I have a big mouth. Most of the times I get myself in trouble it’s because I open it too much. Usually I’m interrupting someone while trying to sound smart, which isn’t a very effective approach.

In person I can temper my big mouth with a certain degree of tact. Online or via email the tact switch is rarely flipped of its own accord. My first drafts for many work email messages often come across like they were written by a condescending, sarcastic, passive-aggressive jerk. Maybe they were. For some recipients I have to go through three or four rewrites before a message reaches the point where it’s ready to be sent.

When I’m considering saying something via voice or text I try (and often fail) to follow these five guidelines:

  1. Is it true?

    This seems so obvious, but ends up being surprisingly difficult in practice. We know lying is wrong, but the regularity with which we lie to ourselves and everyone around us is not a pleasant thing to confront. People (myself included) lie all the time, because it’s useful, easy, and often seems like the nice thing to do.

    A Federal Court judge included a profound passage on lying in a recent ruling that’s well worth a read.

    The ubiquity, ease, and utility of lying doesn’t excuse it. We learned this as kids, but I’m not sure a habit of deep truthfulness really sticks with most people through adulthood. 100% honesty is great in theory, but really difficult in practice.

    While we’re on the subject, it’s worth considering when silence can be a lie as well.

  2. Is it kind?

    Many of us were told growing up that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”

    Words shouldn’t be used as weapons.

    That’s not to say people don’t need to be told when they’re wrong. Often telling someone they’re wrong can be the highest and most difficult kindness you can do for them. But we shouldn’t be jerks about it when we do.

  3. Is it helpful?

    How many five-paragraph email messages have we read (or written) that could have been shortened to a sentence or two? How many blog posts? (Maybe this one.) How many times has a brief question over the phone turned into an hour long rant about some minor inconvenience?

    Random chatter about the weather or what a co-worker had for lunch that day isn’t particularly helpful past a certain point. It’s good to be polite and nice conversations are important when building relationships with people, but how much of what we say or write every day is just useless noise?

    If you can, be succinct and make a positive difference with your words to someone other than yourself.

  4. Is it harmless?

    Along the lines of office gossip, how often do we get together with people and spend all our time complaining about somebody else? The boss, the client, a co-worker, the unpopular portable electronics manufacturer of the day—all are common targets.

    Are we undercutting our friend’s relationship with another person when we have that conversation? It may seem like you’re wielding the Righteous Sword of Office Justice at the time, but is that kind of divisive speech really helping anyone?

    How often is it a good thing to drive two people apart? How much damage has idle gossip done to people’s relationships in your office or home?

  5. Is it timely?

    “You really should’ve brought some warmer clothes” may be a true and even helpful statement in the right circumstances. But if you’re halfway through a five-mile snowshoe excursion in a blizzard, it isn’t a particularly delicate thing to say.

    Likewise, if you’re really fired up over a co-worker’s clumsily written and mildly offensive email message, then the moment after you’ve read it might not be an especially constructive time to compose a retort. It’s probably not the best time to post the message to Facebook either.

    What about sarcastic, seemingly witty jokes at someone’s expense? The kind of jokes that wouldn’t be funny if you said them two minutes later? How many of those things need to be said right now? Can it wait? If not, is it because somebody is going to get injured, or is it just that you won’t seem funny or smart?

I fail to speak truthfully, kindly, helpfully, harmlessly and at the right moment every single day. Maybe you do too.

I’m not writing this because I’ve got it all figured out. I’m writing it because intellectually I know these guidelines are helpful and yet they’re still incredibly difficult for me to follow.

So I’m going to try to put down the Righteous Sword of Office Justice for a minute and think before I speak. I invite you to join me.

The world will be a better place as a result.