There is a fundamental and perpetually overlooked tactic worth employing in the game of social interaction that we find ourselves playing every day, which preserves dignity and integrity and renders us fairly impervious to detrimental criticism. That tactic, as the title suggests, is honesty.
Honesty is a powerful weapon, but one that is continuously overlooked by everyone, every day of their lives, viewed instead as a potentially hazardous exposer of guarded vulnerabilities. I suggest that this need not be the case, and actually honesty is the one virtue that we have that allows us to take pride in who we are, present a true depiction of ourselves to the world, and progress through life in the most efficient fashion possible. Unfortunately however, a presentation of honesty to the world at large also means an admission of honesty about oneself, with acknowledgement of one’s own shortcomings. Perhaps this is why honesty is a less than tempting option for most people. Pride is a particularly pointy object to swallow, and it often leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Everybody lies. They do it every day. You lie. I lie. We tell tiny little lies here, there and everywhere. We don’t even realise we are doing it. Here’s an experiment: try and catch yourself in the act of lying. Watch out for it, and see how long it takes before you notice yourself doing it. You may be astonished to discover how little time goes by before you fall foul of it, if indeed you maintain your awareness of such a subconsciously hidden act for long enough. But when you examine your motives for lying, you may be equally astonished at what purpose it is actually serving. For the most part, I believe that we all harbour deep insecurities about ourselves and our place in the world. Our perception of who we should be, relative to our perspectives of everyone around us, often fail to meet certain self-imposed expectations, and so we often feel we need to tell small face-saving lies to mask our supposed shortcomings, without the slightest consideration that everyone else around us is doing exactly the same thing.
I used to have a friend who was a compulsive liar. Lies would trip off of his tongue as easily as thoughts would arise in his brain. He would lie quite casually on a regular basis about even the most trivial details of his daily life, apparently unaware that everybody around him was perfectly cognizant of the inconsequential truths that he worked so hard to conceal. But it follows that such compulsive deceptions were merely a smokescreen for deep felt insecurities, which presumably a potent sense of shame compelled him to keep hidden. But his failure to tell the truth from moment to moment could only possibly deny him much needed introspection, such that he may have pursued avenues towards personal growth and understanding, every bit as much as everyone else’s failure to point out the obvious disparities between his version of events and the real world evidence.
In this sense, perhaps we feel that we are lying in order to spare someone’s feelings. Surely these are “good” lies? But, really, ask yourself, what good do such lies actually do in practical terms? For one it is a massive act of presumption to arrogantly assume that we are the best guardians of other people’s feelings, such that we must deny them knowledge to certain truths about the world or their surroundings. Telling someone the truth, however hard, can only help them to make proper decisions based on real information. I think it is fair to say that probably anyone who reads this has found themselves saying “I love you” when they didn’t really mean it. I might even suggest that this is possibly the most common lie of them all, and it is one I know I have previously been guilty of. But, however easy it may be to say something like this in relation to the long, painful conversation incurred by the alternative, what ultimate benefit is this to anyone? All it ensures is that everyone’s time is wasted within an alternate reality, whilst a greater truth is fantasised about but never admitted.
Ultimately, however, I think that most lies arise as a result of failing to understand our own minds, or to successfully intellectualise the emotions we are feeling. We are every one of us entangled in a confusing mess of sensations, trying desperately to interpret them in as intelligible a way as possible, each experiencing them subjectively, and attempting to present an outward appearance to the outside world that conforms to our perception of expectations placed upon us. And it is hard to reconcile these two distinct perspectives. But if we keep needlessly lying, constantly afraid of the imagined consequences of telling the truth, then we constantly deny ourselves the opportunity to grow, whilst affirming that our true nature is something about which to be ashamed and kept hidden from others. This is a falsehood. We are all human beings and we all make mistakes and we all make poor decisions based on the substantial weight of our emotional states. This is a struggle we all share, and therefore the trick is not to attempt to conceal such a fact as if it is something exclusive, but notice it, admit it, and probably gleam empathetic understanding as a result of it. Therein we will find the strength to truly improve ourselves and our interaction with others.
And so here is what I suggest: I advocate total honesty in all possible scenarios, barring rare extenuating circumstances. There is no shame in admitting the limitations of your own knowledge. If you don’t understand what someone is talking about, it means that, through no fault of your own, you don’t happen to have encountered the same information as that person. Pretending you have is a futile endeavour, and places you directly in the firing line for embarrassing exposure later on. This is something I would especially encourage in my particular line of work, where many people assume knowledge based upon having heard the same words used in the same context enough times to have memorised them for pseudo-authoritative regurgitation later on.
Please note however that honesty is not synonymous with either rudeness or undue frankness – we can tactfully tell the truth, or even refuse to speak on matters at all on grounds of discomfort with the prospect of doing so, so long as we are honest about it. By presenting an honest depiction to those around us regarding our thoughts and feelings, maybe we all might just find a bit more harmony in our correspondence with each other, feel less of the stress and anxiety that comes with trying to navigate our way through life, and understand ourselves just that little bit better. If we just drop our pretences and the self-imposed shame that makes telling the truth seem like a painful thing to do, then maybe we’d be on a better course to find that happiness we’ve all been so desperately looking for.
Just a thought.
To read in more detail and greater eloquence about the concept of honesty and the social and personal detriment incurred by dishonesty, please read Sam Harris’s book “Lying”.