Polite Dishonesty

I’ve noticed something interesting about people recently. It seems obvious, once you think about it, but it’s worth thinking consciously about, even if it is obvious. That thing is: people are more comfortable being dishonest when it means they’re being polite, even when the person they’re talking to is begging them to be honest.

I’ll give an example to show what I mean: A friend of mine recently got the DVDs of a BBC Sherlock Holmes series. We had been planning to hang out on a certain night, and he proposed to me and one other person that we should watch an episode of this show that night while hanging out. Neither of us thought this was a good idea, but… we didn’t say so. We said stuff like, “well, maybe”, “I don’t know”, “perhaps”, etc. Even when the friend said something (I don’t remember exactly what) along the lines of “really, guys, tell me the truth, I don’t care either way”, we continued to hedge, instead of just saying “no, not tonight”.

Now, both me and this particular friend are not very polite people, in fact we the opposite, but the fact that someone was asking us a direct question to which we knew what answer he wanted was enough to make us really hesitant to answer it contrary to his desires. What this says about humanity is obvious. Put simply, we don’t want to disappoint people.

Now for what this too-obvious-to-state-clearly fact, stated clearly, reveals: It’s cruel and usually fruitless to ask people their “honest opinion” when it is clear what answer you want. Cruel, because it puts them in an uncomfortable situation – if the answer was “yes” (say it’s a y/n question and “yes” is the answer you wanted), they would have said something like that anyway, and if it was “no”, it forces them to find a way to say it so that it won’t upset you while still being “honest”. Fruitless, because if they answer “yes”, you’ll have no way of knowing they’re actually being honest, and if they answer “no”, well, the fact that you were asking for an “honest opinion” means you suspected their answer was “no” in the first place, and so you were probably going to act as if the answer was “no” regardless.

The reason we make such demands for honesty, I think, is that we have a desire for omniscience. In certain situations, we tell ourselves we would rather know the answer, even if it’s “no” when we want “yes”, than go forward with our lives without knowing. The problem is merely demanding certainty does not provide it for us, and we have to live our lives anyway.

Now, the DVD-watching example was a fairly trivial one, but I’m sure you can think of more serious ones. They’ll probably have to do with romantic entanglements of some kind or another. Those are one of the things people take most seriously in their lives and demand the most certainty about, even though those are the very situations where it is most impossible, I suspect, to have that certainty; at least, certainty is possible, but if you’re in a situation where you feel the need to demand it, it’s probably not possible in that situation.


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