You know that old saying, “Honesty is the best policy?” Honestly? That’s such a lie.
Let me be clear that I advocate honesty in personal interactions most of the time. Honest and ethical behavior is most important, absolutely paramount, in fact, in business dealings. However, not only is telling the truth not always the BEST policy, it is actually sometimes a very bad idea indeed.
Take children, for example. “Children are SO honest,” people will say, as though that were a good thing. Children are not ALWAYS honest, of course. They are absolutely guileless when making observations about adults. “Gee, Mister, you have a funny voice!” they will happily announce to your theater professor upon meeting him for the first time, or they will innocently ask you why the dress you’re wearing is so ugly.
However, children will lie like adorable little rugs just the minute they sense that the truth might get them into hot water. They will lie about breaking the lamp, or pulling Matilda’s hair, or not finishing their homework. Children can get away with these sorts of thing because they’re so darn cute.
Adults don’t have that luxury- we expect more from them. Those of you who think that saying what’s on your mind is always the best idea are just lying to yourselves. Being tactful in a civilized society occasionally means bending the truth or even lying outright.
Rhetorical questions rarely require a detailed, honest answer. “Hi, there, how are you?” is usually just a greeting more than an actual question, especially when exchanged with casual acquaintances in the supermarket. The proper answer here is, “Fine.” Almost no one really wants to hear a litany of your latest ailments.
Sometimes people think they want more information but they don’t. Once, my husband and I were paying after having a perfectly adequate dining experience at a local pancake restaurant. The upbeat young man at the cash register asked, “How was everything?”
“Fine,” answered my husband.
“Is that the best we can get from you – a ‘fine’?” cajoled the clerk.
“Oh, you actually want the details of how our visit was?” asked my husband, amiably. “Okay! We waited several minutes before someone even took our drink order, and they could have refilled the coffee more often, and they kept forgetting to bring us more cream when we asked for it. The food also took a while to come out, but was very good when we got it. So, all in all, it was fine.” I could tell from the look on the cashier’s face that, in the end, he didn’t really want the whole truth.
If you are a waitress, it is an especially bad idea to apologize to your customers for the bad service you’ve been giving them by truthfully explaining that you have been suffering from a terrible stomach flu and that you’ve been “puking your guts out” all morning. This is the epitome of TMI, and, believe it or not, might cause your customers to lose their appetites and complain to your manager. Who knows? They may even avoid you and your restaurant in the future.
When commenting on someone’s appearance, even in response to a direct question, a lie is often more of a kindness than it is a deceit. There is nothing to be gained by telling someone that you really don’t like their new outfit or haircut. If someone shares with you that they FEEL like hell, they almost never want to hear that they also LOOK like hell. And, men, trust me, when a woman asks you, “Do I look fat in this outfit?” she is looking for reassurance, not the truth.
There are occasional exceptions, of course. My husband once volunteered to me that if I ever asked him if my butt looked big in these pants, he would have to say yes, but that it would be a GOOD thing. Well, when he put it that way, it was honestly pretty charming.