My children and I have developed a way to pass the time during a long drive. We take a simple phrase like “Look at that” and then say it with as many different inflections as we can think of in order to bring out various meanings. It’s amazing how quickly an innocuous statement can morph into one that communicates humor, threat, shock, disgust, delight, or anger, depending on your tone of voice and the way you say it.
In Jewish ethical teaching, it is considered wrong not only to slander someone but to say something that will lower someone else’s esteem in the eyes of others. The Hebrew term for this is lashon ha-ra. So, for instance, you wouldn’t say something like this: “I feel sorry for Joe. Being out of work for six months seems to have made his depression a lot worse.” Or “Too bad about Sarah’s breakup. I thought she finally found a guy who could love her despite her weight.” There are, of course, notable exceptions. You can express a negative truth when the person you are speaking to needs the information. So if your friend is thinking of consulting a financial adviser you know to be incompetent, you are free to tell him what you know. Otherwise you are obligated to keep silent.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains that even nonverbal communications can violate this law. “Making a face when someone’s name is mentioned, rolling one’s eyes, winking, or saying sarcastically, ‘So-and-so is very smart’ are all violations of the law,” he says (1). The same is true when it comes to the use of innuendo—implying something negative without actually saying it.
What if we were to adopt this rule of lashon ha-ra for ourselves? Wouldn’t it help us learn greater control of our tongues and our attitudes? Today make a promise to yourself to refrain from negativity toward others—in both your verbal and nonverbal communications. It may prove frustrating at first, but in the end, doing so will increase your peace and contribute to the peace of others. More
(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 23.
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