Developing Right Speech

If you can’t have any control over your mouth, how can you expect to have any control over your mind?
 —  Ajaan Fuang

Many Americans are sarcastic and love a bit of rough banter, and this was something that made me feel at home during my last trip back to the US. Unfortunately, this same humor ended up causing serious harm to an important relationship. I realized that I needed to completely reevaluate the role of right speech in my life.

I’ve been paying more attention to this over the past few months and have come up with my own list of common types of wrong speech. I’ve done them all; I don’t claim to be above any of these.

  1. The Joker: cruel, sarcastic and harsh words designed to get a laugh. It’s as if ‘I was just joking’ can be used to justify anything. Look carefully though, far fewer people are actually laughing at your jokes than you think. In fact, you might be causing real harm to your relationships.
  2. Locker Room Talk: The 45th President has lowered the bar on what we consider acceptable to say in public. I’m sympathetic to the backlash against excessive political correctness, but that’s not a free license to be rude and tasteless. I don’t think you can make locker room style comments all the time without being influenced by them.
  3. The Complainer: Everything is awful, and you have it worse than anybody else. People tense up as soon as you enter the room. Gossip often overlaps with complaining.
  4. The Natterer: You talk on and on about nothing. Your five minute chat turned into a three hour chat still about nothing.
  5. The Non-Doer: This guy talks about his grandiose plans but never takes any concrete steps to do anything about them.
  6. The Bad Listener: You interrupt, derail conversations and simple don’t listen.

There’s no way to break each habit by sheer willpower. The trick is to use a few keystone habits that take care of the other ones automatically.

Stop Complaing

The number one thing that cuts these habits is the no complaining challenge. If you do nothing else, do this. The mindfulness required to stop complaining cuts out the worst of the other issues.

Do Rather Than Talk

Talking about plans is a big part of American culture. Social media has only made this worse. Make a rule for yourself to not talk about plans unless you have a specific goal for that conversation. Rather than posting on Facebook that you are going to get in shape, privately ask a fit friends for advice and feedback. Talk kills work.


Stop Interrupting for starters. Spend more time watching people during conversations. You’ll start to see that facial expressions don’t match words. People laugh at and play along with your jokes to be polite, but their faces give it away that they’d rather not listen to such language. Real listening is about crushing the ego of the listener. Once that happens, the rest of right speech comes naturally.

There are a million books out there about meditation, Eastern philosophy and spiritual theory. There are surprisingly few resources on the more mundane task of how to speak. I hope this will change someday, and we’ll focus more on the fundamentals than the esoteric.