"Can I be honest with you?"
What the questioner actually means is "Can I say something hurtful that I think is really for your own good?" I brace myself for the fascinating observation that: (a) I've gained weight, (b) my haircut is unflattering, or (c) there is just something about me that is irking you mightily.
Since when has Honesty been the highest virtue? What happened to the little white lie? It used to be that a primary goal of social interaction was to leave the other person feeling good. Now, telling people how to improve themselves seems to be paramount. It's okay to sweetly inform a heavy person that being overweight isn't healthy and she should slim down because you really care about her so much. Do you think your friend hasn't heard about the health risks of excess poundage? I'm sorry, fat people don't read the newspaper? Vomit. These passive-aggressive maneuvers have turned Sharing the Truth from the highest goal into a way to sanction all kinds of out-of-line comments.
Don't get me wrong. I'd want to know if my boyfriend were cheating on me, or if my dress were tucked into the back of my pantyhose. When I'm genuinely in the dark about information I need to help me in my journey through life, I want to be enlightened. But, if you're truly my friend, you'll sit me down and give me the straight scoop without any ulterior motive, nyah-nyah moralizing or I-told-you-so'ing.
There's a big difference between solicited and unsolicited honesty, and it's the unasked-for, bare-assed, meant-to-wound kind of Honesty I detest. The kind that's used as a weapon, a way to express disapproval of my lifestyle or choices in a way that seems nurturing and helpful while it's actually quite hostile and aggressive. It's similar to the equally charming habit of starting a sentence, "No offense," and then saying something wildly offensive. My cousin Michaela, who's five years younger than I, recently said in her nasal little voice, "Can I be honest with you? It's cool that you're so into your career, but no way am I going to be single when I'm your age." Thank you for sharing.
"Sometimes someone is angry at you for one reason or another, but isn't comfortable telling you so," says Belleruth Neparstek, a Cleveland, OH psychotherapist (and my aunt). "So rather than telling you directly, they give you one of life's little instructive lessons. This way they can get their rocks off and retain the happy delusion that they are nonetheless morally impeccable."
The moralistic Honesty-sharers are the worst. The ones who tell you all about their dysfunctional relationships when you're standing next to them in the supermarket checkout line. The ones who narrow their eyes if they see you have a second martini at a cocktail party and gently tell you that the first step is learning to admit you're an alcoholic.
Then there are the members of the Honesty Brigade who are just jealous. A case in point: Jess, 32, says, "I have this super-thin friend who's always making comments about my boobs. They're large. She's always hinted that I should have breast reduction surgery, but she never actually came out and said it until last New Year's Eve, when she said, 'No matter what you do, if you keep them or get them reduced, I will always love you.' I'm like, what? She acted hurt and said, 'I'm just being honest.' When I tried to talk to her about it later, she said, 'Well, you know the problems you have with your boobs.' I said, 'No, I know the problems you have with my boobs.' She was really saying something about my personhood, my essential self, which couldn't be changed with a different shirt." The issue here is ambivalence. On the one hand, the friend was horrified that Jess wnuld refuse to change what was, in the friend's eyes, a correctable physical flaw. On the other hand, the friend may have been deeply envious of Jess' more womanly body. The friend, by dieting so stringently, had virtually eliminated her own breasts, and was both drawn to and repelled by Jess'. (Dime store psychology from moi)
In a way that's where the Food Police are coming from too. They're horrified to see you eat that creamy dessert, and are quick to tell you so
but secretly (in their innermost heart of hearts) they want to stuff it into their self-righteous, pursed little mouths. Your appetite is messing with their world view.
It's flat-out wrong to share your insights with others when the sole outcome will be to hurt their feelings. Enter Karen, 25, who has overcome a lot of early family trauma thanks to several years of counseling. "I don't often talk about my therapy, because it's private," she says. "But recently I was telling a friend about how I feel I've hit a plateau with my therapist now that I'm happy in my job and my relationship is going well. My friend said, 'Can I be honest with you? Therapy is designed to take advantage of you and make you dependent on your therapist. If you ask me, you actually sound worse than you've ever been.'"
You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see that perhaps the friend was envious of Karen's serenity/job/cute guitar-boy boyfriend, or frightened by the idea of doing therapy herself and facing some dark truths about her own past. In any case, what she said stung Karen deeply. Karen reflects, "When someone says 'Can I be honest with you?' they're often asking for permission to hurt you. They frame it like, 'You aren't equipped to see the truth and it's up to me to tell it to you, for your own good.' But they've seen that you're vulnerable and they're taking advantage of that vulnerability."
Forget George Washington and the cherry tree. I say it's often best to lie, lie, lie. The gently gilded truth
well, that'll do fine. Here's a parable from the Midrash, the Jewish commentary on the Torah, to illustrate my point: One day, Truth came to the big city. She expected to be greeted warmly, but everyone snubbed her. Sobbing, she ran outside the city and sat, all sniffly, by the side of the road. Along came Parable, who asked, "Why are you crying?" Truth told him what had happened. "I just don't understand why people turn away from me," she whimpered. "But look at you!" said Parable. "You're naked! That's why no one wants to acknowledge you. Come, I will clothe you." So Parable clothed Truth, and wherever she went people accepted her.
It's funny, but women seem guilty of invasive acts of Honesty more often than men. Is it that men are less observant, that they engage in small talk less often, or that they lack the moralistic you-should-improve-yourself gene? I actually think it's because we've been so good at teaching them how to answer the questions "Do I look fat?" and "Do you think she's prettier than me?" They know that unfettered truth can be evil.
Then again, maybe even it can sometimes serve a purpose. As Maggie, 23, says, "Sometimes brutal honesty is a welcome relief, a blast of reality among insincere social niceties." And as Judy, 19, says, "If we got rid of all the noxious, leddlesome people, we'd live in a euphoric world. Maybe somehow we need those people so we can vent and gossip about them with our real friends!" True enough. </end>
Biographical note here