Honesty is the best police?

by Gautam Raja

When I was in junior school, we’d be assigned “cursive writing” practice. The exercise books had short sentences printed in a flowing font, with sets of blank lines below, like a music staff. We’d have to trace the sentences out four or five times in our “neatest handwriting”. We’d sit on long afternoons, a room full of imprisoned medieval scribes, scratching at our books, and risking punishment by alleviating the boredom with furtive conversations.

I remember one of those sentences: “Honesty is the best policy”. I read it out to my neighbour Vijay, thinking it was pronounced “police-y”. As boys do at that age, he crowed at me as he corrected my pronunciation. Though I strongly suspected he was right, I insisted my version was correct. As boys do at that age.

Cut to a few years later in a high-school ethics class where I was introduced to white lies as a concept. “What would you do,” our teacher asked, “if you went to someone’s house for dinner, and you didn’t like the food. When they asked you if you liked it, what would you say?”

And so, as you grow older, you hunt for your landing spot on the emotional honesty spectrum. You probably test limits, investigating the shades between frankness and obnoxiousness on one end, and politeness and hypocrisy on the other. A huge part of where you eventually land probably depends on the environment in which you practice your personal honesty. Many of us are forced to a place on the spectrum we’re not comfortable.

We all tell socially sanctioned lies to spare other people’s feelings. Some of us tell too little, and are called difficult. Some of us tell too much, and are called insincere. Some of us naturally want to tell more truths than lies, but grow up in environments where such honesty is punished by people who get upset or angry when they are questioned or challenged. And so we learn to agree even when we disagree. To say, “I’m okay with anything” even though we have a preference. To say we like something even when we don’t, and even when saying we like it means we get more of it.

All those little white lies add up to a grevious dishonesty to oneself. All those feelings that were spared, are a thousand cuts to your own psyche. This is why people-pleasers are often thought to have unpredictable bad tempers. They build up resentment with no outside clues, and while you think they snapped for the tiniest little thing, they see a whole line of tiny things. Half or more of their anger is at themselves for not setting the boundary in the first place.

But here’s an interesting view of this situation. When you don’t stand up to people, and when you don’t hold them accountable for their views or behaviours, you diminish them. Imagine you love a restaurant for its food and gracious service and go there all the time. Then one day, the service is bad enough to ruin your evening. As a people pleaser, you might tell yourself, “Maybe it’s an off day. I won’t say anything.”

Fair enough. But what if the service is bad the next time, and the next? What would make you go back again and again, and not say anything?

We’re told from a very young age that honesty is a good and desirable trait. Then we learn that honesty is far more complex than “don’t steal and don’t lie”. And today, 35 years after that cursive-writing class, I still don’t understand the rules, and still don’t know where to land on that emotional honesty spectrum.

First published in Gulf News, November 7, 2017