Pause and think of the consequences of being too frank or blunt.

The famous American playwright Tennessee Williams once remarked, ‘All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.’

Frankness may be among the most overrated of virtues! And here’s why.

Because unalloyed, unrestricted and unfiltered frankness is a recipe for breaking relationships, even the most intimate ones. Such frankness is understandable, acceptable and even ‘cute’ only in children under the age of five… a sort of Dennis-the-Menace, holy-terror cuteness that’s good for a laugh in a comic strip.

Thinking before one speaks and using restraint are hallmarks of growing maturity and preparation for life. Learning to put a filter between thought and spoken word (and, even more importantly, written word) is an important life skill. THINK is a popular acronym for True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind. This would do wonderfully well as a filter in our minds.

Truth and kindness

Are you beginning to wonder whether I am advocating telling lies to people? No, no, perish the thought! I am all for speaking what’s true, but only along with the other attributes in the acronym… particularly the last one, kindness.

In the righteous glow of speaking what we see as the truth, we often forget to be kind. We blurt out ‘truths’ even when it is totally unhelpful and unnecessary to do so, let alone inspiring!

Too often, such truth-telling is destructive rather than noble. Only those who do not care about the consequences can afford the luxury of ‘speaking their minds’ whenever and wherever they please.

When relationships are at stake, it is essential to choose the time, place and words appropriately when imparting unpleasant truths. And even then, only when absolutely necessary, and with the utmost kindness.

You may have noticed that those who revel in being ‘blunt’ about their opinions of others use words that are as ‘sharp’ as rapiers! And very often they are also the ones who are most sensitive to any criticism aimed at them.

They equate their outspokenness with honesty and bask in a self-generated aura of righteousness, which impels them to indulge in more and more such behaviour. Friendships and relationships may crumble around them without their noticing until it is too late.

Learning restraint

Speaking without forethought can be even more dangerous in other circumstances... for example, when someone has entrusted us with a secret.

A sign of maturity is the ability to keep a secret. Very young children are incapable of understanding the concept of a secret. To them, every piece of information is interesting, new and meant to be shared.

As we grow older, we all learn how to keep a secret, but too often we keep only our own secrets and not those that others confide in us. We may blurt out something a friend told us in confidence, perhaps carelessly but often to appear important in other people’s estimation.

It gives us a sense of power to know something that our friends don’t, and it requires conscious effort to keep the information to ourselves. But this is the real test of an important life skill: self-restraint.

Revealing a friend’s secret is equivalent to betrayal of the friendship. Indeed, the consequences may well spread way beyond the friendship alone. It may lead to gossip spreading like a forest fire, destroying peace of mind and even lives.

A secret revealed is like releasing a genie from a bottle. The genie can never be put back into the bottle; words can never be unsaid; the damage can never be undone.

These days, with chat apps and instant messaging, and social media websites inviting users to bare their souls, it may be even more difficult to exercise wisdom and self-restraint about what we share with others.

You tell someone something in confidence, and soon it may be out there in cyberspace for all to see.

Every once in a while we hear of a young person whose secret was ‘outed’ on a social media website, and who ended up committing suicide!

Words have power to hurt or heal. They are not mere tools for tweeting and messaging. Before the tongue speaks, before the fingers fly over the keyboard, it is important to pause and apply the THINK acronym filter. Is this True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind?

Of course it is important to communicate. But it is far more important to be considerate and compassionate. Speaking well is a skill; speaking kindly is a life skill.

Email the writer: malini1seshadri@gmail.com