Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Speak Wisely

Lily and Jamie grew up together in an orphanage in China and were both adopted as teens. I adopted Lily. I took Lily to visit Jamie not long after they were settled in their new homes. Both were still getting adjusted to their new lives and learning a new language. Jamie’s mom and I took the girls to a mall. We moms decided to sit and relax in the food court while the girls went shopping. Jamie smiled and admonished us to “speak wisely” before running off to join Lily. I have no idea what she thought we were going to say, but I cherish this phrase and the memory of her delivery of it.

“Speak wisely” reminds me of Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path, which includes Right Speech. It teaches us to ask three questions before we speak. 1) Is it true? 2) Is it necessary? 3) Is it kind? If we can answer all three questions yes, then we are assured that we are speaking wisely.

I don’t always speak wisely. I used to love gossip. I am a Southern girl, after all. It’s in my blood. Gossip is a way to connect to others, to fit in, to belong, to be popular. When I lived in Paris, I was the only American in my building. I would often practice my french by chatting about the other tenants with the concierge, who spoke no English. I became a bilingual gossiper. And even though she was not too keen on Americans, she liked me. So much so that when I moved out, she gave me the nicest compliment she could think of. “You’re not really very American,” she nodded with approval.

Gossip often seems fun and harmless, but we all know it has a dark side. Gossip can ruin lives, cost people jobs, drive teens to suicide, destroy friendships, and, at the very least, hurt people’s feelings. Even if it meets the first criteria and is true, it is rarely necessary or kind.

Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project cautions against gossip. The thrill of sharing gossip is short lived. We have to promise and exact promises from others not to tell. We don’t really feel good about what we did. We’re anxious that the story will get out and be traced back to us. We might feel guilty that we betrayed a confidence or that we spoke ill of someone just to have a moment’s pleasure.

I have reformed. As a person who appreciates the power of words, I value Jamie’s advice to speak wisely. I honor the trust of someone who shares private information with me. I try to change the topic or excuse myself from gossipy conversations. I don’t justify gossip by thinking that I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t say directly to the person. If it is something I would say directly to the person, then that is the only place I should say it.

And I try to remember to ask myself, “Is what I’m about to say an improvement on silence?”

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. –Psalm 19:14


  1. This is a wonderful reminder Galen, thank you.

  2. Lots of good and wise words here. Thank you for sharing and keeping the mind fresh and thinking well.

    Listening is so key

  3. Wonderful post to be certain. I have never been a fan of gossip and because of that very ethic, I have been the brunt of much gossip. I love what you stated about gossip being hurtful and even destructive. It certainly is hurtful and has a great potential for massive destruction. Great post Galen...from one Southern Gal to another...

  4. darlin--It's a reminder I need myself from time to time! Thanks for your comment.

    Mikey--You're a sweetie.

    Patricia--Thanks for commenting.

    Mitzi--Thanks for your comment. What part of the South are you from? I grew up in Memphis.

  5. I'm in Louisiana. Grew up deep in South Louisiana, but now live in Southwest LA.

  6. Oh I like the quote you ended with here too, although yes Thumper's if you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything...if only some co-workers would follow that....and why do we become snobs (or so those who gossip believe) when we just don't want to follow along with all that useless chit-chat-gossip?.... Silence is great, but I believe you always have great wisdom in your posts with us!

  7. Karen--It is sometimes awkward to disengage from the gossip. Thanks for your kind words. I would like to think that my words sometimes offer some improvement on silence, but like most of us, I like to talk, and I don't always use my words sparingly or wisely!

  8. Ooh! I love that line: "Is what I'm about to say an improvement on silence?" I know several people who would do well to heed your advice. Little upsets me more than cruel, spiteful gossip and even gossip of a more benign nature is still an infringement on the subject's privacy. I remember well Thumper's advice, and here's another old saying from childhood, "Mind your own beeswax!"


Your comment is valuable and valued. Comment moderation is enabled to block spam, so please excuse the brief delay until your comment appears on the blog.