honesty is kindness (and white lies matter!)

February 26, 20185 min read

This year, like every year, my best friend bought me a thoughtful Christmas present. I’d been trying to update my wardrobe, so she bought me a purse that generally matched my aesthetic.

I didn’t like it.

I could have pretended to like it. And if it had been gifted by anyone else, I might have succumbed to the temptation to fawn over the bag, only to stick it in the back of my closet for the rest of its purse-life.

But my best friend is the last person in the world I want to lie to. Even if it’s a white lie. Even if it’s a lie that’s said out of a desire not to hurt her feelings.

If our roles were reversed, I’d hope she’d do the same. In fact, one of the qualities I value most in our friendship is how honest she is with me. One night she told me, in a straightforward but not unkind way, that she thought something I had done was morally wrong and ‘kind of gross.’ I felt like our friendship leveled-up that day, because I knew I could trust her to give me honest feedback on any subject.

Truth is kindness

I believe that truth is always kind.

When we lie, we deny the listener access to reality. In Lying, Sam Harris illustrates this point through a hypothetical situation in which a friend asks you, ‘Do I look fat in this?’

“Let’s imagine the truth is harder to tell: Your friend looks fat in that dress, or any dress, because she is fat. Let’s say she is also thirty-five years old and single, and you know that her greatest desire is to get married and start a family. You also believe that many men would be disinclined to date her at her current weight. And, marriage aside, you are confident that she would be happier and healthier, and would feel better about herself, if she got in shape. A white lie is simply a denial of these realities. It is a refusal to offer honest guidance in a storm. Even on so touchy a subject, lying seems a clear failure of friendship. By reassuring your friend about her appearance, you are not helping her to do what you think she should do to get what she wants out of life.”

White lies don’t change reality.

Suppose I had told my best friend that I loved her present. Perhaps she would have looked for similar presents for me in the future, and then every year I would again pretend to like what she had gotten me. My grandmother once got herself into this situation, by pretending to love an elephant statue she had been gifted. For years afterwards, family and friends continued to gift her elephant-themed presents…until one year she confessed that she didn’t like any of those presents.

My friend is perceptive, and if I had lied once or every year, she would probably sense that something was off. It might create a small degree of emotional distance between us, too small for us to articulate or measure, but enough to matter.

“Research suggests that all forms of lying - including white lies meant to spare feelings– are associated with less satisfying relationships.” - Sam Harris,Lying

I explained that I didn’t anticipate using the purse very often, given that I had other bags that were more practical and I liked more. It turned out that my friend had asked for a gift receipt, which she fetched for me, and I later exchanged the bag for other items.

False Friends

Harris advocates being honest in all circumstances. On dealing with friendships honestly, he says: “You might find that some of your friendships are not really that - perhaps you habitually lie to avoid making plans, or fail to express your true opinions for fear of conflict. You might find that certain relationships cannot be honestly maintained.”

This quote has rung true for me recently. A few weeks ago, I moved back to my hometown in the Bay Area. It’s fun to be back but it’s been odd navigating old friendships. I’ve hung out with a few people who I don’t have much in common with anymore.

I slide into dishonesty more often than I’d like. It’s easy and it’s comfortable.
I keep silent when an old friend says something I disagree with, even though I know they’re interpreting my silence as tacit agreement. I make excuses like “I can’t do X with you because I’m trying to save money” rather than an honest reply like “I don’t want to do X with you.”

If I can’t be honest with someone, I take that as a sign of an unhealthy relationship. The other person won’t ever know me well, because I’m not being truthful about who I am and what I believe. There’s a limit to how close we can become.

I give myself an ultimatum: either I start being honest with this person, or I’ll cut the relationship off or limit it as much as I can.

Honesty creates intimacy, and vice versa

In relationships, I’ve found that the more honest we are with each other, the deeper our trust grows. I’d say ‘intimacy’ can be roughly translated to “knowing someone very, very, very, very well.”

That’s why I try to aim for an uncommonly high degree of honesty in my friendships and relationships. While it leads to short-term pain (awkwardness, discomfort), the long-term intimacy gains are worth it.