Do We Really Want People to be Honest With Us?

D.R. McElroy

Watch out: I just might tell you what I’m really thinking. · 5 min read by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

They say that honesty is the best policy. This is frequently true, but honesty can also be a weapon. I know this because I’ve used it myself.

I’m one of those people who have no filter between their brain and their mouth: Whatever thought occurs to me is immediately spoken without regard to the consequences or to anyone’s feelings. Sometimes the results of this affliction are funny; sometimes they’re hurtful.

For example, a coworker once asked me what I thought of her new haircut. I replied, “It looks like a rabbit chewed it.” The rest of our office mates laughed, one seemed appalled, and the haircut owner flushed with embarrassment.

I witnessed these reactions with typical dispassion. I don’t try to be mean, I’m just not great at being nice.

Our society upholds truthfulness as one of the building blocks of democracy. Truth, we are taught, is critical to the proper functioning of a united community. In court, we “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”

Parents exhort their children to tell the truth, ignoring the many lies they themselves tell their kids on a daily basis: Santa brings presents if you’re good, but you get coal if you’re bad; you can be anything you want to be; I will always be there for you, no matter what.

The great schism

There is a great schism between these two universal truths:

Truth is subjective.

Truth is absolute.

The truth is subjective because we all have different points of view as individuals and as a result of things we have been taught and internalized.

For example, humans tend to judge each other based on how we match up to a predetermined standard — whether of beauty, prowess, athletic ability, or something else.

My truth was that my coworker’s haircut looked like a raggedy mop to me. My hair has always been very thick, luxurious, and full, with lots of body and a natural curl. I (as most of us do) judge other people based on how they compare to my experience.

My coworker’s truth, on the other hand, was that the multi-layered, puffy, iron-curled pixie cut helped make her very fine, thin, and light-colored hair appears fuller than it really was. I judged her hair based on a standard that she could never meet.

But, truth is also absolute because a thing either is or it isn’t; it’s yes, or it’s no; it’s good, or it’s not. When it comes to criminal activity, for example, the law is spelled out strictly: this is legal, this is not.

The law is absolute because it needs to (allegedly) be enforced without bias. Even at that, we know exceptions are made — advantageously for the rich, discriminatorily against the poor.

So, truth is a paradox: both absolute and subjective, rigid and flexible, factual and alternative.

Be honest with me.

Honesty is usually conflated with truth, but the two actually have little in common. Honesty is highly subjective and a person can be honest and also be flat wrong at the same time. Like my comment about my coworker’s haircut.

When we ask people to “be honest” what we mean is “tell me what you think/believe to be true”. We’re asking for an opinion. Opinions aren’t fact, though many people believe otherwise.

My neural-diverse inability to filter my comments has little to do with truth, but much to do with honesty. While people sometimes suffer when I speak my mind, I am just as likely to say something that makes them feel good about themselves as I am to say something negative.

When writing, I am afforded time for that critical pause before responding; I can slow down and reconsider whether I really want to put in writing something that I would otherwise blurt out if I’m conversing with someone.

That is one of the great advantages of being a writer. We get to take the measure of our words before committing to them. That precious pause needs to be utilized by more writers. Too many of us simply write stream-of-consciousness style as though we’re holding a conversation.

The problem with that is that we’re not talking face to face with people when we write. Instead, we’re cramming our opinion down their throats. Our readers are a captive audience whose only recourse if they disagree with us is to stop reading. Sure, there’s a comments section, but many writers never bother to read those remarks.

When I talk, my bald commentary — typically delivered dead-pan — has a ring of authority (i.e. a forceful tone) that makes most people cringe; some are able to recognize that I have no business saying such things and laugh at my remarks.

But they’re laughing at me, not at the victims of my barbs, and that’s as it should be. I’m not always proud of my frankness, and sometimes I’m just as embarrassed as the person who mistakenly asked for my opinion.

I’m not a cruel person by nature (though if I’m completely truthful, I occasionally do experience a tiny bit of schadenfreude when I puncture the ego of someone who truly deserves it.) But it’s important to recognize the difference between fact and opinion, between truth and honesty.

We all need to consider carefully the intended (and unintended) consequences of our words. Take responsibility for what you put out there and be prepared for blowback if what you declare as truth is not accepted as such by others.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.


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