Speaking Without Regret

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Most of us have found ourselves having to answer when what we’ve said in confidence goes public. Here’s a simple way to stop the problem in its tracks.

Research indicates that adults speak, on average, about 16,000 words each day. And yet it takes only a few words heard by the wrong person at the wrong time or in the wrong context to set off a firestorm of anger, shame, or resentment. Often the words aren’t meant to be hurtful and aren’t meant to be heard by the offended party.

A Simple Rule

The rule is simple to state: “if you wouldn’t say it to everybody, don’t say it to anybody.” As easy as it is to say, implementing this standard takes some doing. On the face of it, how could we know how our words would be received by everyone on the face of the earth? Usually we don’t need to think this globally. In practice, most people, most of the time, have a stab of conscience before saying something that could be hurtful, and if that signal shows up, it’s a sign to pause and consider if we’d be comfortable with our words getting back to that person. With practice, we get better and better at making this call as time goes by.

My rule is strictly subtractive. It tells you what not to say, not what to say. I know I’m not alone when I say it’s often harder to be silent than to speak my mind. Applying the rule takes discipline for this reason. However there is a side benefit that, if we’re taking more care with our words, we’ll leave more room for others to speak, which is good in and of itself.

Goody Two-shoes?

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Over his hearth, Frank Lloyd Wright inscribed the words “Good Friend, Around These Hearth Stones Speak No Evil Word Of Any Creature”. You might be tempted to confuse Wright’s words for my rule, “if you wouldn’t say it to everybody, don’t say it to anybody.” That would be a mistake. There are valid reasons to speak ill of others, for example to confront them on their own bad behavior, or to warn third parties and keep them safe. My rule doesn’t guarantee others won’t be offended, only that I won’t regret what I’ve said.

Lying by Omission?

Choosing our words as if the world is listening, we may have to leave a lot out. Aren’t we then lying by omission? While lying by omission is clearly a real phenomenon, not every omission is a lie. Far more is happening in the world and in our minds than we can ever speak, so omissions are inevitable. The difference between omissions and lies of omission are in the intentions. If I intentionally hide an important fact for my own benefit or to hurt others, then that’s a lie of omission. If I omit for neutral or positive reasons, then I have done no wrong, especially if I chose to speak something useful or encouraging in place of the omission.

Won’t people become put off by our new-found verbal discretion? What if someone asks for your opinion, but you don’t want that opinion getting out? The temptation to give in, or to tell a white lie could be strong, but I’ve found that people usually respect a firm refusal, with or without a reason given. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that,” or “I’d rather not talk about Betty when she’s not around,” are the simple one-liners that draw a clear boundary about what you will and won’t say.

The Internet Corollary

Many people use the Internet as if it is anonymous and private, and countless members of this group have lost friends, spouses, and jobs when they find out just how wrong they are. Having seen the destruction caused by a misguided email, text, or Facebook post, I made a decision early-on to regard anything I put on the internet as public information that not only will everyone be able to see, but will be recorded for all time. And if you doubt that last assertion, take a look at archive.org, which takes snapshots of the Internet going back as far as 1996.

Given the growth of mobile devices, records of our mundane words and actions will be more and more a matter of public record, stored indefinitely and increasingly searchable. Without a way to put this technological genie back in the bottle, the only option I see is to live and speak impeccably, so we have as little as possible to apologize for when our most casual comments become globally visible.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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