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December 20th, 2010

Honest About Honesty

How sincere are you when winning friends and influencing people?

 
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pspl122-honesty-flash

Is being polite honest? Young adults aren’t quite sure. And as Christmas and New Year’s parties abound this time of year, there are lots of opportunities to ponder this question as you smile and glad-hand your way through the holidays.

We young folks are a generation raised in the therapeutic culture, readily turning inward to analyze our emotions. But we are also a generation known for blunt communication styles and a lack of fidelity to social conventions. Indeed, for many of the college students I teach, being too polite or conscious of the feelings of others is a concerning sign that you are out of touch with your core self.

Case in point: Ask a college student to define honesty and the response invariably will be inward-focused. Honesty is about personal integrity, being true to yourself and facing your fears, my students tell me. However, challenged to explain their attitudes on outward-focused honesty — honesty in social interactions — the conversation slows to a stammer of uncertainty.

Is it honest to look for the positives in an otherwise distasteful situation? Is it honest to search for some element of shared interest, and focus on that, to get someone to warm up to you? Is it honest to yourself and others to admit mistakes, knowing that it might give you the upper hand in the rest of the negotiations?

What about in relationships? Should you honestly tell your girlfriend she looks fat in her summer white pants, or advise a friend that she should dump her needy boyfriend? When you put on a big smile for your sixth interview of the day in a seemingly hopeless job search, are you being honest? And where is the line between direct communication and hurtful, unnecessary insults?

Should you honestly tell your girlfriend she looks fat in her summer white pants, or advise a friend that she should dump her needy boyfriend? … These are questions our great-grandparents would have dismissed out of hand. In their world, there was virtue in being polite, and if you didn’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

These are questions our great-grandparents would have dismissed out of hand. In their world, there was virtue in being polite, and if you didn’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. During the inner-directed 1960s, however — the era of the Human Potential Movement and self-actualization — sincerity and expressions of visceral emotions became our new definition of honesty. And these ideas stuck.

Does it work?

I teach a class on the sociology of self-improvement — a great place to debate ideas of honest social interaction. Back in the 1930s (well before self-actualization was cocktail party conversation), Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was a bestseller because it argued that readers could improve their relationships by offering “honest appreciation” and “sincere praise” to achieve a better social outcome. In story after story, Carnegie describes the power of sincere thanks and a positive word, while gently reminding readers that it’s best to admit our own mistakes first before criticizing others. “Honest appreciation got results where criticism and ridicule failed,” he concludes. While flattery and insincerity are to be avoided, there’s something good in everyone. By accentuating the positive and learning the basics of human interactions, doors will open and everyone will be happier.

I assigned How to Win Friends and Influence People and asked students to test out his principles in their own day-to-day life. After a few weeks, I posed two questions: Does Carnegie’s advice work? and, Is it honest?

On the first question, a resounding yes. Students told stories about getting out of speeding tickets, mending romantic relationships and winning favor with potential in-laws by using Carnegie’s people-friendly techniques.

Liam, a graduating senior, used the advice to land a job. In his interviews, he said:

I would frequently smile and to my surprise it worked wonders. My smiling seemed to induce smiling on behalf of the interviewer, creating a more comfortable setting… I employed an active listening technique that Carnegie stresses to improve the relevance of my responses. By listening carefully, I was able to tailor my responses and comments with success… Finally, I worked to make the recruiter feel important by deferring to him and thanking him… My implementation was successful, and it helped me to receive a few job offers — a benefit that I greatly cherish, especially in these times.

A playbook for insincerity

But on the second question, students were split. Is How to Win Friends and Influence People an honest manual for interpersonal interactions — or a playbook for insincerity and flattery?

By being polite and interested in others, was Carnegie “teaching me how to be exactly who the other person wants me to be instead of being myself?” worried Jodi, a senior.

It’s “basically lying to yourself” to smile and act politely toward someone you don’t like, some students worried.

