When I launched Adventures in Honesty earlier this week, I certainly expected to receive some… interesting… initial responses. (If you’re joining the party for the first time now, here’s the summary: No lying. To anyone. About anything.) So while the volume of messages took me a bit by surprise, the wide ranging sentiments contained within them did not.
As expected, responses ranged from positive (‘WOW! This is amazing, exciting, scary, and bold. Nice work!’) to neutral (‘An interesting project.’) to negative (‘Uh…..okay? Not sure, is this a joke?’). Some responses were eloquent (‘Hats off to you for having the fortitude to make yourself that vulnerable and open yourself up to the potential fallout.’). Others… not so much (‘This is dope.’). My best friend shared it. Some – from whom I was looking forward to hearing – were deafeningly silent.
Yet there are five responses in particular which I find to be notably illuminating and, as such, deserving of focused consideration. Together, they encapsulate much of what is at stake, as well as what is to be gained by pursuing uncompromising honesty on at least a local level (i.e. explicitly between individuals rather than on some greater societal level).
Response 1: When honesty causes others to be dismissive.
“You must have done some real soul searching.”
As benign as this response may appear at first glance, it actually contains within it some potentially troublesome baggage. Typically when we refer to ‘soul searching’, we have in mind that the one doing the searching was, at some point prior, suffering from an internal existential crisis which could only be escaped through deep personal contemplation, usually either emotional or spiritual in nature. (Pay attention to the emphasized words here: internal, personal, emotional.)
Herein lies the problem with this response: By pigeonholing the pursuit of honesty as something I am doing for me (and motivated mostly by some internal emotional need), it becomes dismissive of the greater scope and impact it is intended to (and should) have. As such, it threatens to trivialize something that is valuable for all as something that’s only valuable for one. Honesty is not something I pursue for me, and it isn’t motivated by emotion. Pursuing honesty is a societal need that is driven by a very simple logical conclusion: Our world would be a better place if we would all just stop lying to one another.
Response 2: The cognitive dissonance caused by lying and honesty.
“What’s that email you just sent me really saying? Is everything you told me after hello a falsehood?”
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is used to refer to the mental stress or discomfort someone experiences when s/he “holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values” (thanks wikipedia). The idea behind the theory is that humans have a need to be internally consistent, as well as to have their expectations be consistent with their reality. When there is significant inconsistency, problems arise.
This is precisely what seems to be going on with my good friend, who seems to be struggling to align what he now knows about me with what he thought he knew about me. What worries me, though, is that my friend seemed to hold an idea about me that entailed me always being a perfectly honest person. I wasn’t. Perhaps I should be flattered that I appeared so trustworthy. Maybe I should appreciate my friend more for having such a positive outlook on people. The truth is, my friend’s perception of reality is not consistent with the actual nature of reality. Worse, despite the fact that I am now categorically a better person, my friend views me as the exact opposite. Being honest now has called into question all that I was in the past. This is unfortunate, but it’s a perfect example of how committing to honesty earlier rather than later is ideal in that we minimize the potential for this sort of reality-shifting, and the negative consequences that arise from it.
Response 3: When honesty reveals others’ characters.
“I’m glad you warned me! From now on I will ONLY ask you questions where the truth is what I really want to hear! (I don’t always want the truth….) It seems that Mom’s and Granny’s should get a pass on the painful truth….no???”
Yes, this is the response I received from my mother. Fortunately, it’s the sort of response one can only hope to receive when embarking on a project such as mine. It’s warm, supportive, and (in the iconic style of my mother) playful. Yet, more important than any of these sentiments is just how thoughtful it is; it shows a clear understanding of the implications of the project, as well as a willingness to accept the changes that our relationship might need to undergo in the future. Beyond just accepting the change in my behavior, she has also willingly offered to adjust her own in order to ensure the harmony of our already close relationship. This is a profound expression of love, one that has genuinely made me appreciate her more than I did yesterday. More amazing, still? It took fewer than fifty words to strengthen the bonds of our relationship. (In hindsight, I really shouldn’t be surprised, though. Old adages are often still around for an important reason; they’re true. In this case, mother really does know best.)
Response 4: When honesty creates a better path forward.
“This is awesome. I hope we go from transactional to realish, despite both being super busy. I often lament the absense of frankness and real advice in the professional landscape. Let me know if you’re around at all in January.”
It’s one thing to improve an already strong relationship (such as in the case with my own mom). It’s an entirely different thing to forge a completely new path forward for a previously shallow one. This is exactly what promising to be honest did here. I received this from a past colleague, for whom I have always had much respect. I’ve always had an inkling that we were cut from the same cloth, that if we could just work together we’d be able to create something meaningful. Yet despite both attempting time and time again to make plans, they always fell through. Eventually, the lines of communication went quiet entirely.
But through my commitment to honesty, both the conversation and the potential for evolving this transactional relationship into a genuine one have reemerged. Even better, we are starting this path toward a better relationship on the exact same page. We have both acknowledged the nature of our relationship now, as well as what we would like it to be in the future. By doing so, we put ourselves in the best position possible to be able to achieve that future.
Now just imagine if we could do this as a society.
Response 5: When a lack of honesty prevents any meaningful path forward.
“…I’m glad to hear that you’re doing this. I don’t think I would be able to do the same right now but I’ll definitely try and read about the journey.”
After receiving this message, I sat quietly in disbelief for about a minute. In response to my promise of absolute honesty, this person – who I know personally – informed me that he wouldn’t “be able to do the same right now.” This is of course fine. My pursuits do not necessitate others to join. (Nor did I ask him to do so.) However, it is important to understand what he actually did by saying this: He essentially promised me that he will lie to me at some point (perhaps at many points) in the future.
This does not make me want to get coffee with this person.
While it would be unfair to expect that my commitment to honesty should force others to do the same, it would be a lie to say that, when they don’t, it doesn’t affect my perception of who they are as people or my expectations for the future of our relationships. To deny this would be to condone lying as an acceptable part of my connections with the external world, with those other than myself. It isn’t, and I can’t. Fortunately, those with whom I am closest have already become more honest (at least with me) simply due to their direct association with me. Yet by choosing (and even informing me) that he would rather be a bystander to my honesty than a practitioner of his own, he has clearly illustrated the nature of our relationship. Unfortunately, it’s not one that I wish to be a part of.
But that’s the things about honesty; it’s either infectious or it’s fatal.