9 Feb 2022

How to think before you speak

In a world where immoderate remarks are unleashed with uninhibited abandon on social media, where furious disagreements are followed online by millions, and arguments and accusations are given unprecedented amounts of airtime, public discourse lacks basic civility and careless remarks can become dangerous provocations. In this context, words like moderation and restraint are increasingly seen as quaint and old-fashioned.

But these qualities have always been recognised as the cornerstone of civilised behaviour and the ability to deploy them when thinking before you speak is an essential social skill. Whatever the provocation – a heated argument, a challenging debate, a family row – individuals should ensure that discourse is courteous and civilised. This means that they must pause before unleashing invective or accusations, and carefully calibrate the consequences and defensibility of their remarks.

Taking all these considerations into account does not render conversation bland or meaningless. It ensures that individuals only utter offensive or distasteful remarks if they are satisfied that they can be fully vindicated, and are confident that, if they are called upon to defend themselves, they will be able to do so.

The ability to think before you speak requires an array of social skills: the capacity to think quickly about the validity of your comment, to project ahead and assess the potential consequences of a remark, to empathise with the feelings and fall-out that may be experienced by the recipient. All these myriad appraisals are easily jeopardised by white-hot rage, deeply ingrained arrogance, or a sense of self-justification.

Above all, it is important to acknowledge that words have consequences. Once they have been uttered, the fall-out is beyond the speaker’s control, and the impact can be shattering. Many of us will have experienced the repercussions that follow ill-advised remarks spoken in anger, or during the heat of argument, and bitterly regretted.

Words that have been enunciated cannot be unsaid and the clock cannot be turned back. If you have expressed yourself intemperately and regret your outspoken allegations, the best policy is to offer an immediate mea culpa. Acknowledge the offence that your remark has caused, and apologise sincerely for it. Do not attempt to justify what you said, or offer excuses for your lack of restraint. Take responsibility, express regret and move on. 

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