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April 24, 2008 3:39 PM   Subscribe

Can extreme honesty improve the quality of a person's life?

For most of my life, I've been the kind of person who thinks very hard (almost strategically) about what to say about myself and others, for fear that I might say the "wrong" thing. I'm basically pretty choosy about how I express myself.

But the thinking and reading and observing that I've done makes me wonder if this self-censorship isn't doing a lot more harm than good. There's something tiring and ultimately stressful about crafting a persona for the world to see, and there's something really appealing about the idea of letting go completely—like, how much simpler life would be (although there are definitely times when lying is the best thing to do, I realize).

I'm interested in hearing your experiences with and thoughts about living an unfiltered life. Where are the limits as you see them? Is there a particular way to go about it? Has it ever cost you something dear?

posted by mpls2 to Human Relations (37 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
There have been times, especially when I was stressed or emotional, that I said what was on my mind without really bothering to filter it or edit it. This usually ended badly for me. However, it sounds like you're interesting in going from one extreme to another. Maybe something in between totally controlled and totally uncontrolled speech would be better?

What kind of lying are you doing? Are you trying to be polite? Inoffensive? A different kind of person than you "really" are?

What would the consequence of not lying be? There's a big difference between admitting you get down to Alvin & the Chipmunks and telling your girlfriend that she is, indeed, fat...
posted by prefpara at 3:45 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have a reputation for being brutally honest. Those who like that sort of thing tend to like me. Those who don't tend to shy away or avoid certain conversations.

The only limit is that you should never, ever be cruel. Saying "Hmm, that dress really doesn't flatter your beauty, maybe one that blank blank blak" is much better than saying "You look ugly in that dress" and also more helpful. Honesty should be never used as club to beat someone up or show off your knowledge or supposed superiority. You do it because you think it helps the world and that dishonesty harms it.

Has it ever cost you something dear?
No, 'cause I value honesty intensely. Any person or situation that didn't feel the same wasn't very dear, by default.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:48 PM on April 24, 2008 [5 favorites]

This guy sounds like he's got your answer:

What I mentioned to my boss was this: a movement called Radical Honesty.

The movement was founded by a sixty-six-year-old Virginia-based psychotherapist named Brad Blanton. He says everybody would be happier if we just stopped lying. Tell the truth, all the time. This would be radical enough -- a world without fibs -- but Blanton goes further. He says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you're having fantasies about your wife's sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It's the only path to authentic relationships. It's the only way to smash through modernity's soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.

Yes. I know. One of the most idiotic ideas ever, right up there with Vanilla Coke and giving Phil Spector a gun permit. Deceit makes our world go round. Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.

And yet...maybe there's something to it.

posted by ewiar at 3:51 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are a couple problems with this approach:

1. Who exactly is the real you vs this alleged persona? Who is talking when youre depressed, angry, or extremely happy? Its pretty obvious that there's no "real" anyone, just moods and sloshing brain chemicals. The idea that there is a geniune person in there that is dying to get out is faulty after you honestly consider it.

2. In Buddhism there's the concept of right speech. This doesnt make all buddhists lay and monks alilke blabber mouths but encourages positive speech and only the "honest harsh truth" when it can only cause good in the long run. Constantly being that guy that observes everything loudly is gratifying to you but never to your audience. Someone once said there's vanity in candor, and I honestly believe it.

3. When to speak? If you run into an attractive women are you going to freak her out by yelling "I WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU?" Or walk into thanksgiving dinner saying "Man, Im horny tonight." We have limits for reasons.

4. What exactly is the purpose of any communication? Its never to reveal this hypothetical 'real you' but to get around socially. Suddenly turning this into "hippy truthspeak amateur night" can only be bad for everyone in the long run.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:52 PM on April 24, 2008 [11 favorites]

Previously on the blue.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:53 PM on April 24, 2008

I don't think anyone should practice "extreme honesty" (e.g. never, ever telling a lie, even a lie of omission or a little white lie) because that would necessitate instances of hurting other people's feelings for no reason other than one's own sense of "Wow, isn't it great that I'm so honest?"

