Exact words from my last post: “Lack of honesty, no matter how well-intentioned, keeps others at a distance. It can never bring about greater understanding between two people.” I assumed that I was stating something that we all just know, even if we don’t practice it.
Then I happened to hear an interesting podcast. Two Guys on Your Head talking about honesty and happiness. One of their first statements: “It turns out honesty is the best policy despite the fact that people don’t believe it.” So much for my assumption.
According to the podcast, researchers divided some volunteers into three groups for a study on relationships. They gave each group a different angle to focus on during all of their social interactions over a given length of time. One group was told to be as honest as possible, another to be as kind as possible, and the third to pay more attention to what they were saying as they talked to other people. After practicing their assignments in their everyday lives for the specified number of days, the subjects were asked to rate the closeness and effectiveness of their interactions during that time.
“Surprisingly,” (the podcaster’s word, not mine) “what they found was people felt like they had better interactions with people and felt closer to the people that they communicated with if they were honest.” Are these two psychologists really surprised to hear this? Or are they just reflecting the surprise most Americans would experience when the results were revealed?
A fourth group involved in the study was asked to predict what would happen in the same three situations. The majority thought that being honest would be more likely to damage a relationship. They were wrong.
In the experiment, the subjects reasoned that the kind thing to do is to avoid telling the truth if it might be hurtful or offensive. That makes sense in some situations, like the example the Two Guys gave: if a husband and wife are walking into a restaurant and the wife asks the husband how she looks, kindness wins out over honesty.
But according to the podcast, most of the time our belief that we’re being kind is really just cowardice. We don’t have the guts to tell people “what you know they need to hear.” Their conclusion is that when we share ourselves with others more freely, especially if it’s done in a positive, rather than a combative or degrading, manner, we’re opening the relationship up to greater intimacy. Ephesians 4:15: Speak the truth in love. It works.
Some of my best relationships have been with people who don’t agree with me on one or more important subjects. As we’ve discussed our opposing positions and listened to each other and tried to understand each other’s perspective, we’ve developed a deep friendship that I wouldn’t trade for all the “kindness” in the world. It isn’t always comfortable, but it’s always worth it. Am I the only one who’s experienced this?
The Two Guys say that the main situation where we avoid telling the truth is when it reflects badly on the speaker or the listener. But as they point out, exposing our weaknesses expresses a willingness to trust the other person. Those great relationships from the previous paragraph also included admitting our uncertainties, our failures, our faults. It’s called vulnerability. It’s biblical. Our culture claims to consider it one of the greatest virtues. What’s happening here?
An important factor that wasn’t discussed in the podcast is the nonverbal responses that we all pick up on, whether we realize it or not. There’s something about looking into a person’s face as we talk. Their whole expression seems to become warmer and more open when the speaker is being honest. It changes when he or she is holding back. Even if we can’t put a finger on it, I suspect that we instinctively sense when someone is being truthful and when they’re not. And if they’re not, they’ll lose our trust. We might think that we can fool someone by being kind instead of honest, but I’m not sure that it really works that way.
Many years ago there was a man in my church whose wife had recently left him. They had been living a life of deceit for years, pretending to be happily married, putting on a false front for the rest of the congregation to admire. In reality, he was controlling and manipulating his family to the point of emotional abuse. Initially, the wife thought her husband was being a good Christian spiritual leader and she was being a good Christian submissive wife. But she eventually recognized his behavior as unChristian and unhealthy, and she ended the relationship.
He remained in our church and Bible study while she moved on. One day, I was talking to him before class. I glanced into his eyes to gauge his response to our conversation. There was nothing there. No human expression. Just a brick wall. He was hiding the truth of who he really was, what he really thought, how he really felt.
My gut reaction: I can’t trust anything this guy is saying. He might have been oozing kindness in his words, but his eyes betrayed his lack of honesty and destroyed any possibility of friendship or acceptance. This was an extreme case, but I suspect that most of us know when someone is being less than honest even if their words convey kindness. And it widens the distance between us.
If honesty really is the best policy, if intimacy develops with truth rather than with attempts at deceitful kindness, what happens when a culture strives to protect its members from any words that might be deemed hurtful? Can we engage in honest conversation? Will we build intimacy or only a shallow pretense at friendship? Many colleges are trying to ban offensive speech from the entire campus. Is this really the best way to prevent suffering? Maybe in the short term. But what about the long-term ability to build strong, healthy, lasting relationships based on honesty—the best policy?