Honesty is Always the Best Policy (Except When it Isn’t)

Conventional wisdom tells us that we should be truthful, all the time, full disclosure, full stop–especially in relationships, romantic or otherwise.  Nothing good can come of lies (“white lies” notwithstanding), so it’s best to come clean about everything.  But I disagree.

Now, hear me out.  I’m absolutely in favor of straightforwardness and precise language.  I try to come as close as possible to saying what I mean in the most literal, denotative terms while still being tactful (and not saying what I don’t mean, which can sometimes be more difficult, though I recognize it afterwards and do my best to correct and explain myself).  I’m not big on hints, either giving or receiving, so I ask (and answer) seemingly obvious questions.  I’d rather be embarrassed for a few seconds than be completely wrong thereafter.

The trouble with full disclosure is, not all truth is created equal.

It wasn’t until recently that I was able to put into words the difference that I’ve innately grasped for as long as I can remember–or, at least as long as I’ve been committed to being as honest and forthright as possible, which is still as long as I can remember, but probably started around junior high or so.  It’s a matter of destructive vs. constructive honesty.

What I mean by that is best explained by describing what goes on in my mind when I’m deciding whether to tell someone something.  I ask myself some–or all–of the following questions:

  • Is this something that will help or comfort this person?
  • Does this provide valuable information for future behavior or planning?
  • Will not telling them be more hurtful in the long run?

What it comes down to is determining, on a case-by-case basis, whether being honest can have any long-term positive effect.  This means that even a painful truth can be constructive, because someone who is fully informed is better equipped to make the decisions that are best for them.  A good example is when a cheating spouse decides to come clean.  In the short term, it may seem kinder to keep that truth quiet, but, ultimately, telling them is the more compassionate and ethical decision.

When trying to decide whether a truth is destructive, you really only need to ask one question:

  • Does this serve any purpose other than hurting them?

Telling someone something bad another person said about them falls into this category.  The fact that Joe thinks Bob is an idiot may be true, but it helps no one.  It doesn’t teach a lesson–it only makes Bob feel bad.  It’s best to keep that sort of truth to yourself.  Now, on the other hand, if Joe doesn’t like how Bob keeps interrupting him when he’s talking, but is too shy to speak up, that’s another story.  It passes the three-question constructive honesty test.  Telling Bob may hurt or embarrass him, but, if he wants to keep Joe as a friend, he’ll be more mindful of his behavior, and everyone will be happy.  Yay!

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not advocating lying.  If someone asks you something outright, it’s best to tell them as tactfully–but clearly–as you can, even if the truth is potentially destructive.  Prevarication rarely does anyone any good.  But there’s also no need to tell someone absolutely every fact that comes to mind.  Keeping a destructive truth from someone isn’t dishonesty:  it’s kindness.  And couldn’t we all use a little more kindness in our lives?

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