Skillful Speech: Abstaining from slanderous, harsh, and frivolous speech

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (pp. 95-102)

“And what is Right Speech?  Abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech, abstaining from frivolous speech. This is called Right Speech.”  –The Buddha

Truthful speech was covered in the last recap.  We will investigate the remainder:  slanderous speech, hard speech, and frivolous speech.

Slanderous Speech

This is speech spoken to others rather than directly to the person slandered.

Slander is to make a false spoken statement that causes people to have a bad opinion of someone. Slanderous speech “robs people of their good name and their credibility”

Slanderous speech comes from hate and ill-will and is meant to create division.  Even if the statement is true, if the intent is malicious (to hurt), it is unskillful.

Slanderous speech is Irretrievable.  Once it is out, you can never take it back.  As with an old Jewish folktale, it is like letting feathers out of a pillow.   Once you let them go you can never get them all back.  

Gossip can easily be slanderous.  The Three Laws of Gossip (Tad Friend – New Yorker 6/31/2000)

  1. The first law of gossip is that you never know how many people are talking about you behind your back.
  2. The second law is thank God.
  3. The third—and most important—law is that as gossip spreads from friends to acquaintances to people you’ve never met, it grows more garbled, vivid, and definitive. Out of stray factoids and hesitant impressions emerges a hard mass of what everyone knows to be true. Imagination supplies the missing pieces, and repetition turns these pieces into facts; gossip achieves its shape and amplitude only in the continual retelling. The best stories about us are told by perfect strangers.

Be mindful of what you might hope to gain by speaking so.

What is the antidote to slanderous speech?  Abstinence and silence.

Harsh Speech 

This is speech spoken directly to another person. 

Harsh speech is words spoken in anger.  Examples include verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, blunt or belittling criticism.  Harsh speech can be called bullying with words.

What is the antidote to harsh speech?  Patience and speaking gently and kindly. 

Frivolous Speech 

Frivolous speech is talk that lacks depth or purpose.  Gossip, if not slanderous. is a form of frivolous speech.  Engaging in frivolous speech can tempt the mind to engage in the other forms of unskillful speech, lying, slander, and harsh words.

The Buddha mentioned the kinds of speech to be avoided:

“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — he abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.”

In everyday life, these topics are hard to avoid as they come up in conversation with others.  That is why it is important to be mindful in conversation.

The antidote to frivolous speech: Be aware of frivolous speech and mindful of the consequences. 


  • Each time you speak in the coming week, observe (without judgment), to see if you have spoken unskillfully.  Think if the antidote for the type of unskillful speech you used.  Try to apply it next time.
  • What do you find?

Next: Skillful Effort: Cultivating and Maintaining Positive States of Mind II
Previous: Skillful Speech: Introduction/How do we speak the truth?