Our modern world suffers from over-communication. The prevailing culture insists we reply to all text messages within 10 minutes, be attentive to the mountain of emails building up in our inbox, and religiously return random ‘missed calls’ on our phones. Don’t forget to regularly post something witty on Instagram, follow obscure acquaintances on Twitter, and utilise all the free airtime minutes on your mobile contract! It is, after all, good to talk. But what is the net result of this web of exchange? Does it foster a greater sense of relationship and community, or is it a case of electronically connected, but further apart?
Silence, it’s said, is the art of conversation. You may have noticed how we struggle with a quiet moment. When it does arise, most will instinctively grab their smartphone in a desperate attempt to occupy their mind. Think about the last time you saw a young adult sitting down and doing absolutely nothing. Rare indeed! Even more unusual is to be with another person and not utter a word. It feels awkward and uneasy; alien and unnerving. Yet silence is essential – it forces us to understand, assimilate, reflect and think deeply about what is actually going on. Often times, however, in order to frantically fill those vacant moments, we end up generating substandard content to share with the world: meaningless, inconsiderate and shoddy communication.
Of all skills, the ability to appropriately utilise our speech is amongst the most powerful. In Chapter Seventeen, Krishna offers an over-arching model to guide our discourse. Words, He recommends, should be truthful, pleasing and beneficial. According to ancient legend, Socrates was once approached by someone bursting to express something. Before he could utter a word, Socrates questioned whether what he was itching to say was definitely true. The man was unsure. “No matter,” Socrates said “Is it something pleasant?” The man told him it wasn’t – likely a controversy or scandal. Socrates asked him one last question – “Is what you’re about to tell me something which will benefit and improve the situation?” The man now realised what Socrates was teaching him. If what we speak is neither true, nor pleasing, nor beneficial, it’s best it remains unsaid. In Plato’s words, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something!”
How much of our written and verbal communication would make it through this filter? Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely room for chitchat, niceties, and light-hearted exchange between humans. It would be unnatural to jump to the extreme of strictly regulating our every word. Along with freedom of speech, however, it may be worthwhile to remind people of their longstanding right to freedom of thought. Our words should educate, encourage and empower others, leaving a positive feeling and tangible sense of upliftment.
I always remember a mentor and friend who would tell me – “If all the words you said today were written over your body, would you still look like a saintly person?” A powerful meditation to embed within our psyche to help us filter out the nonsense.
“Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.” (Bhagavad-Gita 17.15)