HONESTY IS BEST…SOMETIMES

‘Honesty is the best policy’ they say. But that’s not true.  Or at least it’s not practised in daily life.  For instance, a friend asks you what you think of:

  • the (bland, overcooked, boring) meal they have just prepared for you,
  • the (clichéd, overlong, poorly scripted) film they chose that you have just watched
  • the new dress they are wearing (wrong colour, badly designed)
  • their decision to move houses (out of reach neighbourhood, bad street, overly expensive)

and many, many more in the course of any ordinary day. In most cases, your friend is either not looking for the truth or you won’t speak the truth, because it may hurt them and may harm your friendship.   So you lie.  Or you make some bland comment that means something to them and something else to you.  But it isn’t honest.

Unfortunately, I’m honest most of the time. In academia, it was an important positive quality to be able to critique articles, situations, student assignments to do the job well. Academia requires you to be critical. But this requirement doesn’t help you greatly in normal life.

People don’t actually want honesty!

Most people want their opinions and choices to be supported, not critiqued rigorously. They want you to make them feel good. Which of course is a nice thing to do. But ‘nice’ leads to mediocrity, in my experience.

Look at those who succeed at the highest level in any intellectual discipline, in business, in government, in sport, in the arts. The top people are often not ‘nice’, but they are high achievers. They are often highly self-critical, driving themselves to higher standards, higher levels of performance and expecting the same from others. They seek critical input, accept criticism, work hard to overcome it and often succeed in the end. Malcolm Gladwell developed the idea of ’10,000 hours’ being required to be expert at something. ‘Nice’ people never put in 10,000 hours into anything, so it’s no surprise that they don’t succeed.

No, if you want to have lots of friends, don’t be honest.  Most conversations are filled with superficialities, clichés that are meaningless because they are essentially dishonest – they are not actually what people think. ‘Good day isn’t it?’ ‘Not really, just an ordinary one ‘is not the reply that is being sought.

I’ve never been a good liar. When people ask me for an opinion, I give it to them. In some cases, particularly if it relates to views about them personally or their personal performance or skills, it is one of the only times/the first time they have ever received an honest view on the topic (eg ‘No John, actually I don’t think you have achieved much in your job.  You are rather disorganised, often late and rarely meet the targets you set or agree.’). The good ones recover from the shock, absorb the information, assess it and act on it. The bad ones reject the message…and the messenger…and miss the opportunity to learn and improve, to reflect and reconsider.

OK, but do I like honest feedback on myself?

A very good question!  Recently week I had an expert life drawing teacher offer to critique my drawings. (I’ve explained elsewhere I’m near the bottom of the class, but hoping to get better.)  I showed her my best works. She said, ‘The head’s too small here’,.‘The proportions of the arm are wrong’. ‘You’ve got the collar bone in the wrong place’. ‘The wrist should be level with the crutch’.(Now there’s a useful piece of information for you!) And much more.

As soon as she pointed each error out, I saw it instantly but, by myself, I had missed them all. It had all looked good to me. Later, she asked my wife, ’I hope I didn’t upset Graham too much’, thinking she had been too honest! Not for me she hadn’t, but probably she was too honest, too blunt for most people. (But she is herself at the top of her profession.)

Life is more interesting with more honesty

Conversation is a lot more interesting, more challenging, if you are more honest. Try it sometime. You will be surprised. But you might lose some ‘nice’ friends.

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