This will be the last post in our series on effective communication in relationships. We’ve looked at why we get into relationships at all, dimensions and types of intimacy, the importance of self-disclosure to build intimacy and the ways we can go about effective self-disclosure.
But what about those times when the things we might disclose to another will hurt them? Complete honesty may not always be the best choice in terms of maintaining and enhancing relationships. Let’s tease this out a bit by looking at some alternatives we typically turn to when we don’t believe complete honesty is an option.
Reaching for the good, old, white lie is a tried and true practice. Oh, those puns do have a way of slipping in on the Saying What Matters lady.
We may offer up the following reasons for being less than honest:
- We wish to protect the other from the world
- We wish to shield the other from harsh realities
- We don’t want to hurt the other’s feelings
Of course, that isn’t the whole story. We often tell the white lie in our own interest:
- To save face
- To avoid tension or conflict
- To expand or reduce relationships
- To gain power or advantage
It’s likely that the majority of white lies are told for selfish reasons and not to protect others. The effects of lying on an intimate relationship depends on how important the information lied about is to both parties – motive becomes all-important. An occasional white lie in a stable relationship doesn’t appear to cause a problem and may in fact make day-to-day life run more smoothly.
I’ve always like the sound of this word, though the results aren’t always the best. What do you do when you don’t want to come right out with an unpleasant truth but you don’t want to lie either? We often buy for time, change the subject or divert the other person. There are as many equivocating strategies as there are people practicing them. And no wonder – equivocating allows us to get off the hook and we spare ourselves and others embarrassment. Though we may only be delaying the inevitable, it feels like a relief at the time.
We might resort to hinting when we want to avoid embarrassing the other person while still getting the message across. Our prime objective is probably to avoid embarrassment to ourselves. But the hinting strategy can only work if the other person understands what we’re getting at. Have you ever picked at an imaginary something stuck between your front teeth in the hope the other person will actually get the hint and remove the unsightly, green chunk of spinach stuck in his or her own teeth? It doesn’t always work and it’s quite possible you ended up looking foolish.
So, what are the ethics of evasion?
Well, they’re certainly not simple or clear cut. Most people can think of an example when telling less than the whole truth was the right thing to do. If your best friend has already had her hair cut in a not-so flattering style, telling her your honest opinion might not be helpful. After all, the hair is gone. It might be a better strategy to lay in wait for the next time she goes for a haircut and throw your weight behind a different choice. Who knows? That could backfire, too. There was the time I raved about a friend’s less-than-stellar apple pie brought to a potluck because I thought she needed an ego-boost and was then stuck with her apple pies at every gathering far into the future. Oh well – how bad can an apple pie be?
Some type of hedging on total honesty is likely to occur:
- When it is part of an acceptable social norm or exchange
- When it is mutually advantageous
- When it helps avoid embarrassment
- When it helps us to avoid confronting an unpleasant truth
- When we have been asked to lie
What to ask yourself in these cases?
- Is this indirect message really in the best interest of the other and the relationship? Or is this really about me and my issues?
- Is this evasion my only option?
- Is this the best way to behave under these circumstances?
No easy answers for sure. So, get curious. Next time you’re up against the wall and reaching for evasion tactics, ask yourself – is this really about the other person or is it about me? You might be surprised by the answer you get.