I had coffee with a friend this week and the whole experience was rendered somewhat bizarre by a sudden and unexpected inclination for honesty on his part. Now, this friend is ordinarily a very grounded individual and I can only assume a midlife crisis is at play. However, the whole ordeal left me convinced that too much honesty is not necessarily a good thing. You see, what started off as an innocuous celebration of cake, threatened to become an international incident when the said friend decided to disclose what other people have been saying about me behind my back.
His initial revelation caught me off guard but I was able to recover quickly enough to put a stop to his surge of honesty right after revelation number two. I can only imagine that, without my swift intervention, he would have gone through the entire list of everybody we know. In situations like this, it pays to remember the little adage about glass houses. Because, the truth is we all talk about people behind their backs and so any sense of outraged on my part would surely have smacked of hypocrisy. One of the fundamental rules of society should be that we never, under any circumstances, divulge words that have been, maybe unfairly and perhaps even spitefully, spilled to us. Now obviously common sense should prevail and, if someone’s reputation, job or safety is at risk as a result of poisonous gossip, then we have a duty intervene. More often than not though, gossip is much more inconsequential than this and as such should, in my opinion, be ignored. Gossiping may not be very nice but it’s very human and I for one don’t care that people may be maligning me behind my back; it only becomes a problem once we know about it.
This is not the only area where discretion rather than honesty is the best course of action. How many of you have been in the unenviable position of witnessing the infidelity of a friend’s partner? What do you do? It’s happened to me twice and, my advice to you is, do nothing. This may sound callous and you may even be outraged at my lack of honesty where my friends are concerned but, I can assure you, they won’t thank you for being the harbinger of bad news. I learned this lesson early in life when a dear friend split up with her boyfriend. On a night out to celebrate her newfound singledom, I confessed that I had always thought her boyfriend to be a dick, which at the time she readily agreed with. Problems only emerged when a few months later they got back together and eventually married. We are still friends but even now, thirty years later, every time she has a few drinks she brings up the fact that I have never liked her husband. I’ve seen others tip off beloved friends about unfaithful spouses only to be caught in an impossible situation when the friend chooses to stick with the spouse. The answer is then – keep quiet and let the mess unfold as it will. Be ready to step in if and when your friend needs your support but, whatever you do, don’t tell her her boyfriend’s a dick.
As you can see this honesty policy is a minefield because what our parents never told us is there are many exceptions to the rule. Another example of dishonesty being the best policy crops up when a friend asks what you think of her hair/dress/coat/shoes. You get the picture? No good can ever come from you saying the said item is hideous. What would be the point when presumably the damage has already been done? Obviously if you can get in there first before money is spent or hair chopped off, it’s a whole different ball game but, when presented with a fait accompli, you smile like you mean it and tell them they look great.
Again, I am sure there are some of you shaking your heads in disapproval but, what good would honesty serve? We’ve all been the victims of those goody two shoes who, in the name of truth telling, tell us our hair doesn’t suit us or our dress makes us look fat and all it does is crush our self esteem and kill the mood. I’ll go so far as to guarantee that, once you’ve cut someone to the quick with your zealous honesty, they’ll hold it against you for the rest of your life. Years ago, I used to teach an autistic girl and, as part of her condition, she was ruthlessly honest. The girl just could not tell a lie to save her life and I almost throttled her on many an occasion. Each day I would enter the classroom, holding my breath, waiting for whatever verdict she had to offer. She would cheerily greet me with, “Hello Miss, you look tired/fat/strange/funny/horrible today.” It was like being forced to run the fashion police gauntlet on a daily basis.
Home truths are another concept to be avoided at all costs. Let’s face it, whilst it’s true that we all have the right to an opinion, uninvited opinions are just downright irritating. The second I hear the words, “The thing about you is ...” I just want to punch the person speaking them in the face and run in the opposite direction because I know what’s coming next. An assassination of my character complete with a critique of all my failings, usually followed by unwanted advice. It really doesn’t matter if you think your friend or loved one is heading for disaster – keep your trap shut. It’s their disaster so let them meet it head on and hopefully they’ll pick themselves up, dust themselves off and not make that mistake again.
In the spirit of honesty, I do have a confession, however. I’m a truly horrible drunk, who should never be allowed more than three gin and tonics because I mutate into a home truth bore. Sober I wouldn’t dream of offering someone an opinion of their character but, after that third drink, there’s no stopping me. It’s ugly to see, almost like watching a traffic accident unfold, but those home truths just keep flying out sometimes causing irreversible damage. The worst home truth crime I ever committed was in the 90s but the scar runs deep. It came about when I was invited to the home of a colleague for a party. She was a very nice woman, who had found love rather late in life and I was secretly convinced that her suitor was not worthy of her. The poor man had done nothing to deserve my disapproval other than he wore those horrible silky polo necks and had a beard. Anyway this party quickly became my own personal version of hell. The kind of party where people suddenly produce guitars and all those without guitars inexplicably begin to sing folk songs. My only chance of surviving the experience was to hit the bottle, in the hope of deadening the horror. Predictably the horror soon became full blown carnage, as I passed drink number three and then some, and all those horrible home truths came tumbling out. My poor colleague must have been mortified and never forgave me despite my heartfelt apologies. Thank God she went off with beardy to live in the Outer Hebrides or some such place and I was eventually allowed to pretend the whole unseemly incident never actually happened. It is a cautionary tale, however, and one that should be heeded. Home truths no matter what the circumstances are never ever a good idea.
The more I think about it, how much truth do we really want to hear? We are told that criticism is a good thing, if it is meant well, but I’m not so sure. I’m completely ill-suited to any kind of managerial position simply because I can’t bear to offer criticism of any kind. I’ve been put in the role of mentor many times in my career and frankly I’m a hopeless case. What’s the rule of criticism – two good comments for every bad one? Well my negative one would be so lost in a cloud a positivity; the recipient would have no chance of hearing it. On the rare occasion that they did, just the whiff of a crumpling face would have me backtracking at such a speed, the mentee would be forgiven for thinking an average performance was utterly spectacular. It’s pathetic, I know, but I can’t bear to disappoint.
I suppose the truth is we all have our own benchmarks where honesty is concerned. For some a lie is a lie, even if it’s the kindest course of action. Ruthless honesty for these people is tied in with their integrity. My own honesty is more of a fluid than a solid entity. I like to think I’m basically honest but, when put to the test, I’m happy to take the path of least resistance. And that brings us back to my assertion that honesty is not always the best policy. Situations are very rarely a case of black and white but more likely to be grey. Or are my rationalisations merely the excuses of a coward? I’ll leave you to decide.