Being Honest Doesn't Mean You Can Be a Jerk

Sometimes it's better to just keep it to yourself.

Oct 6, 2011 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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At a party last week an acquaintance of mine told me that she that she found my writing offensive and closed-minded and come to think of it, she never really liked me to begin with.

It was one of those incidents where someone surprise attacks and you spend the whole next day thinking of things you could have said. My stories have never been about her personally and I certainly never meant to hurt her with them. I say things that are kind of out there sometimes in my writing, but I hope I am not needlessly offensive. I hate hurting people's feelings.

I tried to handle her comments as gracefully as possibly, but inside, I felt shaken. Why was she telling me this? It’s not as though I could do anything about it. If it were a close friend who I had hurt, then of course, but I didn't even know her well. If she didn't like me, why not just avoid me in general instead of cornering me and ticking off my flaws?

“I’m just a straight-forward person,” she offered by way of explanation. “I think you’d appreciate my honesty.”

Yes, I thought, there are times when it is better to be straight-forward. I’d appreciate it if you told me something that would serve in my best interest like:

I’ll be direct with you, you are standing below an anvil.

Or

I’m going to be honest, you have a praying mantis on your head.

In my experience, there are places and ways to express an opinion with honesty. I love to have a good argument about politics or read on op ed. But I would never attack the personality and integrity of someone I didn’t know well and try to pass those judgements off as a refreshing dose of “straight-‘atcha-shootin’-from-the-hip.”

A couple of years ago, I walked out of the movie "The Invention of Lying." I had thought the premise, that the world was an honest place until Ricky Gervais realized that he could just fib, sounded like it could be really funny. But it wasn’t good.

They had gotten it all wrong. Instead of just being honest, the movie-world was populated by people who were pathologically mean. Their inability to lie had been interpreted as an inability to be kind and so people mechanically hurled at one another whatever insult popped into their heads.

There is a difference in being straightforward and being an asshole. Stopping yourself from saying out loud some cruel thing that pops into your head is not a lie. It is a necessary kindness if you are to function in society.

I’ve heard nasty people use the honesty excuse my whole life, as though basic human decency is deceptive bullshit and they want no part in it. In their minds, being “honest” or “direct” with someone gives them license to offer unsolicited critiques of their failings as a person. If you can’t take it, their attitude implies, you must either be a liar yourself or be unwilling to face your flaws.

Because let's be real, when has, “I’ll be honest” ever preceded a statement which is nice or flattering? Someone saying that they are being "honest" implies there is some sort of inherent truth in what they're telling you, when really, sometimes it is just an opinion.

Are expressing an opinion and being honest the same thing? I'm not so sure. Tell me what you think in the comments, but if it's personal, please refrain. I'd prefer the lie.