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Is there such a thing as being “too honest”?


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 06/06/22

Too honest or not honest enough, it's all part of the same problem ...

“I’m keeping it real” and “I’m just being honest” are perhaps my least favorite phrases of all time. Ironically, both phrases are less than truthful.

For instance, if I manage to utter that phrase to you with a straight face, what it really means is that I’ve just gossiped with you, said something rude, or mistakenly phrased something in an insensitive manner. To cover my tracks, I claim I was “just being honest,” so you shouldn’t be offended. You should thank me for my candor, admire my bravery in telling it like it is. Really, though, all I’ve done is spoken out of turn and used “being honest” as an excuse.

Honesty, like all virtues, needs to be tempered by prudence, which means that it’s always exercised wisely according to the situation. This, to be clear, doesn’t mean that sometimes it’s better to lie.

But is it ever okay to lie?

I do encounter this tendency to lie welling up within me, particularly in parenting. It’s common to find parents who lie to their kids. Tell them if they don’t leave the cookies alone their teeth will rot and fall out, or that getting a cavity filled won’t hurt at all. We make up little excuses for why Mommy and Daddy indulge in certain bad habits but they cannot, or make up reasons why we can’t read a bedtime story or take them to the park. It’s just easier to make something up than to be honest — particularly when the children are barraging you with a million, relentless questions like Matlock doing a cross-examination.

Lying is so easy that we don’t even confine our falsehoods to children. I wonder how often I’ve made up a fake excuse for why I missed a party or couldn’t get together with someone. How many times have I run late and texted that I’m “almost there,” when, in fact, I’m just walking out the door to leave. And then, of course, there are the hypotheticals about what to say when your spouse asks if they’ve gained weight, etc.

When I try to pinpoint why I’m so willing to lie, the answer is always because the truth will be inconvenient and lying smooths everything over.

Too honest or not honest enough, it’s all part of the same problem, which is how to be prudent — how to tell the truth with love.

I often review books over at Dappled Things, and I have a policy to only review books I can honestly say positive things about. It’s very easy to drum up page clicks as a reviewer by trashing an author and then claiming it’s my job to be brutally honest. It’s also easy on the ego, because using honesty as an excuse to attack a writer would put me in the position of an alleged superior raining down judgment. It’s easy. Too easy. That’s the problem.

Using honesty as a disguise for cynically saying whatever I want is not challenging, either as a writer or as a moral human being. It takes no artistry and displays a lack of empathetic engagement. I would be a mediocre reviewer if I were to write this way and, personally, I’d rather put in the work to understand what’s lovable about the book, what I can point out that’s good and beautiful about it.

An honest heart is a loving heart

In the same way, in a relationship, it’s easy to be brutally honest and then wear my rudeness like a merit badge. It’s much harder to find the right way to say what needs saying. It takes patience, empathy, and humility. It also takes the discretion to know when it might be better to say nothing at all. In the end, taking care with how we speak is a far more honest way to communicate than blurting out whatever we want because it’s more balanced.

I’ve become convinced that the times I utter the dreaded excuse, “I’m just being honest,” are the times I’ve failed to properly communicate. I’ve said what I did because my empathy is lacking, or I wanted to overshare to prove I’m in the know, or was trying to posture and impress.

Honesty shouldn’t offend. We live with other people. Their feelings matter. Author Michael Leviton has a whole article on how he was always a brutally honest person until he noticed that, “Telling the truth felt like singing, but when I started dealing with the world outside, I found that it also made people want to strangle me.”

I actually had a similar experience when someone told me once, several years later, that my attitude of, “keeping it real,” during class discussions in college intimidated them and made them hesitant to contribute to the discussion. Hearing that really made me think. Honesty isn’t a higher virtue than love, or any of the other virtues. An honest heart is a loving heart, the very definition of keeping it real.

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