Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Honesty: Not The Best Policy?

"What you have to understand about me is that I am brutally honest. If I have a problem with someone, they are going to know it because I will tell them to their face how I feel about them."

Have you ever heard someone say something similar and thought to yourself, "oh, please don't?" Have you ever nodded silently when someone boasted to you about their guerrilla-style frankness regardless of the reaction? And have you ever secretly thought they were going about it all wrong? I have.

It is often said that honesty is the best policy, and in most cases that is true. But lately I've been thinking about people who take that to a new level - people who are honest with you no matter what. People who have opinions and aren't afraid to share them. People who want everyone to know what they are thinking as soon as they think it, whether you like it or not. Everyone knows someone like them, and you might be one of them. And if you are, listen closely: Stop.

Someone once told me that they wished they could emulate the way I could "say mean things to people but make it sound nice." At the time I wasn't sure that was a compliment because I don't make a practice of saying mean things to people, but now I realize that what she meant is that she wished she knew how to be honest with tact, diplomacy, and just plain good manners. I am not convinced that I do a good job of that myself most of the time, but I do give it a good try.

Honesty is a tricky thing. When you realize you have to be honest with someone, it usually means you are going to say something they don't want to hear, so you have to find the right combination of frankness and compassion, and that is hard to do. I think that's why so many people opt for brutal honesty: it's easier. Sometimes it's easier to open your mouth, say what you need to say, and then turn around and ignore the reaction to your words. Or worse, stand there and wait for the person you've just attacked to respond, as if you have just done them a favor.

I think the real trick to honesty, though, is knowing when to say something and when to keep your damn mouth shut. That's another trait I've noticed in my brutally honest friends: that they believe their opinion always matters, all the time. And, let's be honest (pun intended), it doesn't. Your honest opinion about how I look in these jeans? Bring it on. Your honest opinion about your best friend's husband? Better keep that to yourself.

Think about it - everyone wishes they could be a fly on the wall and find out what their friends really think of them. (Or maybe that's just me.) I heard a radio interview with a guy who wanted the straight dope on his reputation with his friends...so he asked them to be brutally honest with him, to just open the floodgates and let it out: the good, the bad, and the ugly. He found out that pretty much everyone, including his own mother, thought he was a jerk. Imagine hearing that kind of honesty. Imagine having to say it.

What I'm trying to say is, honesty doesn't have to be brutal. It takes work to make the truth easier to swallow, and while some people seem to be born with a velvet tongue, the talent is one that can be honed with sincere attention to a) how much honesty someone really wants to hear, and b) whether your opinion even matters in the first place.