Friday, May 13, 2011

On Honesty, Truthfulness, and Friendship

I have recently been reflecting on what honesty and truthfulness mean to me, particularly in the context of a close friendship or mentoring relationship. Interestingly, this issue came up for me in three or four different contexts this week, and it's caused me to start reflecting rather deeply on my philosophy. When I reflect deeply, it is often in words, and since I was composing and refining these thoughts mentally anyway, I decided I would turn it into a blog entry.

I posted this Facebook status recently:

Marie desJardins
recognizes that her need to be honest and truthful, and for others to do the same, is not normal in our society -- but there it is all the same.

In our society, most of us lie, misrepresent, or hide what we believe to be the truth on a regular basis. We do these things for many reasons. Sometimes it is to protect people; sometimes to protect ourselves; sometimes to get what we want; sometimes to hurt someone deliberately. I do these things; you do these things; we all, at some times, lie, misrepresent, and hide. How can we decide when these are the right things to do, and when they are not?

You may be wondering why I said "honest and truthful" in my status -- aren't they the same thing? Well, not exactly, at least not in my mind. "Truthfulness" lies in choosing your words and actions to avoid deliberately conveying a falsehood or an opinion that you do not actually hold. Honesty goes beyond this: it lies in choosing your words and actions in such a way that you convey the truths and opinions that need to be conveyed (for the benefit of others; to present yourself in a fully open and revealing light; to share your wisdom and thoughts with your fellow humans so that we can all reach common understanding). I do actually believe that honesty subsumes truthfulness, but I think that truthfulness is such an important component of honesty that it bears repeating.

However, you can be "truthful" without being honest, by simply not sharing certain beliefs and opinions -- when you lie by omission. I believe that most people do this when they think that truthfulness might make them look bad, or could cost them a friendship. But if you lie by omission, then you are betraying yourself and others, and in my personal value system, this is ultimately a wrong choice. It is not an ethical choice, and in the real world, it is not, in many cases, a rational choice. Eventually, when you are truthful but dishonest, the truths that you are hiding about your opinions and beliefs will be uncovered. At this point, you will have lost credibility and missed the opportunity to share a difficult truth with your friends, colleagues, or fellow citizens. Trust will be eroded and your relationships will falter.

Of course, our society is structured in many ways to reward and reinforce a lack of honesty and truthfulness: in our political systems, in our capitalistic economic structure, in our emphasis on ambition and "success" (whether this comes in the form of power, money, influence, or material possessions). We regularly reward dishonesty and untruthfulness, and rarely punish these actions.

How do I choose to live my own life? In my personal and professional life, I have chosen to be as honest and truthful as I can -- and the closer a relationship I have with someone, the more important it is to me to be fully honest, sharing even the difficult truths that I fear the other person may react badly to. I spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about when and how to share these truths, so that they are as constructive as possible and received in the spirit in which they are meant. I do not say everything I believe or think, at the moment it comes to mind, simply to say it. I believe you can be honest but still keep some things to yourself -- petty irritations, momentary thoughts, opinions that you hold but will not act on in a way that will harm others. I also think that if your relationship with someone is more distant -- especially if they have not earned your trust or you have given them no explicit reason to believe that you are being *fully* honest -- you have less of an obligation to live up to this "honesty imperative." (I'm not big on untruthfulness, even in somewhat distant relationships, but I'm fairly comfortable with withholding truths and opinions.)

Have I lost friends and angered people by being honest? Well, yes, I think this has happened. I regret these situations, and I search my heart deeply when my honesty hurts someone, to see if there could have been a better way -- a better time, place, or wording -- to share that particular truth, or whether it was really necessary to do so. In some cases, I regret what I have said, and I have apologized and tried to make amends. I don't always think things through as well as I would wish, and even when I think them through, I don't always reach the right decision. In other cases, I have no regrets -- I said what need to be said, and if the person I said it to wasn't ready at that time and place to hear that truth, my intentions were in their best interest, and I stand by my choice. And of course, there are times when I wasn't honest enough, or I was honest to some people and not others, and my inconsistency or lack of honesty has led to difficulties. I'm not saying that I am perfect, or that I am actually able to follow these principles in a perfect way in every situation. Life is hard; decisions are hard; relationships are hard; telling the truth is hard. But whether I am right or wrong in any given situation, I always try my best, and try to learn from my mistakes; and in the end, I can't do any better than to make a genuine effort to live by my principles.

One of the most important of these principles, for me, is this. If I have an opinion or belief that I plan to act on; if that action could affect another person with whom I have a close relationship; and I do not tell them about my opinion and belief -- then I have betrayed them. By "close relationship" I mean a person with whom I have a close friendship or someone whom I have agreed to protect and mentor. Those people have a right to expect me to behave in a trustworthy way, and trust entails complete honesty in these situations. I would never knowingly withhold such information from a true friend, nor from a student in a class I was teaching, nor from anyone I had agreed to mentor.

Let me be very clear. I am not saying that in these close relationships, you must tell the person everything -- there is no need to share information that you have learned that will only hurt them without helping them, or information about other people's opinions or facts that you have learned in confidence. There is no need to share your opinion if you have no intention of acting on it in a way that will harm them. You can think your friend's haircut is atrocious, but you don't have to tell her that -- unless you are planning to tell other people, especially people who will treat her more poorly as a result. You can think your student's ideas are weak -- but you don't have to tell them that, unless you are going to say so in a reference letter.

These are hard judgment calls to make; I understand this. What if you tell one person something that you could perhaps have withheld, and that leads them to take an action that then harms a third person or interferes with the action that you felt was right? What if you tell someone one of these hard truths and they become angry, and you lose them as a friend? What if you tell them a hard truth and they become so angry that they tell others an untruth in order to harm you? How much of the truth do you have to tell, and when are you doing more harm than good? These are matters of conscience, but for me personally, I will almost always take the path of honesty, especially with a friend or someone to whom I have taken on an obligation of mentoring and care (a student, mentee, or advisee). I will withhold a truth to protect the other person from harm or hurt feelings, but if withholding the truth would hurt that person, I will not withhold the truth merely to protect myself (from hurt feelings, from anger, or even from loss of the friendship).

I know that some people think that I am too judgmental, too hard on people, too unbending. I don't think that I am any of those things in most matters. (Well, I will admit that I do on occasion have unreasonably high standards. But generally speaking, I understand that most people can't really meet those standards perfectly -- it's not as though I can!) Truth is one of the exceptions: I do believe that I can be judgmental, hard, and unbending when I feel that a friend, or a person who should be in a mentoring relationship to me, has betrayed my trust and not shared their opinion when I needed to know it. But I am not unreasonable, I think, in my responses to honesty. I have had friends tell me very hard truths that I didn't want to hear, and we got past that and the friendship continued. I have had violent disagreements with friends; I can be friends with someone who has very different viewpoints than I do, if they are willing to share their opinions honestly, discuss them openly, and try to find a common ground where we can agree to disagree. If we can't get past that hard truth -- well, then perhaps the friendship was never meant to be.

But I find it difficult or impossible to continue to be friends with, or to mentor or be mentored by, someone who will not tell me the hard truths. If someone doesn't know me well enough to know that I would prefer to hear a difficult opinion than to have them hide it from me and betray me behind my back; if they only want to share the easy truths and light chatter, then they can be my colleague, acquaintance, and perhaps even a facebook friend. But that's about all they can be, for me.