To tell the truth

Last week, I embarked on an experiment — I’ve been honest. And not just run-of-the-mill, ordinary honest. I’ve been radically honest.

Radical honesty is a technique that was developed by Dr. Brad Blanton, an American clinical psychologist. The idea is that you not only abstain from lying, but you volunteer even those truths that you might otherwise conceal or omit.

Rather than lying by omission, radical honesty demands that you state all your feelings plainly, even when doing so might seem rude or unusual. The hope is that this level of honesty will open lines of communication and eliminate any resentment in your relationships.

The technique has gained a lot of attention in the last few years and inspired a number of pop culture references.

A character on the 2009 television show Lie To Me practiced radical honesty and in doing so provided a striking contrast to the dishonesty that served as the focus of the show. The concept has also been featured in an episode of Criminal Minds.

Some of the promises made by supporters of radical honesty include creating increased intimacy in your relationships and transforming your misery into joy, presumably by resolving conflicts in your relationships.

With the school year just kicking off and routines not yet established, this seemed like the perfect time to consider taking on a new habit of honesty.

For 48 hours, I exhibited radical honesty. I asked questions that I was embarrassed not to know the answers to: I told my friends when their clothes didn’t fit them properly. I announced my every thought and feeling.

For the first day and a half, I kept my experiment from those around me. My family, friends and housemates all interacted with me, expecting a normal conversation. Instead, they heard nearly my entire inner monologue.

I didn’t tell anyone because I wanted the chance to observe their genuine reactions. But halfway through the second day, I felt that I wasn’t getting enough of a response.

I decided that in the spirit of complete honesty, I would have to let everyone in on the secret.

Christina Strater, my housemate, felt the effects more than anyone.

“I could think back to instances when I remembered what sort of felt like a stream of consciousness-type conversation where anything that popped into your head, you would sort of say,” said Strater, ArtSci ’16.

“I could compare that to maybe how a conversation might go in the morning on a normal basis … and there definitely was more that was just thrown on the table.”

Strater and I had spent the previous afternoon at the pier. In one of my first radically honest acts, I did something I would ordinarily avoid: I admitted to insecurity.

It wasn’t dramatic or drawn out, but as we weaved through the crowd, I acknowledged how uncomfortable it can sometimes feel to walk through a public space in just a bathing suit.

It was a memorable moment for my housemate as well.

“Not that it’s something that we wouldn’t of covered normally if this experiment weren’t being conducted, but … it was more of a focus, it was more of a ‘let’s converse about this,’” she said.

This conversation demonstrated the ease with which these spontaneous acts of honesty could be interwoven into ordinary dialogue, but also the impact they leave.

Something I might otherwise have been embarrassed to acknowledge resonated with my friend and helped us feel better about the situation.

But one of my biggest concerns at the outset of this project was that I would say something that really hurt someone I cared about.

I worried that any uncomfortable or harsh truth I shared would take on a greater meaning than was intended and upset individuals I felt nothing but good things for. Perhaps I had an inflated sense of my impact on others, but I was surprised to learn that none of my friends could think of a specific time I had hurt them.

Even those that remembered thinking I’d been a bit rude couldn’t say what exactly it was that had made them feel that way.

As I predicted before completing the challenge, it did spark some new lines of thought about honesty and communication between my housemates.

“It made me think about how we portray things, what we choose to say, what we choose to keep to ourselves, whether we choose to keep anything to ourselves,” Strater said.

This was something I noticed even in people to whom I didn’t reveal my true intentions. The more honest I was with everyone I encountered, the more honest they were in return. Even those who had never even heard of radical honesty seemed to subconsciously match my level of truthfulness.

Even so, as the hours ticked by and my confessions kept coming, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was doing more harm than good.

Before this experiment, the vast majority of lies I told were merely out of convenience. I told my friends what I knew they hoped to hear:

Yes, your dress is cute. Yes, of course, tell me more about your day.

Was it really so wrong to tell people things I knew would make them happy? According to Udo Schuklenk, a professor of ethics at Queen’s, it might be.

“People have always insisted in ethics that the only way to show respect for another person as a person is to be honest to them. If you don’t do that, you don’t value them as a person really,” Schuklenk said.

Even so, things aren’t always so black and white.

“Imagine you are always honest in relationships except, you know, your sex life has really gone down the drain, you have been married for five years, you’ve been there, done that and you really hate it a lot,” Schuklenk said. “Are you really going to tell your partner that … the sex life’s really terrible and you would love to do something with somebody else for a change just to get something else going?”

In this tricky case, dishonesty proves be the most respectful choice to the other person.

Even so, Schuklenk does his best not to lie in his own life, if largely for pragmatic reasons.

“I don’t lie anymore because it totally, just about always when you try, it balloons out of control completely.”

He claims this helps him eliminate extra stress associated with “covering [his] tracks” and regularly acknowledges little mistakes he’s made rather than attempting to cover them up.

“If I forgot to respond to an email, I just admitted that and responded.”

But regardless of what approach is best to take, Shuklenk said the way people normally communicate — white lies and all — probably makes people happier than being radically honest.

“Because the world probably is a nicer looking place, not a more honestly nice place, but it might be a more pleasant place to live because you wouldn’t always want to know.”

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