I consider myself to be a very honest person. I'm very forthcoming about my life, my opinions, etc., and I try my best to give honest advice when asked, but I would never tell someone "You look ugly in that dress" or "Your haircut is atrocious" just for the sake of being honest.
posted by amyms at 3:57 PM on April 24, 2008

I think there is a big difference between "unfiltered" and "honest." Omitting hurtful opinions, for instance might be "filtering" but is in no way dishonest. Saying whatever comes to mind isn't honest, it's immature. That's what 2-year olds do (think about the child in the supermarket-- "mommy why is that lady so fat?")

If on the other hand, you mean just be who you are, which might include being the person who makes the necessary observations (for instance, if you know that your boss is having a staff member babysit her kids on the payroll during regular work hours), or that you don't want to wear a skirt even if that's the unspoken dress code, or that you let your kids curse, or that you're in love with the white guy, no matter what auntie says, that's okay. I'd say then you are being "honest" about who you are and how you want to live your life.

However, you should understand that such a choice also has its stress. I made a personal choice, due to a whistle that needed to be blown at my last job, not to put up with any bullshit at the new one. I call 'em as I see 'em. Consequently, I take a lot of what is supposedly good natured ribbing about being difficult to get along with (ha ha that nax, always something to say!) which is unbelievably draining. I have a reputation for being a bitch (which is not actually true) because I won't let people get away with crap (stolen TP okay, misreporting to the healthcare provider, no). Don't like my pink hair? Get over it. But unfortunately not without having to let me know how adorably weird I am. It gets old really fast. If you really want to be yourself, part of that must be, as the poet says, the courage of your convictions.
posted by nax at 3:58 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't confuse honesty with lack of tact. Just because something is true doesn't mean that now is a good time to say it.
posted by winston at 3:59 PM on April 24, 2008 [11 favorites]

There's something tiring and ultimately stressful about crafting a persona for the world to see, and there's something really appealing about the idea of letting go completely—like, how much simpler life would be (although there are definitely times when lying is the best thing to do, I realize).

I think you've really answered your own question in the above statement. When people tend to craft personas for themselves, it's usually to benefit the external party, you try to shape yourself to how you believe they will best like you.

That's obviously not making you happy-- so why not allow more of yourself through? You might break away from a few friends, but if they're only friends with you because of this persona you've created, then you've really not lost anything.

You get a hundred years on this ball of dirt, if you're lucky. Spend them in the way that makes you the happiest. If you be yourself and gather friends that love the true you, you'll generally be far happier then acting your way through life.

Projecting the honest you doesn't mean you have to be brutal with people. If the truth would cut a friend, or stranger too deeply, perhaps it's the wrong choice-- the interesting part is deciding where that line is.
posted by Static Vagabond at 4:03 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Can extreme honesty improve the quality of a person's life?

If the person is kind and loving through and through, with very little marbling of malice, I think the answer can definitely be yes.

For many of us though, no. Some of the things which have come out of my mouth in unguarded moments have been so amazingly mean I will never live them down.
posted by jamjam at 4:03 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's a world of social and verbal interactions between "constantly lying" and "broadcasting the unfiltered truth at every moment of the day."

For me, the issue is less one of honesty as it is of honor. Do you honor yourself (and the people you speak to) by blatantly lying about your background or job or marital status? Obviously not. But that doesn't mean that you honor yourself and the people in your life by being brutally honest in all situations. Do you honor your friends by mentioning the 10 lbs. they've put on or the crow's feet around their eyes? Do you honor your mom or dad by arguing with their political or religious views every time the topic comes up? Do you honor a coworker by spilling the beans about his surprise retirement party? In every case, you are certainly being honest and avoiding self-censorship. But the costs should be pretty self-evident.
posted by scody at 4:07 PM on April 24, 2008

You ask: Can extreme honesty improve the quality of a person's life?

Personally, I think self-honesty is the most important. Once one becomes honest with themselves about themselves, a lot of the self-protective mechanisms (including the meticulous construction of a persona) become pretty unnecessary because you end up losing the need to hide. If you're ok with yourself, you're not going to give too much importance to others' opinions.

