I didn’t know the gun was loaded

It happens all the time. For some people it’s things they say. They speak without thinking and then realize (or worse yet, don’t!) that they have said something to hurt or offend another. For them, it’s sometimes “open mouth, engage foot.” For others, it’s not just a remark, but an entire conversation that they suddenly realize could have been thought of as hurtful or that causes the other person to reduce contact or react angrily.

People can err on both sides of the communication spectrum. They can be so very careful of what they say that it is almost impossible to engage them in a real conversation. They are worried that what they say may be taken the wrong way or may not be something that people would generally agree with. On the other side is the person who just talks without giving any thought to what he or she is saying. Both of these approaches are problematic. But both are attempts that people make to solve the same problem.

And the problem is this: how do I express myself—my thoughts, opinions, experiences without making others uncomfortable or worse yet, oppositional to me. For people on the quiet end of the spectrum, their solution is to just remain silent a good deal of the time. Abraham Lincoln said “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” These people must be drawn out and often what they have to say is worthwhile hearing because they have taken the time to think things out. When they remain silent, they may be feeling emotions that have no outlet and then they can build resentments, anger, and fears that could be alleviated by a simple exchange of words.

On the other side of the spectrum, people decide, “it’s too much trouble to worry about how people will react. I will just “tell it like it is” and if they don’t like it, well, tough.” So some of these people will talk even before a fully formulated thought is present, making it up as they go along. If they are bright and talented, they can often get away with it, but if they aren’t, well, sometimes people will just stop listening.

All of us err in both directions from time to time, but of course the middle road would be the desirable one. A person should think before he or she speaks. His words should be chosen so as to convey the meaning he or she intends, and he or she should think about the person who is receiving the message and whether the message will in any way hurt or offend the other. If so, then rewording or rethinking the utterance might be advisable.

In Jewish life we have the concept of shemirat halashon, watching or guarding one’s tongue. It’s not such a bad idea.

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