Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The perils of honesty

In principle, I believe honesty is the best policy. If we were all totally honest about everything, life would run a lot more smoothly.

There would be fewer misunder-standings, less mistrust, closer relationships, less scope for furtive affairs or hidden bank accounts, and less chance of dreadful discoveries about your new wife or husband. Everything would be visible and upfront, everything would be clearer and more straightforward, and we wouldn't always be swimming around in a haze of misinformation.

In reality, of course, total honesty would be disastrous. In no time we'd have offended so many people and revealed so many damaging facts we'd be seen as a hopeless liability and ostracised by all and sundry.

If we actually told our relatives or neighbours or bosses how nasty they were, the reaction would be pretty nasty too. If we told our spouses how much we secretly fancied the man/woman at the house opposite, or told our workmates we didn't in fact speak three languages fluently, or told our new landlord we were evicted from our previous flat, it would only upset our well-ordered lives for no good reason.

I guess at one time or another we've all covered up for a workmate who's made a complete mess of something, so they don't get a bollocking from a permanently irascible boss. And so they'll cover for us when we screw something up ourselves.

We invariably defend our loved ones when they're criticised by a friend or relative, even if we privately agree with the criticism. My wife* might very well be stingy and self-righteous, but I'm not going to add to the brickbats and leave her tearful and upset. No no, I hasten to say, she's just sensible with money and has strong opinions.

Several times over the years I've been aware that a workmate or friend, unbeknown to their regular partner, is flirting heavily with someone else, or even dating them, but I've kept quiet. What business is it of mine? And why tell the ignorant victim if it'll only distress them and this sudden fling might fizzle out next week anyway?

Like most things, honesty works best in small doses. Too much can be fatal.

*Not my real wife obviously. Jenny is naturally generous and open-minded at all times. And she always helps old ladies across the road.

28 comments:

Scarlet Blue said...

Indeed a spoon full of sugar helps the honesty go down..
Sx

Nick said...

Scarlet - Very true. If you're charming and endearing enough, you can get away with outrageously candid remarks.

Baino said...

Ah close to my heart this one. Lying to protect is still lying but I guess it's different to just blurting out the unnecessary. I have long and loud debates with a friend over this. He's aware of a friend having an affair and has chosen to 'stay out of it'. I'm not sure I'd be so reserved. Very right about children tho. I can say what I like about mine but if anyone else has a dig at them . . watch out.

Nick said...

Baino - Affairs are very tricky. Do you enlighten the deceived partner or mind your own business? And yes, parents usually defend their kids up to the hilt, even if they're complete tearaways.

nursemyra said...

I've never worked for a permanently irascible boss. I don't think I could stand the stress.

grannymar said...

I suppose it is not what you say, but the way that you say it!

John Gray said...

I have found being honest with a touch of humour helps a great deal.
Recently a real old bitch of a sister actually asked me in public was she any good as a manager.
I told her that she was a good manager but a terrible cow with some staff.... but I did it with smile and a lightness that stopped her dead...

I still wonder if my delivery worked

wendy house said...

Oh bugger, I really don't like bucking the popular trend but often find myself with a different view. Nick, I'm assuming your views are a popular trend. You seem to have your finger on the proverbial pulse. I believe in 'total honesty' but I draw a subtle line in 'how' you use that honesty. A married colleague having an affiar with someone? I'd talk directly to the colleague, raise their awareness that I know, and make them aware that if asked I will not lie about what I know - providing them with the opportunity to adjust what I think I know. My underlying principle is always go to the source, don't belive gossip, and give the benefit of the doubt. It's generally worked for me because dishonest people prefer to keep their distance from me...

Macy said...

Hmm honesty... not sure I always want the Full Honesty. A nice comfortable lie to the effect that no my hair doesn't look crap, and yes what I just said sounds sensible will suffice.
Duplicity though. That's something else. I don't need anyone with two faces around me.

Jenny Woolf said...

Think I agree with Macy. Duplicity is horrid, white lies can be good.

secret agent woman said...

I am a firm believer that there are situations where lies are not only okay, but preferable. If someone asks how they look moments before they walk into a party, you do NOT "honestly" tell them they look fat in that dress or whatever other helpful bit of honesty you might be considering. More seriously, there are lies of protection. If during WWII, for instance, the Nazis ask if you were sheltering Jewish neighbors and you were, you'd be morally obligated to lie.

But I also have a thought about telling a colleague they were being cheated on. What in the world makes us so sure we know what's best? What if the colleague knows and is electing not to react - is it fair to force their hand? Is it possible that whatever shame they might feel would outweigh the good of telling them? Or if it the colleague who is doing the cheating, when is okay for us to step in and be the morality police? I think its best to stay out of your colleagues and acquaintances personal business. If it were a dear friend, I'd approach that person as cautiously and gently as I could, being aware that NO ONE outside the marriage/relationship ever knows the full story.

Roses said...

You are fond of the moral dilema, aren't you?

