telling the truth

Honesty, by George Rodrigue ©2003
Honesty is the best policy, right? Tell it like it is. If only people were more honest, the world would be a much better place. How can anyone argue with that?

I won't. What I will do is examine the phenomenon of telling the truth with greater scrutiny than usual, to see if we can't gain some clarity on situations in which honesty crashes us into a wall unexpectedly.

To begin, let's consider the limits of language. Can you really say everything in your mind all at once? If I ask you how you feel about, say, apples, could you answer in exhaustive detail in 5 seconds? 10? 30? There are many layers to our perception, to our feelings, our history, our relationships. Consider the next time you are being candid and ask yourself, "Am I leaving something relevant out?" I would suggest you certainly are. For the sake of brevity and practicality, we only provide the needed details of our thoughts and feelings. The alternative is too exhausting, and unnecessary.

Does that mean we're lying? Of course not. But it does mean that we rarely share the entire truth. And now this leads us to the big question: Can you tell the truth too much?

We have all been in a situation where we've "said too much." We've provided too much detail of our mind's workings to be practically tolerable or useful to another person, or to honor reasonable social expectations. (It's worth noting that some social expectations are miserable tools of isolation and productivity and SHOULD be broken.)

A friend routinely uses the concept of "summary honesty" as a way of dealing with excessive truth-telling in relationships. In situations where processing is too sticky to be productive, providing a summary of one's truths instead of all the details is a better option. Or of course, sometimes it's no one's business what the details of one's truths are, and the summary is more appropriate as well! Summaries are not lies; they are simply truthful summaries. And recalling that we are hardly capable of telling the entire truth at once anyway, it is not such a bad option after all. We all have a right to cognitive privacy.

The timing of truth is also a variable to keep in mind. At times people express their feelings in terms that are eternal, or language that makes it sound like something is true longer than they could know. And sometimes we emphasize the importance of something by exaggerating the length for which it should be considered true. "I know we'll be friends forever!" We retort "it's how I felt at the time" when confronted about such statements when they turn false, when in fact the feelings are not what is being questioned -- it's the manner in which they were expressed. I advise being aware of the time element of your statements of truth, to avoid paying for it later.

And of course there's perspective. If you talk about your feelings and perspective, you can never be wrong, unless you're self-deluded. It's when you start telling others what they are or start claiming the situation is objectively a certain way when you open yourself to argument. Sticking to truths centered around your perspective keeps you on more stable ground.

All people need truth like they need food. Too little overlap between perception and reality causes us to shrivel like old balloons. We owe each other the truth. But the form we give it in should be chosen sensitively, to maximize progress and minimize suffering. This may sound odd, but I believe honesty and compassion are among the most popular excuses for abusive behavior there are. Let's be careful.