Editor’s note: The following rules for civil conversation were written in 1692 by the influential English jurist Matthew Hale in a letter to his children. It’s amazing how well they hold up over three centuries later! (The text has been abridged and re-formatted from the original.)
1. Never speak anything for a truth which you know or believe to be false. Lying is a great offense against humanity itself; for where there is no regard to truth there can be no safe society between man and man. And it is an injury to the speaker; for, besides the disgrace which it brings upon him, it occasions so much baseness of mind that he can scarcely tell truth, or avoid lying, even when he has no necessity for it. In time he comes to such a pass, that as other people cannot believe he speaks the truth, so he himself scarcely knows when he tells a falsehood.
2. As you must be careful not to lie, so you must avoid coming near it. You must not equivocate, nor speak anything positively for which you have no authority but report, or conjecture, or opinion.
3. Let your words be few, lest you rob yourself at the opportunity to gain knowledge, wisdom, and experience by listening to those whom you silence by your “impertinent talking.”
4. Be not too earnest, loud, or violent in your conversation. Silence your opponent with reason, not with noise.
5. Be careful not to interrupt another while he is speaking. Hear him out, and you will understand him the better, and be able to give him the better answer.
6. Consider before you speak, especially when the business is of moment. Weigh the sense of what you mean to utter, and the expressions you intend to use. Inconsiderate persons do not think till they speak; or they speak, and then think.
7. When you are in company with light, vain, impertinent persons, let the observing of their failings make you the more cautious, both in your conversation with them and in your general behavior, that you may avoid their errors.
8. Be careful that you do not commend yourself. It is a sign that your reputation is small and sinking if your own tongue must praise you.
9. Speak well of the absent whenever you have a suitable opportunity. Never speak ill of them or of anybody unless you are sure they deserve it, and unless it is necessary for their amendment, or for the safety and benefit of others.
10. Do not scoff and jest at the condition or natural defects of any person. Such offenses leave a deep impression.
11. Be very careful you give no reproachful, threatening, or spiteful words to any person. When faults are reproved, let it be done without reproach or bitterness. Otherwise the reproach will lose its due end, and, instead of reforming, it will exasperate the offender and lay the reprover justly open to reproof.
12. If a person be passionate, and give you ill language, rather pity him than be moved to anger. You will find that silence or very gentle words are the best revenge for reproaches. They will either cure the angry man, and make him sorry for his passion, or they will be a sore reproof and punishment to him. But, at any rate, they will preserve your innocence, give you the reputation of wisdom and moderation, and keep up the serenity and composure of your mind.