Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Three Levels of Conversation

"Great minds discuss ideas;
Average minds discuss events;
Small minds discuss people."
- Author unknown (although it's often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt)

Some people take this proverb to mean that there are gradations of intellect revealed through our topics of conversation. Yet, what this saying truly demonstrates isn't how smart someone is, but rather what kind of person they are. The things we talk about reveal a great deal about our character.

Great people think for themselves, take the initiative when there's a problem, and aren't bothered by the negative things others say about them. Thus, they usually talk about ideas. Average people won't take the initiative to come up with new ideas, but will discuss subjects once they're already out there. Thus, they usually talk about events. Small people take the lowest road of all by talking about neither ideas nor events but other people. Consciously or not, they are using their energy to take others down instead of propping themselves up.

At one time or another, all of us have probably engaged in each type of conversation. After all, nobody is perfect and it's difficult to maintain lofty topics of discussion. Nevertheless, the more noble our conversations are, the less likely we will be to denigrate or otherwise harm someone else. As you climb higher up the levels of conversation, there tends to be an improvement in character and a deflation of ego; and the lower you go, the easier it becomes to be cruel and self-centered.

Throughout the Jewish calendar, there are all sorts of social gatherings that take place, from Shabbat and holiday meals to weddings and school dinners. During these get-togethers, it's important to remember how a single remark about another person can cause a great deal of trouble. Just as one positive comment can improve someone's reputation, one negative comment can ruin their future. So when in doubt, try to avoid talking about other people. It's a lowly activity at best and a destructive practice at worst.

That old mantra really does ring true: think before you speak. Not only should we consider our words carefully, but we should also consider the topics we talk about. If that sometimes means keeping quiet or overtly changing the subject, so be it. It's better to do what is right than to worry about self-image. And in case you happen to have been on the wrong end of someone else's conversation, don't sweat it. There is another instructive proverb (and it also happens to be attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt):

"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do."

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