January 07, 2013

How Your Words Can Change the World

In our media-driven and Facebook-obsessed society, it’s easy to forget the awesome power of words. Words have enormous power to hurt or to heal, to make or break reputations, to uplift or degrade another human being. In this way, the words we speak literally change the world and how we view the people in it. Here are ten ways to improve the world and ourselves through channeling our power of speech for the good.

1. Avoid Gossipmongers
Ancient Jewish sages said, “Gossip kills three: the teller, the listener, and the subject.” The damage spreads like wildfire, with chronic tale-bearers ultimately becoming negative and mistrusted by others. The gossip victim’s reputation is sullied, often unfairly. And the Talmud says that the listener is most damaged of all, because he alone had the power to turn away or change the subject, helping to stop the defamation of a third party. 

2. Talk About Ideas, Not People
Talking about ideas can elevate, educate and stimulate, but talking about people easily becomes gossip. In Hebrew this sort of talk is called “lashon harah,” literally, “bad talk.” . Once you are discussing “Mary,” it’s just too easy to start judging her outfit, her boyfriend, her tendency to talk too much or too little. Speaking poorly of others can make us smug and self-satisfied, and less inclined to focus on improving ourselves.

3. Think Before You Speak
We are so eager to talk, and so used to instantly texting, emailing, or posting our thoughts online that we often forget to ask ourselves: Who benefits from what I am going to say? Ask yourself this question and you may save yourself from spreading words that may hurt.

4. Truth Is No Excuse
Even if gossip is true, we should not spread the news. It probably is not our business to know about it anyway.

5.  Judge Others Favorably
Look for the good in other people, even when it’s difficult. Perhaps they are going through a difficult personal challenge, or just had a bad day. This will make it less likely that you will gossip about them after a negative interaction.

6. They Don’t Call Gossip ‘Dirt’ For Nothing
Speech is a gift, but abusing it through gossiping is like firing a gun: innocent people are bound to get hurt.

7.  Change the Subject when Gossip Begins
Look for a fast opportunity to change the subject when you’re with someone who starts dishing the dirt. Even if the gossiper finds a more willing ear than yours, at least you won’t have been an accomplice.

8.  Don’t Believe Gossip
Judaism forbids us to believe gossip when we hear it. Remember that there are always three sides to any story: his side, her side, and the truth. 

9. Share Bad News Only If You Must
Sometimes you have no choice but to share negative reports if the stakes are high enough. For example, Judaism condones sharing what you know about another person if it involves a potential marriage or business partner. But you must be certain of your facts, not exaggerate, and have the other person’s best interests at heart.

10.  Measure Even Words of Praise
Praising the beauty of a friend’s new diamond necklace in front of a third party who could not afford such a thing could easily create feelings of envy and resentment. Congratulating a new mother on her baby can bring tremendous pain if said in front of a childless couple. Before you lavish praise or congratulations, consider who else is standing by. Could your praise of one person cause pain to a third?

In a world where talk has become too cheap, keeping these ideas in mind can help us elevate not only our words, but our relationships as well.

(This column originally appeared in slightly different form on BeliefNet.com.)



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