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Faults against Decorum
Committed through Talk

The Apostle St. James says, you can be sure that you are perfect if you commit no fault when speaking (Js 3:2). In his book on Civility and Decorum, St. John Baptist de La Salle properly notes that whoever does not offend against decorum by words truly knows how to live properly in this world and displays wise and well-regulated external behavior.

Today it often seems that most of the time-honored rules governing conversation – especially in unequal relationship as between superiors and inferiors, adults and youth, teachers and students – have been totally disregarded. Thus it seems opportune to present some basic rules the Saint sets out that should regulate conversation.

St. John-Baptiste de la Salle

To speak without consideration means to speak without discretion, without control, and without paying attention to what you say. The Wise Man warns us that to avoid this defect, we must be very attentive to our words, so that we do not dishonor our soul (Eccl 19:38 [20:8 Douay]).

In fact, no one has esteem for a person who speaks indiscreetly. For this reason, you ought to be on guard, according to the advice of the same Wise Man, against being too quick with your words (Eccl 4:34 [Douay]). For the reason why you speak inappropriately and without control is that you often say things without having thought seriously about them. …

If you wish to speak with discretion and prudence, you must never speak before thinking carefully about what you intend to say. You do not have to reveal all that is on your mind, and in many things you must act as if you were ignorant (Eccl 32:12 [Douay]).

The Wise Man adds that if you are well-informed about something you wish to talk about or someone else is talking about, you may speak or give answer appropriately; otherwise, you ought to keep your hand over your mouth (5:14). This means that you must keep silent, lest you be surprised into an indiscreet word or fall into embarrassment.

To speak prudently, consider whether it is the proper time to speak or to remain silent. It is imprudent and thoughtless for you not to pay attention to the right time for speaking and instead to talk when you are prompted by just the mere desire to talk. It is necessary, according to St. Paul, that you make sure that every word you utter be so saturated with grace and seasoned with the salt of wisdom that you never utter a single word without realizing why and how you are saying it (Col 4:6).

Finally, as the Wise Man recommends, you need to learn before you speak. Therefore, never discuss a topic without knowing a great deal about it, so that you will say what you have to say so wisely and so appropriately that you will make yourself more highly esteemed because of your words (Eccl 18: 18–19; 20:31 [29 Douay]).

When someone has said or done something that is out of place and you notice that this person spoke without reflecting and is already aware of it and embarrassed when he thinks of himself and of what he said, you ought to pretend to have noticed nothing. If he excuses himself, it would be prudent and charitable for you to interpret the incident in a favorable light.

Never poke fun at someone who proposed something a little unreasonable, and still less ought you to treat him with disdain, for it may be that you did not correctly understand what he had in mind.

Finally, it is never proper for an polited person to embarrass anyone. It is prudent, when someone is using insulting language, for you not to reply in kind and not to undertake to defend yourself. It is better to pretend that you take the whole thing as a joke, and if someone else comes to your defense, you ought to show that you are not upset by what was said. It is characteristic of a truly wise person never to be upset by anything.

To let us know in a few words who the people are who speak with wisdom and prudence and who those are who speak imprudently, the Wise Man gives us this admirable rule: The hearts of fools are in their mouths, and the mouths of the wise are in their hearts (Eccl 22 [21]:26). This means that those who lack good sense let everyone know by the proliferation and the thoughtlessness of their words whatever they have in their heart, but those who have common sense and self-discipline are so reserved and circumspect in speaking that they say only what they want to say and what is proper for people to know.

When you are with people older than you or with the very elderly, it is a matter of decorum to speak little and to listen a great deal. You ought to act in the same way in the company of important people. This advice that the Wise Man gives you is most appropriate indeed (Eccl 32:13 [9]).

It is also a matter of refinement that a child, when in the company of people to whom he must show respect, speaks only when he is invited to speak (ibid., [32]:11 [7]; 19:5 [Eccl 32:10–13 Douay]).

You must be very careful not to reveal secrets to one and all. This is a piece of advice given by the Wise Man that would be quite imprudent to ignore. Before revealing a secret to anyone, you must make sure who is the person to whom you intend to tell the secret, whether he is able to keep the secret, and whether he will indeed do so.

Those who have nothing to relate except gossip and frivolous, silly stories and those who affect introductions so long that no one else can speak would do much better to keep quiet. It is far better to gain a reputation for being a person of few words than to bore people with nonsense and stupidities or always to have something to say.


The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility,
LaSallian Publications, reprinted 2007, pp 116-118

Posted October 12, 2019


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