Brutal Honesty/Gentle Lies
Several decades ago, I came across a bit of wisdom from Judith Martin (aka Ms. Manners) that has stuck with me all these years. “What the world needs is more false cheer and less honest crabbiness.” On the heels of a fad of attack therapies, where brutal honesty was misapplied, this kinder, gentler approach to the world was a breath of fresh air for me.
In the aforementioned quote, Ms. Manners was commenting on the mistaken belief that we need not conceal our ills, real or imagined. Face it, most of us don’t want to hear about others’ miseries. Chronic kvetching should be reserved for those who get paid to listen.
Focus on the Positive
Ms. Manner’s wisdom can be applied to many other forms of interpersonal communication. A friend wondered how to respond to an olive branch being offered by her estranged mother, who the friend deemed neglectful. I asked the friend to think about what her mother did well. This was not easy for my friend, who had focused on all the ways her mother was unfit, but she managed to find a few examples of how her mother’s parenting had benefitted her. No one is 100% bad; no one does a job 100% incorrectly. This, I believe to be true.
When tempted to be critical of others, ask yourself: what’s to gain by being brutally honest? For example, if someone asks you how you like her new haircut or recent purchase (both of which are not your style), you may want to offer up your truth. Unless the friend is considering returning the item or getting a buzz cut to remedy the hairstyle, there is little to gain from giving your “honest” feedback. Point out the positives about the hairstyle (your eyes really stand out) or about that 6-foot plastic flamingo (so playful!).
When you’re inclined to criticize or to withhold a compliment, check your own motivation. Envy could be coloring your perception. If a friend has just endured expensive and painful cosmetic surgery, a compliment is in order (unless the surgery went so far wrong as to disfigure). Withholding comment (silence) is often interpreted as a criticism.
I’d like to take the old adage, “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” to a higher level of introspection. If you can’t say something nice, look inside for your resistance. What hurt and what fears are you burying?
Unfortunately, our hypercritical society has not helped us evolve beyond our insecurities. Not only do we haphazardly give a thumbs up or thumbs down to anyone who posts a message, a picture or a video, we’re asked to rate almost every interaction we have with service providers. We evaluate our shared-ride drivers and they evaluate us, their passengers.
More than ever, our world needs optimism, kindness and expressions of care, even when forced. If you think feigning kindness and optimism is disingenuous, imagine living in a world of candid grumpiness. I prefer false cheer, thank you.