We often see the truth as this finite, fixed quality, and ask: why can’t people just be honest?
If it were so simple, this wouldn’t be such a widespread complaint. The issue is that truth is much more complicated than we often realize. Say, for example, somebody has told you something that doesn’t line up. Let’s even say it’s the second or third time this has happened in the past month or so. You could interpret this in many different ways:
- This person is a liar.
- This person is lying.
- This person is not telling the truth.
- What this person is saying isn’t true.
- I don’t agree with what this person is saying.
Number 1, “this person is a liar,” is itself dishonest; rather than addressing the person’s action, it is an attack on the person’s being. Plus, calling someone a liar is deceptive because it sounds like you are talking about them, but really this is projecting how you feel about the person, but you’re not actually saying it. Saying “I would not trust this person” is much more honest; it’s not a deceptive smear, and it is open about the truth of your thoughts, rather than hiding behind an accusation.
Number 2 is a bit better, because it focuses on what the person does/is doing, rather than labeling the person a liar. Still, it is accusatory, and you project what appears to be you assuming bad intentions where often there are none. Number 3 is a little better still because its tone takes away assumption of intent to deceive: “lying” sounds intentional, whereas “not telling the truth” is more open to other possibilities.
Numbers 4 and 5, in my opinion, are the best. Number 5, “I don’t agree with what this person is saying,” keeps you from coming off as thinking you have a monopoly on the truth. It’s a good response to a statement like “it’s better to drink tea than coffee” or something that has very little admitted fact associated with it. Saying “what this person is saying isn’t true” (number 4) works well when it is apparent that you have more authority on a subject, for example if somebody makes a comment directly about you (saying “Mitch likes eggs,” for example; I, Mitch, have the authority to say, “that’s not true”). If you find out that another person does have authority on the subject [or sticks to their point of view too tenaciously for constructive discussion], you can always move to number 5 and agree to disagree.
The best, most positive people among us refrain from swinging a big verbal wrecking ball in conversation; whether or not the person we are talking about is present, we pay attention to our words. Because even when you are being “brutally honest,” you will more often block the path to truthful dialogue if you swing the wrecking ball. Now that you have called somebody a “complainer,” or “selfish,” or a “hypochondriac,” for example, the focus will likely shift from what is actually being disagreed with to whether the person can be trusted, what their intentions were, etc. In that case, why not be honest and say outright that you have questions about the person’s trustworthiness/what their intentions are, rather than hiding behind accusations?
I do recommend that you decide for yourself, if a person’s tendencies toward certain behavior makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, to distance yourself or take a corrective action–this is very necessary. But you don’t have to rip into somebody in order to take this action. Truth is not an absolute thing, as we are often taught it is. It is fluid. It changes. And most of all, it is relative. Conceptions of wrecking-ball-style “honesty” become deceitful precisely because they buy into this lie that the truth is absolute and unchanging.