t present out of concern for their welfare is appropriate. It is also appropriate to talk about others when the intention is to bring people together. Malicious gossip is a toxic pattern however, and serves no purpose other than to create division.
Try not speaking negatively about anyone who isn’t present. Is this challenging? How does it change your conversations?
Refraining from Harsh Speech
We’ve all heard the old trope about sticks and stones. I would counter that words do have tremendous potential to harm us. The residue from another’s harsh words can last for years. Angry and harsh speech is an act of violence. When we speak harshly to another person, the point is to inflict pain. Quite often angry speech can spiral out of control, so that what spills out isn’t even true.
In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when we feel the impulse to speak out of anger, that we instead step back and ask if we can continue our conversation later. This gives our anger a chance to cool so that we can return to the conversation at a time when we can speak with more clarity and respect.
Refraining from Useless Speech
There’s a Pali word for useless speech that is a prime example of onomatopoeia: sampappalapa. Sampappalapa is the act of talking just to talk, inserting oneself into a conversation with something unrelated or unnecessary, often just to assert our presence.
As an introvert, I’m not a person who tends to prattle on or interrupt conversations. However, as a person who grew up in a family that often spoke in snark, in certain company, I can definitely toss out one-liners with the best of them. The longer I practice right speech, the more I realize that most of these one-liners aren’t necessary, and sometimes they can even get me into trouble. Sometimes they can be hurtful.
When you’re in conversation, consider whether what you’re about to say actually adds to what is being said.
Speaking at the Appropriate Time
There are appropriate and inappropriate times for certain types of speech. For example, while I confess to a bit of a swearing habit in casual conversation, I (mostly) refrain from using possibly offensive words when I’m teaching yoga. Or at least, I try. I also try to tamp down my snarky tendencies in professional situations.
An associate of mine believes it is important to tell it like it is. While it is a worthy goal to maintain honesty in relationships, personal grievances are best aired in one-on-one conversation. Time and again, this person has called down others—including me—with personal grievances during work-related situations in front of other colleagues. This not only humiliates the object of her ire, but it also makes others extremely uncomfortable as they witness what should be a personal matter between two people.
When you feel a need to air a grievance or make a snide comment, consider not only whether it is necessary at all, but also whether the situation is appropriate.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that practicing mindful speech, without fail, causes me to speak less and listen more. This is probably a positive thing. Listening begets learning. And considering your words cultivates deeper awareness. The inclusion of Right Speech on the Eightfold Path means that its practice is essential for liberating our minds.
Social media is a great place to practice right speech. Writing allows you to consider your words. I never comment anonymously. I don’t say anything online that I don’t feel comfortable owning. Invariably, this makes me more mindful of the possible effects of my words on people who may read them.
If you choose to practice mindful speaking, you will likely stumble sometimes. I still sometimes say things I wish I hadn’t. Like so many things worth exploring, the practice of Right Speech is a process, one that I believe can make our world a kinder, more welcoming place for all of us.
Here are some time-honored questions to ask yourself when you feel compelled to speak:
- Is it true?
- Is it useful?
- Is it kind?
- Is it the right time?