Otherwise, from what you wrote above, it sounds like a "policy" of absolute honesty is just as unnatural as one of subterfuge.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:10 PM on April 24, 2008

If you've ever worried what people might think of you for saying or doing something, that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. I would never go out of my way to "honestly" insult someone.
posted by mpls2 at 4:12 PM on April 24, 2008

There is something between living behind a crafted persona and letting go with anything that pops into your mind.

Instead of focusing on honesty, try focusing on becoming more comfortable with who you are. (Some mix of self-acceptance and change) Once you are more comfortable that you are OK as yourself, you won't feel the need to spend a lot energy self-censoring to make sure that other people think well of you. You can be more natural, which may include being more honest but it also allows you to be more caring about others (since you aren't as worried that they will reject you).

The people I know who are good at being congruent (inside matches the outside face) tend to be assertive but not aggressive or abrasive and they tend to be caring rather than brutal in their honesty.
posted by metahawk at 4:13 PM on April 24, 2008

The balance between consciously adjusting your projected image and acting without social restraint is a great part of what makes you; you've been crafting a persona since the moment you became a social being, not only by deciding how to present yourself but also on reacting and adjusting, consciously or not, to the particular social context, cultural features, and family you grew up (and still grow up) in.
So I'd say the question is not to be honest or not, but to be conscious of the role and importance of this "mask" in your life.
Also, Hoffman may shade some light.
posted by ddaavviidd at 4:16 PM on April 24, 2008

:) I may be radical, but I think that if everyone, everyone would say what's on their minds, it really might work. See... I think we grow up too sheltered and many of us don't really know how to take any kind of criticism (constructive or not) or how to shrug off things that we don't like about ourselves.

For example, I spent most of my early life drawing for myself. When I began exposing my drawings to a more public realm, I was really hurt by some of the things that people said, even when they said it nicely! And now, after grueling critique sessions in college, it pretty much all rolls off my back. Sometimes I'll be a bit touchy and let someone know, "Hey, this is not a good time" but for the most part, you could say anything you liked about my drawings. It'd be fine.

And it's the same with other aspects, isn't it? Looks, personality, behavior... And isn't it extremely crucial to us how other people view us? Isn't that what we lay awake in bed wondering sometimes, if something we said earlier hurt mom's feelings, but she didn't want to start an argument? Wouldn't it help us improve ourselves if we knew which of our behaviors ticked others off and which of our behaviors made people happy? I mean right now we're getting the information by carefully watching other peoples' reactions, but that depends on our interpretation and is very open to being distorted in our own minds.

People who are purposely mean/annoying are few and far between. People who are unwittingly mean/annoying are everywhere. Truth all the time... would definitely decrease those numbers and increase acceptance.

I mean, I think we'd all be better people for it.

But obviously, that's not possible, so I figure a good policy is to tell the truth when asked directly or when the situation warrants, and the rest, stick to the positive stuff. :)
posted by reebear at 4:20 PM on April 24, 2008

If you've ever worried what people might think of you for saying or doing something, that's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Well, there's your problem.

You can never know what people actually think of you nor can you present yourself in a way that you think will give off the right impression. What goes off in someone's head during a social exchange has a lot more to do with that person and his or her's thought processes, biases, mood, etc than anything you can ever hope to control. The idea of worrying about how people see you is pretty poisonous, you can only act ethically, speak well, and hope for the best. The thoughts of others are pretty much 100% out of your control.

I probably interact the same way with everyone at work, but I wouldnt be surprised if I overheard one person say I was an asshole and another person say I was an angel. That's human nature. Once you accept the fickle nature of humans and the flaws of the human condition you will stop worrying about it.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:20 PM on April 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

Do you mean honesty in the sense of saying every true thing, ever? Or do you mean honesty in the sense of only telling the truth if someone asks?

