Ethical Conduct : Right Speech
Śīla : samyag-vāc

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary. (From The Big View)

The Buddha's explanation of right speech, as highlighted above, seems pretty straightforward. Don't lie, don't say bad things about people, don't say hateful things and speak only when it means something. In principle, I agree with the first three. The fourth, though, I have to only partially agree with. I'm not a particularly talkative person, and I try to be conscious of the meaning of the words I do use, but "idle chatter", when not in conflict with the first three principles, can still be a very useful tool. The friendly banter among friends, the pleasantries exchanged with a co-worker around the coffee station, the shared dreams and "sweet nothings" exchanged between lovers, and the news of relations shared among family... These are some of the things that build and sustain close personal ties with people. However, when this idle chatter is done insincerely, without any sense of presence, or with self-serving motivations, then I absolutely agree that it is undesirable. Anything, done mindfully, and with the right intention can be positive. I wonder, then, if this kind of talking, done mindfully, that has no deeper meaning other than to build relationships with people, is then considered "idle chatter"? Does this still violate the intent of this principle? I think not, but that's my gut/heart talking. Doing a little research, I've been unable to find any guidance. I'm sure it's out there and if I turn anything up, I'll be sure to post a followup. If any of my handful of readers have an opinion, I'd love to hear from you, feel free to leave a comment.