The Truth About Telling the Truth

I have news to tell you. The email read.

Nora intuitively knew what this was about. She also knew what was going to be asked of her.

Figuring that a long-distance call would make things easier, she presses the quick dial key to Hana’s phone.

Hey honey! He proposed, didn’t he?

Nora smiled, recalling how Hana feared that because Joe was totally unromantic, he would not ask her the traditional way.

Yes!

Congratulations! I’m so happy for you. So, how can I help? She mentally organized her trip back home knowing that it would mean the world to her best friend.

Will be my bridesmaid? The wedding is in September.

Really?

It was already January. Nora felt that it would be logistically difficult for her. She had a pressing family matter to attend to in three months.

Will April be too late for me to confirm? I just have to iron out an important matter.

April’s too late, Nor. You’ve got to decide now.

I’m sorry, sweetie. I can’t give you my assurance at this moment.

As she reflected on how to explain or compromise, Hana beat her to it.
I HATE YOU! How can you come home for Vie’s wedding but not come home for mine? Is she really more important to you? How could you do this to me? Goodbye, Nora!

Is honesty something to apologize for?

Dumbfounded, Nora remained oblivious to the click that concluded their conversation and their ten years of friendship.
Is honesty something to apologize for?

The Loaded Question Cartoon

We’ve all been in Nora’s shoes. We are frequently asked questions like “Do you think I look good in this?”, “Is she cheating on me?”, “I made those cupcakes, do you like them?”

How often do you find your honesty challenged? When you think the dress your friend is wearing doesn’t flatter her, would you say so? When you know his partner is being unfaithful, would you have the heart to tell him? When the cupcakes truly taste like cardboard, would you admit they do?

Curiously, we tend to think that the outcome of honesty could be disastrous. When words are weighty, honesty seems to put one at risk of being unpopular. Being unpopular is cringe-worthy. So we veer towards safe answers; replies that are likely to yield instantly favorable reactions. Must honesty really have bounds?

Honesty stands firmly among other character strengths – curiosity, kindness and generosity, open-mindedness, perspective, loyalty, duty, fairness, leadership, self-control, caution, humility, bravery, perseverance, gratitude, optimism, zest.[1] Everyone possesses a blend of these traits – strong points that we exude comfortably; but are vulnerable to over-emphasizing. Dubbed as the “golden hammer”, Abraham Maslow touted “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”[2] Therefore our imperative is to pair strengths with suitable values; values being those desirable trans-situational goals that serve as guiding principles.[3]
Still, it is possible to find that pursuing a certain combination of values is impossible. For instance, when one believes that success requires lying, one cannot pursue both honesty and success. Boosting one value will inevitably demote the other.[3] Equivocally, some values are complementary. For example, when one believes trust entails honesty, one would be honest to build trust.

The non-existence of a definitive rule encompassing each unique scenario implies that the boundary of honesty (or any character strength for that matter) is wisdom. The intellectual and emotional skills that make up practical wisdom remain useless, however, in the absence of will.[3] Merely knowing what to do is not enough; being willing to do what-to-do is also crucial. There’s a delicate interplay – values tap into our strengths; wisdom enables us to know when and how to appropriately apply them.

Honesty is a personal strength that has drawn friends and foes. Lying is just postponing the inevitable discovery of the truth. But I’ve also caused distress on far too many with my frankness. It is not always simplistic. Learning how to speak with tact and developing a propensity for assessing situations are now priceless and irrevocable to me.

How about you? What character strength dilemmas have you experienced?

Online Sources:

[1] http://psylux.psych.tu-dresden.de/i2/klinische/studium/ss09/uhmann%20beh.health1.pdf
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hammer
[3] http://www.cs.uu.nl/groups/IS/archive/henry/argmas09.pdf

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18 thoughts on “The Truth About Telling the Truth

  1. This really makes you think. It also reminds me of a time I made a yule log for a co-worker out of a presto log and frosting. (He had a habit of telling me I made baked goods out of sawdust when I used healthy ingredients.) He told me later that when he was trying to cut it he still thought it was a real cake (hard as a rock/log) and he was trying to figure out how he could say something nice about it.

    • This is a funny tale. I’ve never actually seen a yule log but I reckon the one you gave your friend must have been visually appealing that he thought it was edible. Perhaps if you make some this year, I’ll see it on your blog.

      Thanks for dropping by. :)

  2. Oh, this is a BIG topic! I’ve tried to be unwaveringly honest, but as you point out, that can have disastrous consequences. I’ve worked hard at being tactful with my honesty. Apparently, I got pretty good at tact, because when my former husband and I were going through counseling about 20 years ago, it came out that when I was being tactful, he didn’t get what I was saying. “It would be nice if you would take that pile of stuff that you accumulate on the stairs up the stairs with you each time you go up.” He didn’t register that as a request.

    Now, I’m with someone else and either I’ve lost my tact or he just plain makes me so mad that there’s no tact left in my repretoire. He claims I’m brutally honest.

    Here I am, banging up on 60 years and I still don’t have the balance of tact to honesty down right. But I figure if someone asks me directly about something, I am honor-bound to answer as truthfully as I can. “Well, I don’t think that dress makes you look like the Liberty Bell, but it isn’t the most flattering outfit I’ve seen you wear.”

    • Exactly – But I figure if someone asks me directly about something, I am honor-bound to answer as truthfully as I can. I learned that when one asks a question, one must be ready to take the answer and not expect one. For instance, someone once asked me what her weakness was and I told her, “I think you’re too materialistic.” She was stunned, looked hurt, and said that that wasn’t a nice thing to say. So there I was wondering if I’d crossed the line even when I truthfully answered her question.