I once read a series of stories based on the concept of honesty. They were a fantasy series, written by the Plaid Adder. The main concept of the story was that magicians had to tell the truth at all times, or they lost their ability to do magic. One lie, and that was it. The other problem was that if they were asked a question, they had to answer it, no matter the cost. They were allowed to refrain from speaking in certain explicit circumstances, but other than that, honesty really was the best policy.

There are several books in the series, and the author deals with the ramifications of telling the truth all the time rather well.

On a more personal level, I try to be encouragingly honest. By that, I mean that if a coworker asks me what I think about her current boyfriend, and I thought he wasn't good for her, I'd say that I felt she was worth more than someone who treated her the way he apparently does. Or if I like someone's shirt, I'll say it suits them. If someone asks me a direct question, I find that I'm inclined to respond with a direct answer - "do I look fat in this?" = "yes", while "does this suit me" = "perhaps in a bigger size?".

A lot of situations depend on what people want to hear, I think. Nobody likes to be told they're fat, as a rule, so sometimes I find myself couching my response in a different way for different people. But if someone overweight asked me if they looked fat, I wouldn't say they were thin. Lying is just as bad as being rude (being "brutally" honest).
posted by Solomon at 4:28 PM on April 24, 2008

I thought of that thread on the blue too - this was my response then.

But in response to your particular question, it sounds as if perhaps you spend too much time considering how you come across, and not enough on just getting to know yourself and appreciating who you already are. Personally, I think people tend to become more comfortable in their own skin as they get older, which is why more people are pretentious and trend-following in college, and more people are eccentric or idiosyncratic when they're retired. Along the way we go through various levels of social comfort, regarding how much thought we really give to the neighbor's opinion.

This kind of honesty, not hiding who you are for the sake of what you perceive to be social expectations, I think is an important element of maturity, and coming to truly see yourself as having just as much a place in the world as anyone else is a good thing. Of course there are already power dynamics in place and all that, so if you have radically divergent views from the majority of other people, there are complications to be faced. But really I think that in many circumstances and about many subjects, even unusual or unpopular opinions will be accepted if you present them without being antagonistic or polemical. Etiquette differs place to place, and there can be an element of dishonesty in some forms of politeness, but it shouldn't be a constant aspect of interactions, I don't think (except insofar as "who you are" is always an unknown and hence a falsehood when presented as a finitude yadda yadda :))
posted by mdn at 4:38 PM on April 24, 2008

By the by... should you try the honesty thing out, you'll find yourself thinking a whole lot harder about what to say. Facades are never as nuanced as we actually are, so to express what you really truly deeply feel about something is going to require much greater specificity in diction. Just in case you thought honesty was going to save you thinking, or something. :P
posted by reebear at 4:41 PM on April 24, 2008

The Tao of Seinfeld. George Costanza tried something similar and you can see what happened here at the 2:30 mark.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:42 PM on April 24, 2008

Okay, you guys are going in the wrong direction. Actually, HotPatatta's Seinfeld clip is closest to what I'm asking about. I'm asking about letting down the social mask and allowing others to see your internal struggles, insecurities, flaws, etc., rather than putting on a face that you think is most attractive.
posted by mpls2 at 4:50 PM on April 24, 2008

What damn dirty ape said.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 5:04 PM on April 24, 2008

I'm asking about letting down the social mask and allowing others to see your internal struggles, insecurities, flaws, etc., rather than putting on a face that you think is most attractive.

Well, it's still a social-situational thing. When the cashier at the grocery store asks how you're doing, it's a rhetorical question -- he doesn't really want to know that you're worried about losing your job or that your relationship is on the rocks or that you're having health problems.

