When we choose honesty

A coworker of mine once told a story about a time she told things like they were. It was a believable story: this woman is really not the type to censor herself more than necessary. Then, she asked me — a new recruit at the workplace — if I thought she was a bitch. She was smiling but I sensed this wasn’t entirely a joke.
“I think you’re direct,” I told her. “And some people mistake directness for bitchiness.”
She considered that, and seemed to decide that she approved.

Honesty has weird double standards sometimes. We say we value the truth, and that honest people are good people. Then we tell white lies to loved ones and complete strangers, about everything from our personal values to which errands we’re running that day. (It happens in English-speaking North American society, anyway. I’m sure some cultures find it weird that we lie so casually.)

It’s a matter of which traits are more valuable than pure, unfiltered honesty. Dignity, for example. Or diplomacy. Or kindness. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter that someone’s outfit is mismatched and ugly.

There is a difference between constructive honesty and just pointing out unappealing information. Do too much of the second one and yes, people will think you’re a bitch. But use constructive honesty well and you’ll be helpful enough for people to forgive the bluntness. Constructive honesty enables us to change things for the better. White lies are usually intended to keep the situation static and avoid rocking the boat.

My characters reflect these ideas. I prefer main characters who can express uncomfortable truths, if not aloud then at least inside their own heads. Peregrine of Ruelle is a flawed example of this. In Remedy, he grapples with the truth that he has become the focal point of Tillian’s entire life. But he doesn’t step outside himself enough to realize that Tillian likes it that way, and he’s not secure enough in his convictions tell Tillian why he’s trying to change. Peregrine tells white lies even while upheaving his family’s status quo.

And in Render, I’m working with the aemet Rue, who doesn’t like her species’s tendancy toward comfortable denial. Rue has an analytical mind and she can clearly see the truths her more nervous neighbours are ignoring. She doesn’t feel like she entirely belongs in aemet society. That’s part of why she builds a rapport with the loner korvi Felixi, who speaks bluntly and also believes that Rue’s community needs to face facts.

Plenty of fiction involves a struggle to uncover truth, or deal with a truth, or change the basic truth of a situation. If honesty were always easy, we probably wouldn’t find it valuable. And if it were a simple matter of stating our thoughts, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Got any thoughts on honesty? Share in the comments!

4 Comments on “When we choose honesty”

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