Society drills into children that honesty is the best policy because adults need to know facts – did your brother put an eraser in his nose? Did your report card come today? Why does the house smell like fire? A blanket rule that says kids must tell the truth helps adults protect them, but should adults be treating honesty the same way kids do?
Perhaps because it’s been pounded into the heads of children for decades, some people use the idea of honesty as a form of aggression. What they heard as children they internalize and use as a weapon against others. After a particularly brutal announcement that may have caused hurt feelings, the speaker may respond with another common phrase: I was just being honest.
Hurt Feelings Can Result When Making Honesty the Best Policy
Since being completely truthful can lead to broken friendships and hurt feelings, we must ask ourselves whether hurting people makes honesty the best policy. Probably not, but there are ways to be open and clear without causing a rift in relationships.
A balance of good intentions and empathy can go much further than brutal truth. Despite what society tells children, there’s some disagreement about just how forthright people should be. When is it helpful and when is it simply hurtful? Being empathetic to the listener is one way to balance these questions.
Understanding the Difference Between Truth and Honesty
Remember the “Friends” episode where Chandler’s girlfriend asks if she looks fat? Instead of saying no, he looked. After that brief check, he said no, but the damage was done when his response wasn’t automatic. It was a big mistake that got a laugh in part because of its familiarity to us all.
If she had looked fat to him, would he have been right to say so? He would have been correct, but he wouldn’t have been kind or compassionate. Making honesty the best policy is like setting it in stone. Honesty isn’t an insurance policy or business’s mission statement – it’s something much more fluid.
When people treat truth as an issue that is black and white, it becomes diminished, and Truth – with the big T – is lost. When someone asks is honesty the best policy, this person might be wondering about facts, whereas truth, or Truth, is much more complex and depends on another’s experience and perspective.
Honesty as a Value Rather Than a Policy
Honesty has merit, but it should be wielded with caution and kindness. If someone is being honest but the result is harmful, what is the good of it? Those who use honesty as an excuse for thoughtless remarks diminish what true honesty should be – something that has value.
Unfortunately, some people wear their abrasiveness as a badge of honor, but have created an idea of truth and fairness based on themselves. Sometimes their idea of fairness doesn’t consider fully the person who is hearing their honesty. It’s easy to fall into this trap when you treat honesty as a policy rather than a value. Policies are like paperwork – they constantly change.
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Embrace Change as an Element of Truth
Insurance policies change depending on the car or the driver. Business policies are known to change with the times, and government policies are in constant flux. However, values don’t change with the wind – strong value systems withstand policy changes. The value systems that people embrace, then, become their truths.
They guide behavior, from how people treat animals to how they teach their children. By embracing a strong value system, people organically make honesty the best policy – without causing pain. If people can treat honesty more like a truth than a statement of fact, then honesty can work as a policy. Too often, though, people use it to hurt others.
The phrase “the truth hurts” is a cliché for a reason – when people are thoughtlessly honest, it can be extremely painful. It seems less like truth when it falls into the realms of unkindness.
Know When to Be Truthful
People who are honest with criticism are often respected and feared because the world knows they don’t shy away when it comes to telling the truth. There is no greater feeling in the world than when those people offer praise.
Being able to distinguish the difference between honest and caring criticism and thoughtless honesty can be tricky, and sometimes sharing hard truths is part of life. Being compassionate with the truth is not the same as being untruthful, though it may take some soul-searching to help people distinguish between these two ideas.
Leverage Empathy for Better Relationships
If you think your mom’s dress is ugly, but she loves it, then her truth might be different than yours. When truth involves work criticism, practice hearing that criticism before you say it – that simple gesture can help make the process of honesty much less painful.
The best way to be honest and compassionate is to embrace empathy. A strong value system can lead you to a place where you are able to treat honesty as a value – one that is fluid and beyond the truth of one individual.