Don't Say Nice Things About People!

“If you can say something nice about someone, don’t!”   

This seems like an illogical and mean-spirited miscasting of the familiar maxim: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  But, taken as a general rule, “don’t say nice things about people” accurately reflects both Jewish ethics and human nature.  This week’s Torah portion helps explain why.   

Moses dispatched twelve spies (or scouts) to survey the land to which G-d was leading the Israelites.  When the spies returned, ten of them gave bad reports, whereupon G-d was incensed, and many bad things resulted, including forty years of wandering in the desert.

Beyond what they said, the rabbis noticed something important in the way they presented their account. Numbers 13:25-33 relates that:

At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land.  They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land.  This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover….”   

Our sages saw in this report a reflection of how we often speak about people.  We start with praise but then, sooner or later, turn negative.   Sometimes we do this to be (or appear) “balanced” in our characterizations; other times, our praise is really just a diplomatic cover before we deliver the criticism that was our primary objective. 

A remark such as "I think X is great, but there's one thing I can’t stand about him/her/them" is unlikely to trigger an extended discussion of his/her/their attributes; rather, the conversation probably will focus on that "one thing" and quite likely prompt the listener(s) to add other things to “share information” or appear better informed.  Even genuine praise limited to that praise runs a significant risk of the listener(s) responding with “he/she/they isn’t so great. I heard that/do you know that….”   

In probably no other area of life do so many of us regularly violate the Golden Rule as in speaking about others.  After all, few things are more interesting to talk about than other people's flaws, private hurts, and scandals.   And if (though this is unlikely), the slanderer is challenged, he or she is likely to offer the defense “well, it’s true!”  As if there is nothing wrong with criticizing another person, so long as, in the opinion of the slanderer, he/she speaks the truth!  

Of course what we say should be the truth, but the primary guide for our speech is the impact our words will likely have.  And too often, we can never know that impact.  While we can anticipate that negative speech usually has a negative impact (if only the listener’s opinion of the subject), even positive speech risks negative impact, such as suggested above.  Also, thoughtless, well-intentioned speech can be devastating and permanently rupture relationships.  It can cause untold harm that we will never know about. 

Judaism considers “evil speech” (“lashon hara”) as a sin analogous to murder, because it “murders” the reputation of another and, worse than a knife or gun, often does its damage from afar.  It’s even considered conceptually (and hyperbolically) “worse” than murder because it not only hurts the subject but also the speaker and everyone who hears the words – their character is also lowered by participating, even passively, in such conduct.  That’s why we are forbidden to listen to comments about others, not just to say them.   

It takes courage, but when we are in a conversation that turns to discussion of others, we should take it upon ourselves to change the subject, or if that isn’t possible, to leave the discussion.  I’ll admit that I was recently on the “wrong side” of just this situation at a Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem.  Forgetting the ethical rule I have discussed here, I was chatting with the hostess – I thought in a very complimentary way – the conduct of a certain Jewish group, a member of which was present at the table.  She sat silently while I “praised” her group.  Another guest, perhaps sensing her distress, interrupted and said “this conversation is becoming uncomfortable; let’s change the subject.”   She was right to do so.  The next day, I confirmed with the hostess that I had neither said anything derogatory nor untrue; just the opposite.  But that wasn't the point.  The fact that I was discussing the other guest's group at all was the problem.  Had I considered the possible negative impact of any unnecessary discussion of her group, and reminded myself that I couldn't possibly know the potential impacts, I would -- and should -- have said nothing about it.

Eighteenth century Swiss theologian and poet Jonathan K. Lavater advised: "never tell evil of a man if you do not know it for a certainty, and if you know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, "why should I tell it?"  Occasionally, you may have a valid reason to say something negative about another person.  For example, if somebody wants to go into business with, or hire, or is dating someone you know to be inappropriate for him or her, you should tell that person-but no one else-what you know.

When doing so, don't exaggerate.  And if you're not certain that information is true, say so: "I've heard it said that... but I'm not sure it's true; I just think you should look into it."  ... Remember: even in those instances when it's permissible [i.e., it’s necessary to protect others] to spread a negative truth, be specific, be precise, and eternal be fair.  In other cases, when the negative information is no one else's business, let the words of Ben Sira, a wise citizen of ancient Israel, guide you: "have you heard something?  Let it die with you.  The strong; it will not burst you."  (Aprocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 19:10)

The risk of harm from any speech about another person is so great that Judaism extends the principle to “it’s best not to speak about others at all, unless what is said is both true and necessary to be said.”  In the overwhelming majority of cases, it’s not necessary to say anything, and the risk of causing harm is incalculable.  Therefore, as a rule, it’s best to say nothing at all about others, even if prompted to do so.  

The best way to be good to people is to do good things for them – and not to talk about them!

Shabbat shalom.

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb