The mouth should have three gatekeepers: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
A wise friend of mine posted that saying on her social media page the other day. And it sat heavy on my brain for the remainder of the day and into the next. There are moments in our lives when one story, or even one phrase can change our view from where we stand. I can’t proclaim that my mouth suddenly became angelic upon reading those questions. But they definitely got me thinking. I wondered, should those questions act as the protector of my words? Our mouths and tongues can often battle an ugly cycle - we gossip, we bitch, we lie, and we ignore the filtering system rooted in our conscience. But if we’re striving to be happier and healthier people, it can’t hurt to ask ourselves these questions before we speak - Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
I love to tell stories. Sometimes, I tell them well (I learned that from a radio host I worked with early in my broadcast career). And at other times, I get long-winded and include inconsequential details (I get that from my father who loves to tell a long story with many winding roads. But that’s part of his charm). I recently started reading a biography about the great American author Ernest Hemingway. In this book, the biographer notes that Hemingway was a teller of tall tales. While Hemingway may have fabricated some real-life stories, his storytelling certainly made him one of the most beautiful writers of 20th-century fiction. But making up stories about characters in works of fiction is different than speaking untruths or unpleasantries about a real person’s life. You’ve probably done it. I know I have. But maybe we need to change our way of thinking the next time we begin to say something untrue, unkind, or unnecessary.
The following story will be written as the version I was told. Which doesn’t necessarily make it true. I can’t say that it’s a kind story. In fact, it really isn’t. And it’s only necessary to tell because it relates to the theme of this blog. This story was brought to life in 1993, when I was a freshman at The Ohio State University. It centers around a young woman. Let’s call her The Girl. She was pretty, fun, athletic, and overall, a cool chick. The Girl was friendly with everyone and didn’t seem like the type to make enemies. I hung out with her a few times in the dorms and around South Campus, which was considered the old side of campus. The buildings on South Campus had architectural character and were closer to the fun bars on High Street. Our weekends (and some weekdays) consisted of: 1. Dancing to a club remix version of “Copacabana” (yes, that does exist) at Mean Mr. Mustards. 2. Watching men wrestle live bears at that same bar (I’m not sure how that was legal). 3. Spending hours in a basement dungeon called Not Al’s Too, drinking bad beer and taking shots of something cheap and disgusting. 4. Capping off the night with a slice of pepperoni pie at Pizza By The Slice or Catfish Biff’s. None of it was classy, but it was part of the real college experience - raw, entertaining, exhausting, and sometimes messy. And for The Girl, things got real messy. Or so the story goes.
One night, The Girl parted ways with our group and was on the hunt for a college boy with whom she spent a few lovely evenings (or late, late nights). Let’s just call him The Boy. He lived in a fraternity house on campus and was a few years older than The Girl. What truly happened that night, I have no idea. But this is how the story goes... The Girl spent over an hour knocking on The Boy’s door. He knew it was her and didn’t want to answer. Eventually the knocking stopped and when he opened the door, he found The Girl passed out on the floor outside of his room. Nothing about that is terribly strange or reputation-shattering. But as the story was told, repeated, and passed on outside the walls of that fraternity, it became a known “truth” that The Girl pooped her pants while she was sleeping on the floor. She went to see a guy. The guy didn’t want her. She drank too much, passed out, and shit her pants. That’s a mark no one wants on their record! The story spread like wildfire. Of course, people’s reactions varied from laughter, to pity, to judgement. But everywhere The Girl went, people snickered. And of course, the chatter and hearsay always happened behind her back. But it was clear that she became known as “The Girl Who Shit Her Pants.”
Was the story true? I can’t really be sure because I wasn’t there to witness it myself. But I did retell the story even though it was someone else’s version of that night’s events. Could it have been fabricated, or embellished? Possibly. Is there a chance that the odor coming from this young woman was really coming from the large dogs that were housed inside The Boy’s small room? Yes, that’s possible too. And quite honestly, there was always a stench coming from the hallways of this house (the guys weren’t exactly keeping it clean). But without questioning the facts, many of us on campus were repeating this story not knowing if it was 100% true.
Was this story kind? Clearly it wasn’t. How would you like to be known around campus as the girl who pooped her pants while she was passed out near some guy’s fraternity room? It was a story that was damaging to her reputation. And once it was told, it was a stigma that she could never escape.
Was it necessary to retell that story in circles where The Girl socialized? Absolutely not! That story was being told at someone else’s expense. Sure, over a couple of beers and amongst friends, it seemed funny (at the time). But there was no moral to that story. No takeaway, or lesson learned. (Although some might argue that the lesson was to be careful how much you drink and where you pass out).
Those three questions... Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? They come from of an old proverb. And the message is clear...
Before you speak, ask yourself those questions. They should be the gatekeepers of all real-life stories.