Being Honest

A friend sent me the following email.

There’s often a tension between honesty and politeness in our interactions… Under what circumstances is it okay to lie to people to make them feel better? Would you admit disliking somebody to his face? Would you criticize her even if you thought it would make her angry?

Similarly, there’s a tension between being “cool” and being honest. How much should you compromise your true self to fit in? For example, if admitting to being a “mathlete” could seriously jeopardize your social interactions, would you lie about it?

For the first question, usually it’s alright to tell a white lie. If you hate your sister’s new haircut, chances are there isn’t much that can be done about it, so go with making her feel good. The truth is great, and honesty a virtue, but only if it is simultaneously constructive.

For the second question, if you love math, and somebody asks about it, go ahead and tell them. The only uncool part is being self-conscious about your intellectual pursuits. That said, I personally would hesitate before using the term mathlete.

There are lots of ways to go about handling these situations, and I don’t think the end results vary substantially. Your roommate is complaining about how immature his teammates are, when in fact, he is the melodramatic one. It won’t be the end of the world if you agree with him. But that isn’t your only option. If he’s complaining, offering your sympathy is generally better than pretending to share the complaint. If she’s questioning her attractiveness or intelligence, laughing it off is fine (the question was silly to begin with). You can also change the topic.

These questions about white lies come up frequently, and I think any yes or no answer misses the point. I’d like to offer a different approach to thinking about it.

Recognize that you will not be greatly affected by the white lies or the slightly abrasive truths you tell your friend. Your relationship will continue as before, and the whole thing will be forgotten soon enough. On the other hand, it is ultimately damaging to your friend if she can’t get an honest opinion out of anyone. You do her a disservice by fluffing your words to cushion her ego. And since personal growth requires feedback, this is a problem.

So, if you are feeling generous, be truthful. This means letting him know that his alcoholism concerns you. It means mentioning that her dependence on her boyfriend is worrisome. Criticism should be given gently, but firmly, and above all, it should be given in private.

In the end, the onus is not on the giver, but the receiver. Think about whether you create an environment which encourages people to respond truthfully to you. If you react harshly to criticism, you won’t hurt your critics. What will happen is that the people trying to help you will skirt around your flaws. Your relationships with others will be more distant, and you won’t receive the input that you need to improve. Honest feedback is hard enough to come by as it is; don’t chastise those who give it to you.

The question about when it is okay to tell a white lie isn’t the central one. The better question is whether you are receptive to criticism. This, more than any rules of etiquette, is what will determine how honest people are in their interactions with you.

-Robert