Words can be weapons. They can also be catalysts for great good. It all depends on how we use them.
My husband is the principal of a large public high school in the Elk Grove Unified School District. A few years back, he began popularizing a certain expression among his students. His goal was getting them to think before they speak, text or post something online. Ideally, they would think not once but three times, as they used these three questions to evaluate what they intended to say.
“Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”
The kids, perhaps surprisingly in this day and age, rallied around this sentiment. Some of them, working on their own, made a banner of it and posted it over the entrance to the multi-purpose room. One of the student speakers at graduation that year incorporated it into her speech.
The expression is consistent with many things the school does to foster understanding and unity among its racially and culturally diverse student body. And, in fact, the students’ record for treating one another with respect and kindness is above average for a school today.
I’d not heard this expression before I learned of it from my husband, but you can find it all over the Internet. Many attribute it to Buddha, though he’s not the source of this particular set of words. The expression is consistent with Buddhist teachings, however, as well as with the many rules in the Bible regarding correct speech.
Its general sentiment is also associated variously with Socrates, Quakers, Unitarians and Rotarians. Ann Landers probably referred to it, as did Eleanor Roosevelt. There appear to have been two Victorian-era poems that included these three questions as guides to good speech, and this may have helped popularize the expression.
It’s probably the best advice ever given for weighing words before spouting them out. It applies well to gossip, but also to any communication between human beings. It’s a terrific way to filter out things that are best left unsaid.
Three simple questions.
“Is it true?” This one should be a no-brainer. We should avoid lying not only because it hurts people, but also because it’s just plain wrong — or at least it used to be. On popular television shows nowadays, it seems everyone is lying to everyone for fun and profit, or just for the heck of it. Saying what’s convenient and advantageous — even if it’s not true — has become commonplace. Popular culture would lead you to believe that lying is clever, bold, glamorous, effective — and ubiquitous. The one thing it never seems to be anymore is reprehensible.
Is the value of truth-telling as a mark of integrity slipping away? As a culture, we seem to worry only about whether a lie might be discovered. But it really doesn’t matter if no one ever discovers your lie; you know you lied. That should be enough to steer you away from it.
“Is it necessary?” This one is especially important in the age of social media. So much that’s said really isn’t necessary, and often the world would be better off without it. But these days we do so love irony, and cunning, and one-upping each other. It’s hard to hold ourselves back from making that quip, dropping that clever comeback, even if it might offend.
We’re so busy trying to show how smart or insightful or well-read we are that we just have to blurt out our thought. In the process, we hurt, irritate and alienate others. This can cause them to respond in kind, thus perpetuating the cycle of unnecessary blather.
Which destroys all chance of a more meaningful conversation.
“Is it kind?” Saying mean things in general is to be avoided, of course. But sometimes it’s more nuanced than that. Sometimes what you’re considering saying is true and necessary, but the way you’re planning to say it is unkind. If you simply add a little tact and understanding to your approach, however, you can accomplish your goal without hurting the person’s feelings.
Often timing is of the essence. As the late Hugh Prather put it, “You can always tell an ego impulse by the little sense of urgency you will feel.” The author of “Notes to Myself” and many other superb self-help books knew that our “smaller” self always wants us to speak up right away, “before it’s too late” — meaning before we think better of it. But if we do stop and think, we can realize that what needs to be said might be said in a kinder way, or at a time when it might be better received and understood.
I wish I could say that I always measure my words against the filters of true, necessary and kind. If I did say that, though, it would be…untrue. Yes, I avoid lying, apart from the white lies that prevent needlessly hurting someone. But despite my best efforts, I still find myself sometimes saying things that are unkind or, even more often, unnecessary.
Which makes me think of another useful expression:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat. Leave a comment for her online, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.