Is Honesty Really the Best Policy? …All the Time?

We spend a lot of time and energy “teaching” our kids that they should not tell lies, even small ones.  We tell them that trust is of great importance, that lying is a quick way to lose trust, and that it takes a long time to prove oneself worthy of being trusted again, if ever.  While we’re teaching them this, we’re (most of us, anyway) all too happy to tell them the Santa is watching them and delivering presents to good little boys and girls –those not telling lies, for instance, that the Easter Bunny is dropping chocolate bunnies and candy (and all sorts of things now) and hiding eggs, that the Tooth Fairy swaps a tooth hidden under their pillow for money, and all sorts of silly things in the interest of surprising them with gifts and making them happy.  What have we really taught them once they learn these things aren’t real, or, at least, that they don’t exist the way we paint the pictures?  At the basest level, we’ve taught them that it’s OK to lie as long as we have good intentions –that we’re trying to make or keep someone happy.

The vast majority of people aren’t completely honest –with themselves or others (especially loved ones and bosses)– and probably for good reasons.

You have to love it as a guy when your gal sets you up for failure with the “Does this outfit make my butt look big?” or “Do I look good in this?”  How is a guy supposed to answer that?  Supposing the gal has a bit of extra weight and/or doesn’t look good in the outfit, what is the guy to say?  Honesty is going to destroy whatever plans were in the works as the gal is now going to be pissed off that he called her fat or sad and weepy that her guy called her fat and ugly.  The only graceful solution is the lie:  “You look great.”  Even Geico pokes fun at this setup, asking “was Abe Lincoln really honest?”

Then we get into the question of whether withholding is lying.  If you see a flaw in someone and you don’t tell them, is that withholding, and, further, is that lying?  Back to couples and weight gain, for instance, if one of them sees the other putting on the pounds, even if the one never asks the questions of the previous paragraph, should they tell the weight gainer?  Even if it’s said with the best intention, knowing the other doesn’t want to gain weight, it is more likely to cause serious friction in the relationship.  If we take withholding as lying, then the well-intentioned person is still guilty of lying, or not being honest at the very least.

At work, do you tell your boss the 100% truth about what’s going on regardless of how bad a project is going or do you paint the picture as rosy as possible.  Wouldn’t honesty be the best policy?  That depends a lot on the boss and what kind of relationship you’ve built with him/her, right?  Maybe the boss shoots the messenger.  Maybe the boss has been in similar situations and understands that things sometimes go wrong.  Maybe, you sugar coat the report and find yourself called on the carpet and now the boss finds you to be somewhat less than a straight shooter.

If your good friend started seeing someone and, after meeting the new someone, you know that person isn’t right for your friend, would you share your feelings with your friend?  What if the someone is someone you’d had a relationship with or just hooked up with on a one night stand?  Would you be forthcoming about that?  If you did, how would your friend react?  I think most of my friends would understand that I was being honest and just wanted them to know up front rather than finding out later or, in the case of the person being wrong for them, that I was just letting them know how I felt/what I saw that didn’t fit.

The lying to ourselves can be fairly simple and easy to do.  For instance, I can always tell myself that I don’t have time at work to get to the gym when I’m really skipping the workout because I just don’t feel like going… this actually happens too often lately.  We get in arguments with co-workers, spouses (and other significant others), friends, and know we’re on the wrong side of the truth, but can’t admit we’re wrong.  Would honesty be better?  It’s probably very rare that being honest about our side (when wrong) will cause any real problems in whatever the argument.

In all these instances, it’s easy to see why not being completely honest could provide short-term benefit.  Long-term, though, these un- and half-truths come back to bite us.  Being completely honest can be done tactfully and will go a long way toward establishing your reputation as someone who can be relied upon to give the low-down.  Respect is not a right.  It is earned, and being honest is a key part of gaining that respect.


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