      On the other hand, it’s good to be with someone with a similar level of “honesty tolerance”. It’s nice when I say what I truly think and this other person doesn’t hold it against me.

  3. Fascinating subject Nel…and one I’ve wrestled with all my life. It’s a great insight that any character trait needs to be considered multi-dimensionally…i.e. in current context, combined with other traits, with a variety of different applications to choose from, etc. Honesty carries particular weight for me, as I think it does for most people who come from a background of harmful secrets. (If there was such a thing as carrying honesty too far, we would be the ones most likely to do it.)

    I suppose that, like everything else, the right degree of honesty depends on the individual. We each have to find the level of frankness that works for us. I tend towards a lot of it, and some people resent it while others respect it. It actually functions something like a winnow, sifting the chaff from the grain and leaving me mostly in the company of those who accept me as I am.

    Having said all that though, I also strongly believe in trying to speak the sweet truth. There’s a big difference between using the truth to help, nourish, and protect, or using it as a knife. Truth usually winds up destroying one thing in order to reveal something else which is why I love your insight into speaking it with wisdom.

    1) If she asked me about the dress, I’d tell her. If she didn’t ask me but was going somewhere important where her appearance counted, I’d tell her. If our relationship was close and we shared everything anyway, I’d tell her. Otherwise, probably not.
    2) If I knew his partner was having an affair, I’d tell him in a heartbeat. I once found out who my real friend was when she did the same for me.
    3) I’ve politely eaten shitty cupcakes many times.

    • You’ve captured me with this line – the right degree of honesty depends on the individual. We each have to find the level of frankness that works for us. The problem for me is how to determine this level. I personally don’t like being lied to and would much rather hear the truth right away or as soon as possible (Have you heard the song “Break It to Me Gently”? – won’t work for me.). But then some people don’t have a similar level of tolerance.

      All in all, I’m learning to keep my mouth shut more than “speak my mind” when feelings of people (who I’m not particularly close to) are involved.

  4. Interesting topic. Truth to some extent depends on one’s outlook. Any same day can be viewed differently by two different persons. If one say that it is a bad day and the other said it is a good day both can be honest thus telling the truth. Blessings :)

  5. Hi Nel, thank you for your thoughts and insights.
    This post truly hit home with me. I am notorious for speaking my mind among my friends and elsewhere and it did get me into trouble countless times. I feel as I am aging (gracefully I hope, and no, I am not fishing for compliments here) this becomes easier. When I was younger, people just thought I was obnoxious, now it’s probably more in the corner of ‘quirky’.
    I do realise that I have hurt people with my openness before, and it will happen again. My husband has gotten used to functioning as a buffer between me and others who are not as familiar with my ‘peculiarity’.
    Have I tried to change? I suppose not really, because, as you say, I prefer people being honest to me and therefore would like to offer the same courtesy to others. My attempt to soften the effects of my brutal honesty is to use humour and irony. Unfortunately people have different senses of humour as well, so that doesn’t work infallibly either. I the end, I guess I’d rather lose someone as a friend who can’t stand being told the truth than bending over backwards to accomodate their delusions. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often.

    • Hello Sandra,

      Nice to see you here.

      We share that “brutally honest” notoriety you speak of. It has been a little hard for me to adjust but I feel it’s a must in some situations (i.e. foreign work environment). On the other hand, among peers or people who know me more personally, I would expect a similar level of honesty (i.e. If I look like a walking bell, I’d like to know before I head out the door.). Still, some don’t have the stomach for such comments so as an imperative, I gauge what I say to this other person based on what I know about him or her.

  6. It’s amazing, once you start really thinking about this stuff, how complex it all is. Everyone is different, so what works for one person won’t work for another. Situations are different, too, so even what works for one person under certain circumstances wouldn’t necessarily work for the same person under different circumstances. And we don’t always feel the same. I might explain my philosophy about something, and the next day, I could explain it again and you’d think I had changed into another person. I sometimes envy people who have simple and rigid ways of interacting with others, but I don’t think it could ever work for me. As far as honesty, being completely truthful with someone all the time would require the relationship to have a very solid foundation.

    Great post, Nel. You’ve started a conversation that could go on forever.

    • Hi BB55!

      The differences between people or the differences between situations make it a complex thing. Like you said, what may apply to one might not apply to another. I’m known for being notoriously frank but I’ve gotten into some perplexing situations over something I said out of honesty. So I’ve had to consciously watch what I say to people especially those I don’t know very well.

      On the other hand, it’s good to have someone I can be completely honest with and who will afford me the same level of honesty.

      Thanks for dropping by to read. :)

  7. There’s a joke in the writing world that goes: When someone gives you a manuscript and asks your opinion your reply should be: “Marvelous.” because that’s the only thing they want to hear. Now of course, that doesn’t apply to me, I want the truth…I thought. But if I’m really honest…yes, I want the critic to gush over my work.
    So the best guide I’ve found is to know the person and situation and decide how honest to be. It’s a matter of degree, I believe. Between: “This could use some tightening up.” and “You’ve killed a number of trees with unnecessary words.”
    Thanks for dropping by my blog. Great thought provoking question you’ve got here.

    • Barb,

      Welcome!

      It’s nice to be complimented for great work, isn’t it? But, as you say, constructive criticism pushes us to improve.

      Thanks for stopping by,
      Nel

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