What is true, informative, and not harsh,
Who gives offense to no one,
I call a brahmin.
Dhammapada v. 408, translated by Gil Fronsdal
Continuing with describing the actions of a superior person, the Buddha very succinctly gives some instruction on wholesome speech. In contemplating this instruction, I came to see that we cannot have one thing in our minds and another thing in our speech. Most of us are not able to successfully mis-represent our thoughts, so we need to guard not only our words but how we are thinking about ourselves and others in the world.
Because it’s so hard (almost impossible) to catch our thoughts before they are formed into words, the practice of attending to our speech will point to which of our attitudes need adjustment.
True, informative, not harsh, and giving offense to no one. These characteristics seem to be listed in order of importance: truthfulness is the foundation without which nothing else matters. Checking for the truthfulness of our words, preferably before we speak them, will prevent all manner of difficulties, and will also serve to increase our general awareness by placing more focus on the present.
Informative? This could also ask the question “Are these words useful? Does anyone really need or want to hear them?” Not harsh? Is the tone of voice or choice of words unnecessarily grating? Gentle speech can change the direction of any conversation.
“Giving offense to no one” is an area calling for awareness of and judgment regarding circumstances. The other day I witnessed a couple of people arguing vociferously in a hotel lobby. They continued the slanging match in the elevator (ugh) and kept it up while they proceeded to their rooms. Not only were they going nowhere with their digs at each other, they were oblivious to the effect they were having on the innocent bystanders around them. That was a demonstration of giving offense to everyone.
If we think what we are about to say might give offense, we can wait, think, and consider whether we can just not say it, or rephrase it as a question or a gentle, friendly reminder. If there is a feeling of compulsion behind our words, it’s often better to leave them aside.