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?
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!