Lashon hara, which means “evil tongue” in Hebrew, is a multifaceted concept.
Speech is considered to be lashon hara if it is true but says something derogatory about a person or party, divulges something not previously known to the public, and/or is not seriously intended to correct or improve a negative situation.
An example is a conversation intentionally meant to defame others, hurting them personally and professionally while doing nothing good or constructive. An exception is allowed when you know that someone could be harmed by another or you have information that would protect someone’s welfare.
Statements that fit this description are considered to be lashon hara regardless of whether they are communicated face-to-face or by letter, telephone or email.
Lashon hara can also include positive comments.
The Rambam states in Bava Basra 164b:
• Don’t be excessive in your praise of another for this will inevitably lead to mentioning his shortcomings as well.
• Don’t praise someone in front of people who do not like him because you invite them to mention the features they dislike.
I got some help understanding this “positive” side of lashon hara, which also includes not talking about someone unless there is learning involved. So for example, if you mention a person’s legacy, or an achievement that could help someone else, that is constructive. But to gossip about someone, even if it is positive, could be considered lashon hara.
There is a lesson here, at least for me, from both sides of lashon hara: I should think about my words before I speak them, the specific words I use, how I say them, where I say them and to whom.
Patricia Raskin is a radio producer and talk-show host. “The Patricia Raskin Show” airs on WPRO. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org