A good friend, on the other hand, is someone with whom it's appropriate to share those things -- they can give you support, empathy, perspective, etc. Indeed, sharing those things can be turning points in friendships that allow you to connect more deeply with other people. But even then, there are times when the best answer the question "how are you?" is a cheerful "fine, thanks -- how are you?"
posted by scody at 5:20 PM on April 24, 2008

(guh, sorry, the rest of my answer got cut off)

If you always tell someone -- even your best friend -- the unvarnished truth of your situation, you run the risk of becoming (or at least seeming) to be a self-centered bore. For example: I have chronic health issues, including joint and back pain. My close friends and family all know it, and sometimes, when I'm really hurting or worried, I'll tell them what's currently going on. But if I answered "my knees and shoulders are killing me" every time someone asked how I was doing, I wouldn't have any friends left -- because I'd be telling them the same thing nearly every day.
posted by scody at 5:29 PM on April 24, 2008

I think if you let down the social mask and let your flaws etc come through, it may not necessarily bring you happiness, but it will certainly dispense with the anxiety you have at the moment about maintaing the social facade. That, at the very least, makes it seem like it would be worth trying.
posted by twirlypen at 5:31 PM on April 24, 2008

For most of my life, I've been the kind of person who thinks very hard (almost strategically) about what to say about myself and others, for fear that I might say the "wrong" thing. I'm basically pretty choosy about how I express myself.

I broke up with my last SO over this very issue. He called the way he acted "being nice", while I called it "lying to me all the time".

There are times when you need to be nice and maybe tell a white lie or phrase something carefully, but if you're doing it all the time you are not being fair to those around you. How can they trust what you say if you are 99% making it up? Relationships are built on trust and if you are talking BS most of the time people will notice.
posted by fshgrl at 5:36 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm asking about letting down the social mask and allowing others to see your internal struggles, insecurities, flaws, etc., rather than putting on a face that you think is most attractive.

This sounds to me like being genuine--knowing yourself and letting other people know you, too, warts and all. This is a great thing to do. It doesn't mean broadcasting all your struggles, etc. to anyone within hearing range, violating every social norm, or talking 100% about yourself. It just means spending a lot less energy trying to control how others view you.

It's the basis of strong friendships, because you know that your friend sees who you are and still wants to be with you. It also gives you the freedom to take risks, make a stand for something that's important to you, and otherwise live life according to your values.

And if you're less focused on what the other person thinks of you, you've got more energy available to actually focus on that person. So you'll get to know them better, too.
posted by PatoPata at 6:38 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always believed that this is was "real" or "close" friends are for, "BFFs" if you will. The people whom you can be 100% yourself with and feel no "stress" of self censorship. So to answer the first question YES, these complete honest relationships can definitely improve one's life.

"The limits" As I see them, are naturally the larger number of people you deal with who are outside this group. With co-workers and casual friends it's just a different story, better to say nice things and then expose every inane idiosyncrasy.

There's no need to be either/or about it personally, you have many relationships and can leverage them in different ways.

For what it's worth: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything." ~Mark Twain
posted by oblio_one at 7:13 PM on April 24, 2008

You've posed an imperfect question for yourself. The answers in this thread show the problem with seeing it as a choice between two extremes. Focus less on abstract ideals ("extreme honesty," "unfiltered"), and more on specific instances where you've been dissatisfied with the way you've expressed yourself. Slowly work on correcting those things, instead of shooting for a sudden personality overhaul.

For instance, maybe you realize you've been afraid to give people honest feedback on their work. Well, set a goal of being more honest (not necessarily "extremely" honest) the next time you're in a position to critique someone's work. Take baby steps and see how it goes. Otherwise, if you go the "extreme" route, you'll run into the obstacle of "But then I'd be hurting people's feelings!" and revert to your original persona.
posted by jejune at 8:01 PM on April 24, 2008

Live like I do: do not tell lies, but do be very diplomatic. My life is absolutely better whenever I stick to this, and whenever I fail to do this the outcome is almost always sub-par.
posted by davejay at 10:30 PM on April 24, 2008

If you've ever worried what people might think of you for saying or doing something, that's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

I'm asking about letting down the social mask and allowing others to see your internal struggles, insecurities, flaws, etc., rather than putting on a face that you think is most attractive.

Yes, I have worried about this. But with age I've discovered a couple of things.

1. When I say exactly what's on my mind, I often get a more positive response (and noticibly more respect) than if I'd crafted my response to what I thought they were comfortable hearing. An added bonus is that saying what I really mean, or really feel is very liberating and self-affirming.

