Last week, we noticed some water on the bathroom floor and concluded that the seal on the toilet was leaking. We don’t have a regular plumber, but I am in the habit of keeping lists of all kinds of craftspersons and handymen and noting who recommended them. It’s a habit you develop if you and your husband are both the opposite of handy. It was 6:45 p.m. by the time I called four different plumbers. Much to my surprise, one of them called back promptly and arrived soon after that.
“How did you find me?” he asked when he’d completed the job and I was writing the check. “In the phone book?”
“No. Linda Porter (not her real name) recommended you very highly.”
When he didn’t recognize the name, I said, “She’s short and talks a lot.”
He nodded and said, “Oh yeah, I think I know who you mean.”
We exchanged smiles.
I felt clever at that moment. I had pegged Linda in a few words, and as a writer, I have long been proud of my skilled, concise character descriptions. I had established a bit of a rapport with a plumber who responds promptly to emergency calls. Who knows when we might need him again? And I had given Linda the credit she deserved for referring me, which was, after all, my initial motivation.
Since then, however, I have harbored some misgivings. I did not intend the description as a compliment. After identifying Linda as “short,” I had consciously chosen to avoid the word “heavy,” but calling someone a chatterbox is not so much better than saying she is fat.
The whole experience reminded me of one of the cardinal teachings of Jewish ethical practice—not talking about other people (Shemirat Halashon). Prohibited speech (Lashon Hara) includes anything I might say about someone to a third party—not only criticism or insult but also compliments and praise. Some interpretations of this practice modify it to a prohibition of speaking about someone (positively or negatively) unless it is for a good reason.
I have always resisted this teaching. As someone who was raised in a therapy-friendly family and culture, I depend on my friends as confidants. If someone has upset me, I need to talk about it, to narrate my experience and receive loving input from someone with a different perspective. In confidence, of course—I only confide in people whom I trust not to repeat what I say. In addition, people who follow the traditional prohibition seem closed to me and therefore uninteresting. They don’t share their inner lives—the part of experience that is most important to me. They can’t tell me what’s upsetting them or exciting them because that usually involves a third party.
On the other hand, I get upset when people say nasty things about others and when I ask them to stop ridiculing someone or stereotyping a group of people, they respond, “But it’s the truth.” As if it’s okay to say hurtful things about someone as long as you are not making it up. He really does weigh 303 pounds or Asian women really are terrible drivers. It’s true, they argue (though by definition, no statement that applies to all members of a group of people can be factual).
This tendency is not uncommon in our culture. The political candidate who can substantiate accusations against her or his opponents often wins the race. The difference between a reputable celebrity magazine and a scandal sheet is that disparaging stories are responsibly fact-checked. As long as you can prove what you say about your colleague in the next office, or your brother-in-law, it is almost your obligation to disclose what you know.
I certainly don’t want to return to a time when journalists politely conspired to ignore the extramarital affairs of presidents and corporate whistleblowers went undefended against the wrath of their bosses. I do believe, however, that not everything that is factually accurate ought to be spoken. It depends, I think, on my motivation, on my careful consideration of why I am saying what I am saying and of what the consequences will be. And in the end, the negative effects on my psyche of criticizing or disparaging another person also count in the calculation of what to do.
I wanted to let the plumber know that Linda spoke very highly of him. When he didn’t recognize her name, it would have been better, I think, to leave it alone than to insult a sweet soul whose recommendation had saved us from a plumbing disaster.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/gossip-and-truth.
Image: “Water Droplets on a plant” by wynnert via Flickr.