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The buddhist notion of right speech is a tool that can help us navigate the process of telling the truth in an ethical way.

The truth is something that most of us value. Even more so in this questionably post-truth era. We want to tell the truth, or at least, not to lie.

But we are confronted by situations where telling the truth seems like it might not be the right thing to do.

One of the easiest example: it’s your birthday and you’re presented with a gift. It’s a god-awful ugly sweater. You know instantly that you’re never going to wear it. But you also know that your friend took the time and effort to go buy this gift for you. Let’s assume it’s not a half-hearted regift of something they knew you wouldn’t like. If your friend gets you a present because they like you and they wanted to make you happy, and the present doesn’t make you happy, how should you react?

Most of us would probably try to seem happy with the gift, and then quietly donate (or regift) it later.

In this example we have practiced right speech. The traditionally “polite” thing to do, is often also what one would do if one were operating through a lens of right speech. But that’s not always the case.

Right speech gives us a more concrete framework than what we can infer from a general deference to politeness.

The buddhist tradition of right speech (along with several other traditions) suggests that we ask ourselves a few filtering questions when we are deciding whether or not to express something. These three questions are the ones that seem to be used most frequently:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it necessary?
  3. Is it kind?

If we can answer yes to all three questions, then we can express our thought with confidence that we are probably doing something good.

If we can only answer yes to two out of three of those questions, then we might want to consider not expressing our thought. Perhaps we ought to express our thought anyways — context dependent. But we have reason to pause and think further.

If we can only answer yes to the first question — if something is true, but not necessary and not kind — then we should probably defer to not expressing our thought.

This is a high-barrier of filtering and questioning to do on every thought that we are considering expressing. Perhaps it is too much of a burden. It depends on the context, and on our relationships with the people we are considering expressing something to, and on other incalculable elements of interpersonal calculus.

These filtering questions are also subject to the wishy-washy-ness of our own subjectivity. Maybe we’re an extremely disagreeable person and believe that many things are necessary to say, while others might believe that much of what we have to say was not quite necessary to say.

But we can still benefit from keeping these three questions of right speech in mind as a reference point, for moments in which we are genuinely torn about whether or not to express something. It’s not the be-all and end-all of communication decision-making, but it is a pragmatic micro-level tool to help us navigate tricky interpersonal territory.

We want to tell the truth, but we want to do so in a way that makes things better, not worse. We also don’t want to be disingenuous. We want to feel as though our outer existence is congruent with our inner life.

Practicing right speech can help us navigate the deceptively complicated process of trying to tell the truth while also trying to be kind.