Sefer Chofetz Chaim chapter 5, halachos 5 and 6

Today we learned about the subtleties of speech. A statement can be taken two ways so you have to be very careful with not only what you say but how you say it or about whom you are talking about, time, place, etc. You should be so quick to say I am just trying to help the guy if it might harm him or her. The important rule of thumb that he quotes from the Rambam is that whatever you say that might harm a person physically, monetarily, or cause undo pain and suffering psychologically, or make him terrified of others is lashon hara.

We first discussed that if you call a person weak it might harm him if he is a construction worker, for example, by trait then who will hire him, or if he is weak minded and is a teacher who will hire him? If he is called weak minded maybe people will think he can’t handle a classroom. That is clearly lashon hara. On the other hand if your intent in calling someone weak or not strong is to tell people he is not controlling or over powering then it is not lashon hara, therefore you have to way all the possibilities and ramifications before opening your mouth to speak.

Similarly if you tell people that so and so is not wealthy then it could e really bad because people might not want to work with him or give him alone but on the other hand they might help him and give him tzedakah, so again one has to be careful what he says and t whom he says it to, and how it comes across.

Furthermore, the same statement can be taken two different ways depending on who you talk about. If you say about a guy who is learning in Kollel and being supported by his in-laws that he only learns 3-4 hours a day that is lashon hara. But if you talk about a hard-working entrepreneur who is trying to support a family on his own that he learn Torah 3-4 hours a day that a tremendous praise.

Similarly if you say tell people how a lower income person gives a dollar to anyone who goes over to him and asks for money that is a praise but to say that a millionaire gives a dollar to each person that asks for money, only a dollar, constitutes lashon hara.

One last interesting point the Chofetz Chaim makes is that when the Torah says “Love your neighbor as yourself” and Chazal say “Don’t do something to others which you would hate to be done to you” that does not give you the excuse to say “What’s wrong with saying this guy only learns 3 or 4 hours a day, if people would be saying that about me I would be quite happy!”  That is not what Chaza”l meant, rather you have to view yourself in the other guy’s shoes, and if you were him, you would not want that to be done or said about yourself.