Speaking with virtue

I gather that the Celts held good speech to be a virtue. What does this mean in practice? There are some obvious ways in which speech can be virtuous – being truthful without being offensive is the most apparent. Saying things you do not mean in the heat of the moment is not virtuous. Good speech is thoughtful, measured, and considered even when it is passionate. Here are some other suggestions for making speech into an ethical expression of self.

Speaking with clarity is a virtue. Rushed, clumsy and thoughtless speech can be hard to follow. Poor communication can cause injury and distress. Take the time to make sure that your words convey what you meant to the person listening. This means keeping an eye on how they appear to respond, and if feedback isn’t offered, ask for it, and listen. “But that wasn’t what I meant!” is such a commonly offered excuse when offence is taken. If the other person has heard something you didn’t mean, then the onus is on you to fix that, explain, and try to understand how they got the wrong idea. Tell them it wasn’t what you meant, but carefully re-explain yourself so as not to pile one injury on another by rejecting their reaction. Different people interpret in different ways, and the clearer we can be the less scope there is for confusion. There are people who will wilfully misinterpret, so give them as little scope to do so as possible.

Speak to offer praise. If something is good, comment on it. Anything clever, worthy, beautiful, truthful, brave and so forth deserves to be praised. Use your speech to support that which you value, to talk up those who do well, and to celebrate what is good. In doing this you enrich the lives of those around you and encourage them to continue doing well. Praise is nurturing, it feeds creativity, and helps folks stay brave and honourable in hard times.

It is equally important to speak in criticism, to acknowledge when all is not well. This should be done with care and respect, rather than with a view to knocking down or taking apart. To refrain from commenting on a wrong thing is to allow it to continue unchecked. If people do not know they are in error, they have no scope to repair or improve. Balancing praise and criticism makes it clearer that both are genuine, either offered to the exclusion of the other is not virtuous speech and will seem suspect to those hearing it.

Speak with eloquence. Language, be it spoken or written, is a thing of beauty. Most people only use a tiny handful of the available words, turning to cliché and expletives in search of colour. Be creative with your words, be poetic, graceful and playful. Speak quietly and well, and folks will listen – only rarely is it necessary to shout. Let what you say come from your heart, and offer it with sincerity. Beautiful speech is a skill, an asset, a way of enriching your life. When you part your lips, do so to add something to the world, not to knock down or take away. Make your speech a blessing and a gift to those who hear it.

One of the things I’ve come to realise is that this takes time. In the hurried, pressured modern environment we rush through work and social contact alike. People don’t give themselves, or others, time to think. Without being able to pause before opening your mouth, it’s much harder to speak well. However, good, clear, honourable speech avoids a lot of problems and is inherently valuable. It is worth slowing down to do this properly.

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