Saturday, 24 July 2010

Kind and Necessary Truths

Years ago I remember hearing the idea that before speaking a person should judge what s/he was about to say against three criteria:

Is it true?     Is it kind?     Is it necessary?

During the short periods when I managed to remember and practice this, I found that I had remarkably little to say!  I think I was a teenager at the time so I expect, for those near me, this improved the quality of their life immeasurably. 

Though I’ve generally always aimed to tell the truth, ‘Is it true’ filters out all sorts of gossip or hearsay, and though some of it might be true its verity is not always known, so one can’t really go there.  Another area where this shows up shabby words is where we apply stereotypes or blithely spout ‘accepted wisdom’ about people or events without first hand experience or closer investigation.  I can remember occasions when I’ve been caught out and corrected – and rightly so.  I try to be more certain of my facts and, if I can, learn about the history involved. 

‘Is it kind?’ is a criterion with which some would argue, saying that hard truths must be said and one can’t always be kind in the real world.  I think telling a hard truth is kind in a tough sort of way, though I would think long and hard to make sure I wasn’t justifying myself.  It is the snide little witticisms and sarcastic remarks that evaporate under this light, no great loss, really.  Also pointing out other people’s weaknesses and foibles, which of course allows us to congratulate ourselves for not having them.  It may well be true, but the world is not a better place for it having been aired.  Brits are fond of saying that they “Don’t suffer fools gladly”.  I’ve not heard those words in the States as often as over here; I’m sure Americans just phrase it differently.  I’ve yet to hear a person say this that I didn’t wonder if they a) felt they were suffering me; and b) didn’t perhaps think excessively well of themselves.  Thereafter I'm afraid I don't seek their company gladly.

‘Is it necessary’ was the part that really shut me up (and, I realize, if rigorously applied would end this blog)!  My dad always observed that the less you said, the smarter people assume you are.  Not a bad consequence, is it?  Mind, the things that survive all these tests are the practical bits of information that let us work together and help one another, the small courtesies and considerations that smooth the way between people and of course all those genuine expressions of affection and regard that may be neglected and lost for speaking the unnecessary.   I’m really glad I was reminded of this idea recently, so I could pull it out and try to use it again.

Have you ever consciously tried to be more careful about what you say, just as a matter of principle? 


Steph said...

I think you're very, very correct and I like the way you write about it. The trouble comes when people assume you are A) Haughty or B) Stupid. I was brought up to speak when spoken to (by elders) and with the saying "It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and leave no one in doubt."

Even better "Actions speak louder than words." I fully believe that one, but it seems to me the rest of the world doesn't.

I have found in my adult life that I'm not often given latitude to just shut my mouth. Sometimes I feel forced into a conversational corner where the person just wants me to validate them, even if I'm not interested or I don't think they're right. It's usually unpleasant to be in that place and I have yet to find a satisfactory way out of it.

Or worse, the people who from the first impression assume I'm a snob for keeping quiet. They're *shocked* when I do nice things. Sigh.

Shelley said...

Hi Steph - It's often tricky dealing with other people, isn't it!? I'm not very happy confronting people either, though I find it seems to get easier as I get older. It has to be something that matters to me, though. I don't enjoy debate for it's own sake.

I've found "Do you think so?" is useful when someone says something I disagree with, or might disagree with I cared enough to challenge it (which I often don't). It lets them continue to talk about something they want to and I can generally manage to be non-commital if I don't really want to engage in a major discussion.

Another phrase is 'You may be right'. I'm often thinking "But it's not very damned likely" but I've avoided an argument and been able to move on. I save this one for people I care most about, but don't necessarily agree with.

If people think you are stuck up or are surprised when you do nice things, I'm assuming they don't know you very well (and at least it will be a pleasant surprise). If I have nothing much to add to a conversation, sometimes asking a pertinent question demonstrates I'm interested (or care enough to act so) and perhaps not too stupid.

If people assume you are a snob because you are quiet, is it because you are with people you don't care enough about to make an effort or are they just insecure?

Since I'm not in the working world anymore, my life is much simpler than it used to be!

Steph said...

What a great response, thank you... I'm like you, often I don't care enough to actually debate. I'll try those two phrases, they might just prove to be the words I've been looking for.

I never encountered the stuck up snob thing until I moved to Australia, specifically Queensland. I think that like most places, people tend to judge a stranger on outward appearance.

Mother always taught me to dress correctly for the occasion, to play to my strengths, and to be well-groomed. She taught me this shows a basic level of respect for the people around me and for myself. When I first moved here I always asked "How should I dress?" when invited to a social occasion, which was always met with raised eyebrows and skepticism. For a while, I caught myself dressing down and letting myself go. This pained me, so I quit. I don't like it that I am unfavorably judged for being well-groomed and properly dressed, like it is some sort of personality flaw.

(By well-dressed I mean no visible underwear, nice cuts and fabrics, and an attempt made at suitability for the occasion. I was NOT brought up to wear jeans to the theatre.)

I also ran up against several instances where I realized my accent and self-confidence put people off. When I did open my mouth, it was to speak firmly in American tones, rather than self-deprecating Aussie question-sentences. I'm not changing the way I speak or carry myself, so I learned to smile constantly. That does help though I feel like an idiot.

It's kind of ok, though... The women I work with (mostly older women, sewists and quilters) accept me and understand. They know I work hard and do a good job. Likewise, I respect them. I don't feel like I have that kind of respect in my life outside of my job, my husband and in-laws mostly think I'm kind of ridiculous. Can't win them all, right?