“So, what do you think?” my friend asks me, after buying a lemon that’ll get her on a first-name basis with the service guy at the dealership. Well, this is an awkward moment, but not as bad as the time your buddy just proposed to his future ex-wife and then wanted your thoughts on his foray into marital bliss. Our friends are not asking for honesty in times like these. They’re asking for the lie that has validated many a dreadful choice, and we’ll deliver it with a smile: “Congratulations!” The truth of the matter is that lying is bad, but not always, and honesty is good, but not in every case. These compelling contradictions are explored in the CBC radio documentary and podcast Born to Lie.
The show introduces us to Laura Turley, a blogger and would-be counsellor who’s taken truth telling to the extreme. Turley is an adherent of radical honesty, a philosophy that advocates speaking only the naked truth to those closest to us, with the understanding that offence and hurt feelings are necessary collateral damage. It’s all in the noble interest of cultivating more meaningful relationships as our authentic selves. According to the father of radical honesty, psychotherapist Brad Blanton, “The most pernicious form of lying is withholding. Basically you’re lying by not saying what you really think.” He believes that withholding is a form of self-protection that ultimately leads to alienation.
While many of us regard withholding as the appropriate conduct for self-aware adults with good manners and concern for our relationships, Turley is drawn to radical honesty as a remedy for the alienation she feels in her relationships. I sympathize with her need for connection, and I'm all for fostering better relationships, though I prefer the "it depends" approach of one of the psychologists interviewed in the show, Dr. Kang Lee. He advises, “We should not blindly think honesty is the only policy, but rather, [think of] why we want to be honest and why we sometimes have to tell lies.”
Turley can’t accept lies as a necessary part of life. She says her inability to decipher others’ true feelings prevents her from making decisions because she doesn’t know if they would be based on truthful statements. My inside voice tells me that Turley is embracing radical honesty in place of being painfully honest with herself. Unflinching self-reflection would lead her to recognize that she needs to work much harder at acquiring sensitivity to verbal and non-verbal cues if she really wants to meaningfully engage with others. I suspect she wouldn't appreciate my radical honesty.
I wouldn't dump my unfiltered perceptions on Turley, since I’m not interested in having radical honesty tried on me. However, I did receive some helpful honesty in relationship years ago, when I learned that I was disappointing expectations. The disappoint-ee didn’t say outright that I wasn’t measuring up, but I understood. Because his honest assessment was focused on future potential instead of past shortcomings, it was easier to swallow and actually quite effective. His approach made the case that appropriately modulated honesty (AMH) is the best policy. Now there’s a sexy concept, huh? Better get the marketing team on that and re-brand AMH as something closer to LYING LIKE A MUTT (Learning Your Inner Noble Gift Lies in Kind Enabling And Making Unpleasant Truths Tasty).
Good thing I never disappointed Turley. I doubt that relationship gurus will be hawking radical honesty as a best practice for the modern romance anytime soon. Even Turley admits that being radically honest has wreaked havoc on her personal relationships, not the least of which is her marriage. How could it not? A central pillar of relationships, especially loving ones, is caring about the loved one’s feelings. Abandoning that care in a misguided search for connection risks tearing a swath of destruction littered with the debris of brutally honest reaction.
Turley disputes the idea that people tell little white lies to spare other people’s feelings. She says those lies are really about “protecting us from other people’s dislike” as we seek to uphold a likeable image of ourselves. Now there’s a refreshingly uncynical view. I believe many white lies are told, not to ensure that we’re liked, but to prevent us from being hated, especially now when abundant online disinformation and polarization can stir up hatreds.
Born to Lie refers to studies that reveal most people consciously lie an average of just twice a day. Dr. Lee says most of the time we don't lie because, “Telling lies is a very, very cognitively taxing task that actually uses up more resources in your brain than telling the truth.” While that could be true, LYING LIKE A MUTT is even more taxing work. Carefully measuring our words to clearly convey a difficult message that gets through, yet doesn't land like a truth grenade is a boot-camp workout for the brain– of course, still not as much work as the relationship repair job that comes after forgoing the delicate words, as Turley has discovered.
It seems to me that people often don’t say what they mean, but no matter what they’re saying, it’s always designed to get what they want. If we can see the truth in that, we don’t need anyone to assault us with radical honesty to figure out what they mean. Besides, radical honesty doesn’t work because once people are subjected to it, they’re no longer responding to the message, but to their own feelings. I say honesty is pointless if it isn’t effective, unlike Turley, who believes relationships are pointless if they aren’t honest.
Born to Lie concludes with the host asking Turley what her ideal world governed by radical honesty would look like. At this point, my feelings about her turn from sympathetic to downright empathetic. Turley envisions a world without lies as an uplifting place with way more hugging and way less judgement, more sharing of feelings and less emotional distance. In short, she envisions a community defined by joyful openness, where everyone's probably romping buck naked to boot. Well, who can fault her for wanting more affection, acceptance and emotional connection in her life? If Turley were to ask me what I really think of her situation, I’d tell her: “Join a nudist camp, Laura. And while you’re dropping your skivvies, ditch the radical honesty too.”