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I Tried Being Brutally Honest, and Ended Up Lying More Than Ever

I Tried Being Brutally Honest, and Ended Up Lying More Than Ever

  • Culture
  • Life
Top image: Trung Thanh / Unsplash

Over dinner recently, a moral dilemma divided two of my close friends: How honest should you be with someone about your relationship history before you start dating them? Should you disclose every aspect?

One of them vehemently disagreed. He reasoned that his past should have little to no effect on whether a potential partner decides to date him, since he will likely not be the person he used to be anymore. Likewise, he didn’t expect the other party to disclose all the sordid details of their history either.

Another friend believed that knowing everything about her potential partner meant there would be less chance of getting blindsided by something that could hurt her in the future. At least if she understood all the details, she would know what she was getting herself into. To her, absolute honesty was non-negotiable.

Our discussion made me realise that despite being an old fashioned virtue, the importance of honesty transcends generations. The lack of honesty is a dealbreaker for many, who prioritise it in their romantic partners and friends.

Even so, it’s another thing altogether to be radically and completely honest ourselves.

Yet I was determined to try, if only because I believe we must hold ourselves to the same standards we expect from others. If one expects honesty, it is only fair that they be equally honest in return.

For a week, I conducted an experiment with one simple rule: be brutally honest every time I speak to someone.

Unfortunately, I typed in the group chat, “Alright, will be in”, and got dressed to leave home.

The week began on the day Rice had a team dinner. When I mentioned this to someone else, he commented that it sounded like it’d be fun. I replied, “Well, too bad you can’t come because you’re not part of Rice.”

I was off to a savage start, but my response gave me pause. Frankly, being “savage” doesn’t automatically imply brutal honesty. Most of the time, it’s just mean.

The next morning, I decided that I wanted to work from home, so I texted the office group chat. My boss directed his reply at everyone, stressing the importance of the team having face time in the mornings to catch up. Almost immediately, I thought, “Why insist on us being around in the morning when you’re never on time anyway?

Unfortunately, I typed in the group chat, “Alright, will be in”, and got dressed to leave home.  

That week, whenever a colleague asked how some article or other was coming along, I’d always reply, “Going good!”

Yet the truth is that whenever I say this, there is a 97% chance that I haven’t even created the Google document for the article yet.

Then again, my colleagues probably wouldn’t want to know the real answer (i.e. that I didn’t appreciate constant checking in). They were likely just seeking peace of mind from the fact that I had everything under control, and my lie allowed me to give that to them.

Though I wished I could have truly been brutally honest with the people I see five days a week, it was for this very same reason that I didn’t.

If we were to be brutally honest at every available opportunity, we may be constantly navigating our struggles and insecurities instead of getting actual work done.

Lastly, there’s the matter of authority. Few of us dare to speak up even in civil society among fellow citizens, what more in the workplace to our employers? In these situations, we convince ourselves that lying is necessary to avoid tension, awkwardness, and having to unpack our emotions (or simply getting fired).

When I wish I could have been more honest.
Oddly, when it came to my personal life, being brutally honest got even harder.

For example, I knew that a friend was looking for a new iPhone cable, so I took the chance to ask if  he was looking for the original version. I wanted to buy one for him so we’d have an excuse to meet. In reality, I just wanted to tell this friend that he needed to put more effort into friendships (specifically, ours), so other people wouldn’t need to keep bending over backwards for him.

In the end, I never told him that (although he will know if he reads this article), because platonic concern is not commonly expressed so bluntly. As much as I had been tasked with this article, I couldn’t overcome social norms or my fear of being rebuffed.

In a few other instances, good friends asked me how life was when we were catching up over text. The actual answer I wanted to give was a curt, “Appreciate being left alone right now, check in again in a few months”.

Instead, my replies ranged from the non-committal “im good lol u?” to the generic “im tired, lol life”, depending on the extent to which I felt like elaborating. Occasionally, the fact that I even replied at all felt insincere, since I never enjoy giving superficial updates in the first place.

At this point, I was halfway through the week, and being brutally honest had been a remarkable failure. What I didn’t expect was that the more pressure I put on myself to be honest, the more I would invent white lies along the way, as though the pressure to be vulnerable reinforced the desire to put my guard up.

It unnerved me how instinctive it was to lie, even with the people I loved and cared for.   

It was also then that I realised, it’s not that I withheld my genuine thoughts simply because I didn’t want to hurt my friends. I was also terrified of in turn eliciting an equally unfiltered truth from these people.

A white lie in my office group chat.
Nonetheless, I am, like much of my generation, oddly obsessed with living an authentic life. Often, this means aligning our thoughts and feelings with our words and actions. And we see it all the time these days. From people being open about their mental health to cheesy declarations of love, living authentically is all the rage.

We insist we are all about “keeping it real”; when someone speaks their minds, we become even more attracted to them because it’s “refreshing”. If this candour comes from a politician or celebrity, where maintaining a favourable impression is everything, we are even more inspired.

But when we place honesty on a pedestal, we risk of losing sight of nuanced situations, where brutal honesty may not be the most effective solution.

For instance, if we were breaking bad news, bear in mind that honesty without compassion can just be cruelty. And if we wanted to be real with our feelings towards someone, we have to accept that many people have difficulty handling such directness.

Many people easily mistake speaking one’s mind for brutal honesty, regardless of content and context. But not having a filter isn’t brutal honesty; speaking your mind without taking into account how other people receive your honesty is just selfish. Springing information on an unsuspecting party violates personal boundaries, and causes unnecessary discomfort, which is counterintuitive to what that honesty hopes to achieve in the first place.

On the other hand, brutal honesty is like ripping off a dirty band-aid. The wound may sting at first, but the pain eventually subsides. And doing so allows you to air the wound so it can heal properly.

Brutal honesty is a virtue. It should add value to the recipient’s life because it reveals something that they wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise. It requires us to push forward for both parties’ overall well-being.

Still, we shouldn’t have to lie in order to find a kinder way to tell the truth, but we must understand that successful honesty requires both parties to be open to listening.

In other words, even though it may be harsh, brutal honesty must always be compassionate, communicative, and constructive. Otherwise it’s simply brutal.

It unnerved me how instinctive it was to lie, even with the people I loved and cared for.

As the week concluded, I told a colleague of all the instances where I had chosen to lie when I could have been honest. She said, matter-of-factly, “White lies are the hardest to eradicate. Do people think it’s easy to be honest? I feel like people rarely are, because it is so hard.”

I didn’t need an experiment (nor my colleague) to tell me what I already knew. Yet I’d gone ahead with the experiment because I held a naive hope that true honesty was still worth pursuing in our personal relationships.  

The thing is, honesty is always a gamble. It’s easy to say that anything and anyone you lose from being honest was never yours to begin with, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

When done right, brutal honesty can bring people closer. I think of the occasions when I was able to be completely honest with my friends this week. In one instance, I discussed personal finances openly. In another, I was upfront with a friend about how she couldn’t help me get through a rough patch (but that I appreciated her presence nonetheless).

Although these occasions were free from judgement and self-censorship, the honesty we shared was only possible because we had established a sense of security within the relationship. There is nothing as affirming as feeling so safe with someone that you let your guard down, and in turn, having them totally trust you that they are their true selves around you.

And so, in response to my friends’ conundrum about whether one should reveal all skeletons in the closet before dating someone new, my stance is now clear: few people are lucky enough to find others they can be wholly themselves with, but the ability to be brutally honest isn’t a given.

Sometimes, once you decide to withhold a certain level of honesty, it can be hard to recover.

Have something to say to us? Be brutally honest:


Grace Yeoh Current Affairs Editor