Friday, May 08, 2009

"Brutal" Honesty

Whenever I hear a person embracing the trait of being "brutally honest," I always wonder if they intend it the way I hear it.

There are several elements to the expression. First, I generally take it to mean the person means honesty in the context of telling another person what they think or feel about that person. Second, it's implied that the person being "brutally honest" is willing to say what they think or feel even if the other person will likely perceive the honesty as hurtful (hence, "brutal"). Third, there's is an implied self-congratulations, that the purveyor of honesty has the virtue of authenticity, being true to oneself.

I'd certainly agree that it's generally best to be truthful about one's feelings even when it might not be what the other person would want to hear. In the context of dating websites, for instance, rejecting the advances of suitors is always going to be the outcome of the majority of interactions, and it is not helpful to the rejected one to make them believe otherwise.

However, being "brutally honest" always sounds to me like an unwillingness to filter oneself, to only express raw "pure" feelings and thought with the purported virtuous goal of self-authenticity. In reality, one can be truthful without being "brutal"; it is entirely possible to be "compassionately honest," which is simply filtering what one says by first considering what is the most kind and helpful way to express the truth to the other person. It is in no way less authentic as result of the filtering, the purpose of which is not to hide what one feels, but simply to express those feelings in the most kind and helpful way.

One could say: "Date you? Ohmigod, you're such an old, ugly, fat, stupid pig! No way!"

Well...that's certainly..."honest."

One could also say: "Thanks very much, but I don't feel we'd be a fit."

Thus, being "brutally honest" does not signify virtuous honesty and authenticity; to the contrary, it is merely a self-serving rationalization for behaving selfishly without thinking. Further, I think "brutal honesty" is intentionally mean-spirited; whether they are aware of it or not, they EXPECT their honesty to cause pain (no wonder; as they've never reflected on how to be honest AND kind, they've seen only the results of being honest and unkind). They take a perverse pleasure from these "brutal" interactions; the hurt they cause others appears to them, unfortunately, as a confirmation of the authenticity from which they derive their sense of self-worth: "when I am honest, people get hurt; so, if you are hurt, then I must be honest."

So when someone claims to be "brutally honest," what I hear is "I'm unapologetically selfish." Now, maybe some people have adopted the term because of common usage, without really considering what they are implying about themselves; if they simply mean to say they are honest and direct, I hope they find better ways to describe those qualities than to use this utterly distasteful phrase.