I tell people I lie like a cheap rug. And it's true. I do. I will happily say (no qualms) 'I'm sorry Mr Salesman, my boss is in a meeting right now.' And she'll be sat next to me eating chocolate.

One of my most favourite people on this Earth is: obnoxious, '-ist' and is incapable of fidelity. However, he doesn't lie about who he is; his wife knows who he is and knows that in spite of this, he is unfailingly loyal, generous and kind and he loves her over and above all other women and adores his children.

One of my least favourite people, is polite, charitable, supportive on the surface and never passes up an opportunity to stab his friends and colleagues in the back.

I'd rather people were truthful about their values and who they really are. I can make my own judgements then, it's when you don't have all the information that the problems start.

wendy house said...

A question like 'how do I look' can be answered with a question "how do you feel?" it avoids dishonesty and shifts the conversation to a topic that's more important than looks

Eternally Distracted said...

All I keep thinking is the 'does my bum look big in this' saying... Honestly?!!!

Nick said...

Myra - Me neither. Luckily all my bosses have been at worst occasionally irascible.

Grannymar - That can certainly make a difference. If you're honest without any overtones of criticism or superiority, that's a lot more acceptable.

John - You told her she was a terrible cow with some of the staff? You must have a lot of charm to get away with that!

Nick said...

Wendy - I doubt I have my finger on the proverbial pulse! Your approach to affairs sounds very sensible. As you say, the worst thing is to believe (and pass on) unfounded gossip.

Macy - Well yes, who wants to be told their hair looks crap two minutes before some big occasion, or that they've just said something inanely stupid? A white lie is called for....

Jenny - White lies are essential in many situations unless you want to cause emotional turmoil or even the end of a beautiful friendship.

Nick said...

Secret Agent - Indeed, lies of protection as well. In some cases it's literally a matter of life and death whether you lie or not.

I think you're right to be cautious about affairs. It's their personal business and nothing to do with me. Who am I to trample in with my moral judgments? As you say, nobody outside the relationship ever knows the full story.

Roses - Good point about people's outward behaviour and what they're really like underneath. There are a lot of sanctimonious goodie-goodies who're quite the opposite in private.

Nick said...

Wendy - What a brilliant answer to the question. I must remember that.

Distracted - Anyone who actually answers that question in the negative is asking for a good slap. Or to be thrown out of the front door. Not that there's anything wrong with a big bum anyway....

kylie said...

the affair thing is a tricky one. if it's a colleague/acquaintance/whatever it would be best to keep schtum. a friend would be doubly betrayed if you protect a betrayer but expect to be shot as the messenger.

i usually take the cowards way but i must say that the relationship i value most in the world is one where i have been told unpalatable truths. it was no fun but it was done in kindness and i eventually appreciated it

Nick said...

Kylie - Interesting that your most valued relationship is one that involves unpalatable truths. I guess the key, as you suggest, is that it's done in a spirit of love and kindness.

Rummuser said...

Being honest is no longer possible in these politically correct days! I can't call a spade a spade anymore, because some body decides that it is a racial slur or a casteist comment. So, the best recourse for highly opinionated persons like me is to STFU (Southern Tenant Farmers Union). Get my drift?

Nick said...

Ramana - I don't think it was any easier to be honest when I was a lad, there were just different things you had to be careful about. Like saying you were gay or you didn't want to go to church or you saw nothing wrong with cohabiting couples.

wendy house said...

If anyone ever asked me "Does my bum look big in this" I would be unable to answer because I'd be lauighing so much, than I'd tell them its looks bigger than everest, now lets go...

Is humour lying or adding a different perspective?

Nick said...

Wendy - Good question. I think it's more dodging the issue. Or making light of it.

blackwatertown said...

I try to be honest in answering questions from children - my children anyway - though I don't guarantee to answer them immediately, depending on the company. It can be quite amusing to clarify the old wives/young lads tales they hear from other kids. The difficult ones are what you'd expect - sex, God, why is that man standing very close to us so fat.

Nick said...

Blackwater - Most of that parental misinformation you get as a child is quite unnecessary. Why not be straight with them? They'll get the real story from their friends and classmates soon enough anyway. Unless as you say they've been misinformed as well.

Liz said...

My gran was one of eight and she and one or other of her siblings would often criticise another but heaven help anyone outside the family who did it. (Why did I write that? Is it relevant? It came to my mind but does it make sense? And I just had to pause and consider how to spell rite/right/write. I shall reread your post. Don't go away.)

Ah yes, as you say too much honesty could be disastrous, however, well-meaning lies often have untold consequences.
My mother and grandparents told me my parents were separated and my father living in India. In truth my mother wasn't married. I don't think a child today would be as naive and believing as I was.

Nick said...

Liz - I think that attitude of criticism within the family only is quite common. And I think there used to be a lot of elaborate cover-ups about single mothers, it was a terrible stigma at one time. I don't think many children would believe such yarns nowadays, they ask too many awkward questions.