2. When I like myself I don't worry so much about what people might think. Liking yourself takes away the worry because if you've got a positive internal dialogue and outlook, you're more likely to make positive assumptions about other people's thoughts of you.

3. Words are only part of the communication process and a lot of the rest is intuited by the listener. Think body language, tone, expression etc. Often this stuff can't be masked so a listener maybe getting mixed signals - words saying A, but the other stuff saying B. This stymies developing real relationships if real are what you're after.

4. Being yourself is the only way you can draw people to you who like and care for you as you really are. Then you don't have to put on a mask.

5. Other people's thoughts are feelings are not your responsibility and you cannot control or manipulate other people's responses. To try is to waste your energy, energy better spent on the person whose thoughts and feelings matter most. You.

... Metahawk said it more concisely.
posted by Kerasia at 10:55 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

The thing is, you'll never get it right - i.e. doing no harm, unless you align your thoughts, words and actions with the Spiritual Laws that govern and rule the world. In all other cases and scenarios, something, somewhere will go awry, disaster occurs and harm caused because no matter how much you think you're doing things *right* you're working through the ego and that will never succeed long term. Short term it's a feel good bandaid. Speaking honestly is not necessarily speaking Truth. And that's all I have to tell you at this time.
posted by watercarrier at 4:06 AM on April 25, 2008


Mygod... The truth, huh? It's such an interesting thing, sometimes it's vital and yet sometimes the truth does fuck all for anybody.

For me, I try to be always honest and truthful with myself and then ALWAYS use my head as to whether I should be honest with others. Although, it is my first inclination to do so. This reflex irks me occasionally, but it is something I find likeable within myself... and it can lend itself to giving me that edge when I need to lie my ass off from time to time.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 4:47 AM on April 25, 2008

It's always a good idea to be honest, however, being honest doesn't mean you need to express every feeling/opinion/observation you have. It seems that people believe that being honest means having an opinion on everything and letting people know.

Most times, keeping your mouth shout is the best (and most honest) policy.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 5:48 AM on April 25, 2008

I'm asking about letting down the social mask and allowing others to see your internal struggles, insecurities, flaws, etc., rather than putting on a face that you think is most attractive.

Moderation in all things.

If what you are doing now is "tiring" and "stressful," perhaps you should become somewhat more honest and open. But that doesn't mean you have to adopt pure unfiltered honesty in every situation.

Also, I wouldn't worry too much about "masks" and "facades." Those are to suggest that there is a single personality which is the "true you," and anything else is a deception of greater or lesser degree. It denies the incredible variety of the human experience. I behave differently depending on whether I'm at work, with family, with one group of friends, with a different group of friends, posting on MetaFilter, or alone. None of these is any more the "real me" than any other--they are all aspects of my personality. None of these aspects alone captures all of who I am, but at the same time they are all equally the "real me."

"I am large, I contain multitudes." -- Walt Whitman
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:23 AM on April 25, 2008

Extreme honesty with YOURSELF? Yes. And, one step farther, accept criticism from others as sincere. If somebody tells you, "Dude, that shirt looks like shit", your natural reflex might be to retort with "Fuck you, with your raggy-ass shoes"... but recognize the truth that, even though the guy's clearly ripping on you to pump up his own ego, your shirt may indeed look shitty. Maybe it's time to go shopping; or maybe you're okay with wearing a shitty shirt. I'm not saying let other people's opinions drive you; I'm saying accept negative feedback as valid information from other people's points of view... and then decide what to do with it.

Extreme honesty with OTHERS? No. Nobody likes having their flaws exposed and their ego trampled. Why would you want to tear down your friends like this? Why anger strangers or enemies? If you do this, expect retaliation, whether in the form of snarkiness or a fist to the face. Give compliments and positive feedback if, and ONLY if, they're sincere. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut unless you're directly asked for your opinion. Even then, always consider the person's feelings when responding.

As others have mentioned, the key is congruence between your inner self and your outer self. That sort of "honesty" is a life-long quest.

Read How to Win Friends and Influence People -- it covers this topic pretty well.
posted by LordSludge at 7:35 AM on April 25, 2008

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