Why Don’t We Say What We Mean More of the Time?

Shannon Hilson

If we value honest opinions as much as we say we do, why do we hate giving them (and getting them) so much?

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I’m on the spectrum, so I’m also an unabashedly honest person, almost to a fault. I’m not one of those secretly-mean people who use the fact that they’re “just being honest” as an excuse to be cruel to others, though. I genuinely value honest opinions, and I do my very best to say things that need to be said with as much tact and kindness as possible.

I also mean what I say when I ask others for their honest opinions, so yes, I do want you to tell me whether I look fat in these pants. (Help me check myself before I wreck myself!)

I consistently hear from my friends that my honesty is one of my standout qualities — that it’s refreshing to know where they stand with someone for a change. Or at least that’s the case until an honest opinion someone asks me for isn’t exactly what they want to hear right down to the letter. Then suddenly they’re singing a different tune.

It’s made me gunshy as far as getting close to new people goes because I don’t know how to be if I can’t be honest. It’s made me question whether total honesty really is the best policy from time to time, as well. Honesty seems to be something that sounds good to people on paper but doesn’t work for most in practice. Yet it remains something people list as an essential quality everyone should strive to cultivate.

So, why do so many of us struggle to say what we truly mean? Why do we sugarcoat the truth even when we know we shouldn’t? Why, even if we don’t say so, do most of us secretly hope others will do the same? More importantly, what does this say about us, and what should we do about it?

It’s conflict we dislike, not honesty.

It’s not news to any of us that there are total jerks out there who get off on getting in other people’s faces and making them uncomfortable. They couldn’t care less who they hurt, and they often seem to thrive on conflict. At times, it feels like those folks are taking up a lot of space in the world, but in actuality, we’re talking about maybe 18 percent of the population.

The other 82 percent would do just about anything to avoid conflict if it can be helped. They hate making other people feel bad, and they don’t like the thought of making others mad at them, especially friends and loved ones.

If you’re part of that 82 percent, then it makes sense that there are times you’d struggle with absolute honesty. You don’t like lying, but you also don’t want to risk hurting your friend’s feelings by telling her something she might not like hearing. You know you should talk directly to a loved one if you have an issue with something they said or did, but it’s just so much easier to blow off steam venting to someone else instead, so you do that.

In other words, when we have to choose between being nice and being honest, we tend to choose nice. The thing people need to remember, though, is that “nice” may feel good at the moment, but it’s often not the best thing for anyone involved in the long run.

The truth has a way of coming out eventually, and it tends to cause trouble when it does. Things said about loved ones behind their backs often get back to them. Friends find out that you withheld crucial information they needed to know because you didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. When those things happen, people are hurt anyway — something that likely could have been avoided if you were honest in the first place.

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It’s to your benefit to learn to be tactfully honest.

Regardless of the trouble it’s gotten me into over the years, I’m still proud of my honesty. And despite disliking conflict as much as anyone else, I’m brave enough to deal with it when the alternative is failing to stand up for what I believe in and know to be right.

However, it’s also served me well to practice tactful honesty and mindful communication whenever possible. I now ask myself the following questions before opening my mouth to drop a truth bomb (on a person, or sometimes just in general.) It cuts down on the shrapnel for sure.

  • Is it true? By saying this am I perpetuating gossip, potentially giving a false impression, or otherwise catering to my own ego?
  • Is it necessary? Will saying this right now (and in the manner I’m about to say it) indeed influence the situation for the better?
  • Is it kind? Am I expressing what I want to say in the most diplomatic, compassionate way possible?

I’m hardly perfect, so I don’t always get things right, but I can honestly say I try to follow the above principles when I communicate with others these days. Sometimes people still don’t want to hear whatever I said, and I still lose the occasional friend.

I can rest easy in the knowledge that I did the right thing, though. I find the right people for me continue to value me for who I am, even if I don’t always tell them what they want to hear, and that’s good enough for me.

People do appreciate the truth, but not necessarily right away.

The passage of time has shown me something interesting about people and how they react to honesty in the long run. When you speak in a truly empathetic way and come from a genuinely helpful place, people tend to recognize the truth in what you’re saying at least subconsciously. They may throw a fit in the moment, especially if this was one of those especially thorny truths. Many also eventually see your point and come around, though.

I’ve had friends I thought I’d lost for good come back to me months (or even years) later and thank me for giving them the kick in the pants they needed when no one else dared to do it. And in instances where the shoe was on the other foot, I’ve done the same.

I’m grateful for the people in my life who’ve been brave enough to tell me to stop feeling sorry for myself and get my shit together at times when I’ve been way off course in life. I probably wouldn’t be where I am professionally or personally without people like that, so I’m grateful every day for the truth-tellers who’ve come and gone in my life. If I can do the same for someone else, that makes the risk worth it.

Be patient with yourself and with others.

When dealing with other people, it often helps to remember that this whole honesty thing is a challenging concept to grasp for lots of reasons. They don’t teach you this stuff in school (or at least they didn’t teach it when I was in school.) Honesty isn’t the high priority it should be in many people’s home environments growing up either. (God knows it wasn’t in my childhood home.)

Not everyone knows how to be honest or understands how to handle themselves when other people are real with them. I find people learn well by example, though. If you’re an honest person yourself, you likely had a role model that showed you via their actions that that was the way to be. Be willing to be that role model to others. It’s worth it.

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Professional copywriter, blogger, critic, and journalist. Evergreen content on self-improvement, fitness, food, relationships, dating, freelancing, and productivity. Occasional hot takes on news, trending topics, movies, music, and television.

Monterey, CA
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