C. S. Lewis would beg to differ.

“Truthfulness is about inner honesty, not getting people to like you,” several students argued. And yet they conceded that being empathetic and interested in others could work wonders.

At his part-time job, John, a junior, smiled at a co-worker he usually ignores — and the man immediately warmed up, spoke to him, and offered him some gum. Wrote John: “The great irony here is that, while the advice was effective, I’m certainly not sure it was honest. The truth is, I likely would never have smiled at this person had Carnegie not urged me to do so. So if I would not have done this thing of my own nature, how can it be honest?”

Though these acts of empathy created lasting friendly relationships, my students were uneasy because their politeness required effort. If you believe that listen-to-your-gut, inward-focused honesty is the most central tenet of the virtue, Carnegie’s pleas for outward-focused politeness and deference will chafe. It’s “basically lying to yourself” to smile and act politely toward someone you don’t like, some students worried.

C. S. Lewis would beg to differ. In Mere Christianity, he famously encourages readers to live a more virtuous and Christian life simply by “acting as if” they were Christian. “Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it.”

Lewis believed that it was possible to train the habits of virtue. Carnegie would agree: Acting as if you like someone is a great way to spark a genuine friendship. Or land a job. Or brighten someone’s day. Recent psychological research takes this one step further: Finding the silver lining or lesson in a tough situation, or focusing on the good rather than the negative in a person, reduces stress and boosts happiness.

So I’ll keep assigning How to Win Friends and Influence People in hopes of continuing the conversation. Integrity isn’t just an inward-looking virtue. It’s possible to create genuine friendship by treating others as if it already existed.

What do you think? Is being polite faking it in a dishonest way? Or are we called as Christians to “act as if” we love one another a bit more? Share your comments below!

 
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The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Wenjiganoozhiinh

    It’s “basically lying to yourself” to smile and act politely toward someone you don’t like, some students worried.

    C. S. Lewis would beg to differ.
    Right, Lewis knows that telling factually incorrect statements in order to deceive some is ACTUALLY lying.

    So the storyteller and I agreed to submit the question to Mr. Gammond. Mr. Gammond listened, kicked me under the table, and then said: “Dale, you are
    wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible.”
    On our way home that night, I said to Mr. Gammond:
    “Frank, you knew that quotation was from Shakespeare,”
    “Yes, of course,” he replied, “Hamlet, Act Five, Scene Two. But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save his face? He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t want it. Why argue with him? Always avoid the acute angle.” The man who said that taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.

  • Mark

    Great piece. Let me come at this from a slightly different point. It is always wise to know oneself, flaws, dislikes and all. It is quite another to say that where I am inside is just fine for me. If where you inside is your barometer of the world and that you and your self-importance the critical drivers, then politeness may feel like dishonesty. I posit that an honest assessment of who we really are would find we need development, even from those we don’t feel we like or need to impress to get something. In the end, living a life of self-centeredness is a bigger dishonesty and more dangerous because it drives a person deeper into the sense that all right answers come from within. By reaching out, being polite, swallowing our wmotions, our feelings, we can clear the way to see the bigger picture where good can be possible and people can get along.

  • Susan

    Miss Manners would agree with Dale Carnegie and CS Lewis. She says we confuse bluntness and saying whatever us is on our mind with moral honesty. To have a civil society, we shouldn’t always say what is truly on our mind.

  • Matt

    If you’re going on six interviews in a day (or a week…or even a month), and you feel like your job search is hopeless, then your feelings are lying to you.

    In situations like that, I simply worked around it by imagining myself _working_ in the job for which I was interviewing. I’m not the sort to attribute mystical significance to that, but it did help me get into the right headspace to talk to my would-be manager, and the smile on my face wasn’t a lie. I just sort of borrowed happiness from the anticipated future, to spend it in the present and make that future happen. :)

    As for the others, I just find that part of being both honest and practical is to avoid situations where “politeness” would require me to deceive.

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