Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Honesty or Congeniality?

I'm not always a very nice person.

It isn't that I go out of my way to hurt or offend people. It isn't that I'm completely oblivious to how people are going to take things that I say. It's just that I have an overwhelming, internal compulsion to say what I really think. I also have a very hard time pretending to feel or think something that I don't.

Sometimes this honesty compulsion comes out in small things. Gift giving is a perfect example. I think obligatory gift giving is stupid and irrational. I know I'm supposed to act pleased in order not to offend people, but I just can't do it. Perhaps it is small minded of me to deny a person whatever benevolent feelings they get from gift giving, but why keep it a secret that I resent being saddled with some slave labor-made piece of landfill?

Being honest is bound to lose you some friends along the way, but being phony ensures that the friends you have will be superficial. And in the end, superficiality and dishonesty will erode any relationship.

While being honest can appear to cause more conflict and hard feelings at first, over time it actually causes far less. This is in no small part because, when you don't explain what you really think, the people around you are sure to make (often negative) assumptions about your motivations.

Work is the most difficult place to be honest. Many have blamed Dubya's disastrous presidency in large part on a staff full of "yes men". But how many of us are really honest with our bosses, especially if it would cost us our current and potential jobs?

If I had a dollar for every time one of my bosses wasted time making grand plans that they themselves would undoubtedly be the biggest obstacle to fulfilling, I'd be on a beach in Jamaica right now. But you're not going to keep your job for long if you tell your boss they are an impediment to getting things accomplished.

That, of course, is where power intersects with honesty. It's one thing to be honest with someone who might stop being friends with you. It's another to be honest with someone who can fire you.

As Dave Chappelle so brilliantly showed in his skit "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong", honesty comes at a price. But what is the price of not being honest? What's the cost of going along to get along? Is there a problem that can be solved without a willingness to risk the offense, conflict, and discomfort that comes from honesty?

What would happen if we all suddenly refused to be phony?

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