There is at least one question that bedevils all relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic, filial or the vastly complicated one you have with yourself (for which I can’t think of an existing word but will propose the one suggested by a smarter friend, ‘autorelationship’): Is this the sort of question that takes so long to get to, what with run-ons and parenthetical clauses, that you’ve completely forgotten where it was going? The answer to which is: That’s the sort of cheap shot that’ll pad out a word count nicely and further alienate hostile readers.
Okay, here’s the question: Is it better to be truthful, or gentle? Is it better to hold up your version of the best mirror to life that you can, or is it better to minimise the pain you inflict, especially on loved ones? When honesty and compassion are mutually exclusive, which do you choose? Will what you do not know, or refuse to believe, not hurt you? And, for the cherry on top, does ‘better’ mean ‘more useful’, or does it mean ‘more meaningful’?
It’s all very confusing. To take a meek example, I’ve previously griped in this space about the problems of book reviewing. If you happened to say you like the book of someone you know, people will assume that you pulled your punches. On the other hand, if you give your writer friend some brutally honest feedback on his short story, he might never talk to you again. How much tough love can a relationship survive—and if it happens to be the autorelationship, will it just reduce you to a pile of quivering dysfunction? Though, really, would you be able to tell that anything’s changed?
Okay, that’s several questions, but I’ve done rigorous research via a Facebook status update that reads: ‘Would you prefer that your friends told you the truth, or what you want to hear?’ In response, my friends said things like, “I’d answer truth but I think that’s what you want to hear” and “Too late for philosophy, of course you don’t drink too much, have another beer!” and “What friends?” and “Truth… although, if harsh, softened with presents” and “Why do they have to tell me things? Can't they just listen adoringly?”
The answer leaps out from the data: I’ve really got to find some new friends.
The best reply, in my estimation, was: “The bare truth...and then help me deal.” People do largely seem to self-report as wanting honesty from the people in their lives, but if reality is anything to go by, their commitment to the project is dubious at best. If you actually give them the truth, they aren’t all that keen on it, or on you anymore. But at the same time, so widespread is this tenuous grip on principle that real honesty, even when it’s positive, hasn’t a chance in hell of being taken as anything but more fakery.
After years of socialisation about the merits of truth-telling, we wash up, gasping and sputtering, on the shores of the real world. In this largely overrated place, my guess is that people who actually spend most of their time being overly honest to other people’s faces are likely to be pretty lonely people, and/or people of whom other people, with fewer scruples, make rough dolls in which they stick big pokey pins. I should know.
So the next time you streak your hair or leave your spouse or proudly show off your new car/book/baby, think about what you’re really asking, and potentially getting, when you say, ‘So what do you think’?