Taking the Brutal out of Honesty

    As I reflect on an altercation I had with a few girlfriends (and one guy friend), I am reminded of a line from the argument.  “Well, I can be brutally honest, and I don’t sugar coat things.  I say it like it is and if it hurts feelings, then so be it.  The truth hurts.”  Phrases like, “brutally honest,” and “truth hurts,” have become common clichés and we have heard it so much, we believe it.  Being “brutally honest” has become somewhat of a compliment in our society.  They are deemed a “straight shooter” or are admired for how well they “speak their mind.”  Why is this trait considered desirable or a positive attribute?  Do we really want everyone around us speaking what is truly on their minds?

    Richard J. Needham said, “People who are brutally honest get more satisfaction out of the brutality than out of the honesty.”  It’s a poignant truth.  Think for a moment what it means to be “brutally honest.”  Now, let’s map a quick way to becoming brutally honest:

    1. You have no concern for how the other person will feel about what you are saying.
    2. It requires a certain disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.
    3. You have to accept that being brutally honest with others might cost you close relationships.
    4. You would have a low tolerance to frustration.
    5. You would have no guilt, because after all, you need not feel guilty for delivery the cold hard facts and truths that lay in your mind and would simply let them be verbalized without a filter.

    Now let’s compare this to the list of symptoms listed in the DSM-IV  for Antisocial Personality Disorder (previously known as Sociopath):

    1. Inability to see the hurts, concerns, and other feelings of people often results in a disregard for these aspects of human interaction.
    2. Failure to conform to society’s norms and expectations.
    3. Impulsiveness, angry outbursts, failure to consider consequences of behaviors, and irritability.
    4. Irresponsible behavior often accompanies this disorder as well as a lack of remorse for wrongdoings.

    So, in light of this comparison, why is it when someone says with pride, “I can be brutally honest,” do others believe this to be an admirable quality whereas when someone says with confidence, “I am a sociopath,” those same people will equate them to being mentally ill?  They are very close in “symptoms,” and neither are valuable assets to society.  If anything, it can be viewed as destructive and careless.

    We have countless keyboard cowboys who will type whatever they wish with little regard shown for the object of their attack.  It’s easy when there is no one standing right in front of you; you don’t have to see their expression, reactions, or witness their feelings first hand.  This is termed the “online disinhibition effect” in psychology and it refers to people typing their thoughts online that they would never say face to face with the other person.  Dr. J. Suler explains:

    “It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. Or people explore the dark underworld of the internet, places of pornography and violence, places they would never visit in the real world. On the positive side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all” (Suler).

    With such an easy medium to spew our inner mind and thoughts, it’s amazing more people aren’t “brutally honest” in the world.  Lacking compassion and respect for others online is bad enough, but there are other similar mediums available including text messages and emails that broaden the canvas of those that sculpt in hurtful truths.

    Ambrose Bierce said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”  Though I have no statistics to prove this, my own experience dictates that more people will be polite and stick to social norms in person, reserving the tongue lashing for when they have a keyboard in front of them or your back to them.  There is something different about being in front of the person who is the subject of your discontent.  I firmly believe majority of people will reserve the “brutal honesty” for a more appropriate venue or time.  However, we all know those people who have no desire to spare feelings.  They actually pride themselves the ability to discard the feelings of others to promote what they believe to be truthful or the opinion of the majority.  What is their motivation?

    Maybe we should take the brutal out of honesty, and just be honest.  Being honest doesn’t have to equate to aggression, disrespect, or lacking compassion.  Not everyone wants to hear every thought you have at any given moment, especially if it is made at the expense of another person.  Truth is important, but it is closely intertwined with integrity.  Being virtuous and having integrity not only requires honesty, but it also requires knowing when to speak it and when to reserve it.

    That’s not to say white lies are a good idea, and it’s not to say that the truth should be wielded like a sword against anything with ears to hear it.  Be mindful of your audience when you speak honestly.  Instead of speaking only truth, try adding compassion as well.  Compassion doesn’t change the truth, but it can sure make it much easier to receive and result in a better outcome for everyone involved.  Perhaps William Blake said it best; “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.”



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