OK…Here’s the thing. I’m 49 and my whole life whenever anybody has talked about qualities they really value in other people (either in people in general or in a significant other), invariably at or near the top of the list is “honesty”.
And, in the interest of full disclosure, for quite a while I was one of those people.
But I’m not so youthful anymore and am considerably less naive than I used to be and what I have learned is we don’t actually, really and truly want honesty (in the truthful sense of the word). Even when people say they want you to be honest with them, they frequently don’t mean it.
Maybe some of these will sound familiar:
“I can’t stand anyone who can’t at least be honest with me.”
“I can handle pretty much anything else in a person except dishonesty.”
Blah blah blah.
Maybe there is a rare individual who truly means it when they say that they want complete honesty – all the time. Maybe. I’ve just never met one (that I’m aware of). And I’m certainly not one. Like most qualities, honesty, to me, has a time and a place. It’s most of the time and in most places, but it’s definitely not all of the time or in all places.
Note: I’m not talking about when people stick their noses into our business when they have no reason to be there…I’m talking about when we engage people in conversations and we raise up certain topics or ask questions and don’t like what we hear in response.
My experience shows that what we actually want is “selective honesty”: a reflection of our own thoughts, feelings and perceptions back to us. But we can’t seem to admit that. We think we want real honesty, but, from what I’ve observed, when people are honest with us, if it’s not what we wanted to hear, we often don’t take it very well and frequently blame that person, when we are the ones who engaged them in the conversation in the first place.
I think we just don’t know how to handle honesty. Maybe it’s because being honest about what we want or need in that conversation makes us too vulnerable? I don’t know. We also don’t know how to receive it or how to deal with the drama that frequently ensues when we give it.
I’ve found myself uncomfortably situated on both those sides.
When it comes to being honest, I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble over the years. Sometimes I misunderstand social cues or misread a situation or conversation. Someone asks a question, I assume they genuinely want to know my opinion and I give it. That’s landed me in hot water a fair bit so I have gotten in the habit of telling people now not to ask me a question if they don’t want me to answer it honestly. Or to be clear as to what they want. If I know that all you want is a comforting, reassuring answer (regardless of its validity), then I can do that. I’m just not always good at identifying those situations on my own. I have a couple of friends that I’m very careful about ever giving my thoughts or opinions about anything to – even something as small as what I think about a book or a movie – because on any given day the reaction to even such small things can be really and truly just not worth the bother. It’s hard to have a friendship that way, but it is what it is.
When it comes to receiving honesty, I have learned to take a step back and really be sure, before I ask a question, that I am ready for whatever the answer is. If I’m not ready for absolutely anything, then, if I can avoid it, I won’t ask the question. I try to remember to clearly let the other person know that I really do want their honest opinion or thoughts if I do decide to ask the question. I don’t want them to feel awkward or uncomfortable (based on my own experiences) or to be afraid of how I might react. And I also try to be clear as to when I’m just looking for reassurance and someone in my camp to make me feel better. Because that’s OK, too.
Not that I’m great at either. I’m definitely better at the 2nd bit because I’ve made it a conscious behaviour/decision – especially about not asking a question or raising a topic if I’m not ready to hear something I might not like or agree with. But I’m still not very good with knowing when I should and shouldn’t be honest with other people. I don’t know if I ever will be, at this point. But I keep trying!
In any event, I think the old adage should maybe be slightly adjusted. Maybe it’s not honesty that’s the best policy.
Maybe honesty about honesty is.