brutal honesty

strangling statues

What is brutal honesty? Can you afford to be brutally honest? And what is the alternative to brutal honesty?I see this phrase from time to time and wonder when it first came about. The phrase ‘brutal honesty’ is actually a very clever juxtaposition of two very different things. Look at the dictionary definitions:

bru·tal [broot-l] –adjective
1. savage; cruel; inhuman
2. crude; coarse
3. harsh; ferocious
4. taxing, demanding, or exhausting
5. irrational; unreasoning.
6. of or pertaining to lower animals.

hon·es·ty [on-uh-stee] –noun, plural -ties.
1. the quality or fact of being honest; uprightness and fairness.
2. truthfulness, sincerity, or frankness.
3. freedom from deceit or fraud.

So using those definitions, let me just associate a bit here: savage uprightness, crude sincerity, exhausting frankness, unreasoning freedom from deceit. Each one of them has a highly negative meaning to me.

So when should you be brutally honest? If you’re trying to confront someone with a substance abuse problem? If you’re telling Jane that dress just doesn’t match her eyes? If you’re telling Junior there is no Santa Claus?

Brutality is an act of violence. If I am being brutally honest, I am assaulting your beliefs in some way. I would probably guess that this happens very frequently when people confront others over:

1. Money
2. Relationships
3. Substance abuse
4. Lifestyle habits (overweight, etc.)
5. Illness or injury
6. Psychological problems

#6 is probably an area best left alone since I’m not a psychiatric professional, and I will only speak to the other five. Taking money as an example, when is brutal honesty necessary? If you have a friend who is spending like crazy, running up a significant credit card debt, should you tell them to stop? Should you be brutally honest and tell them “you have a low-paying job, too much debt and you’ll never be able to buy a house or retire or live like a normal person until you get your spending under control”? That depends on your relationship with the person, but my guess is that brutal honesty is almost always met with hostility and seldom achieves its goals.

I personally hate people being brutally honest with me. And I hate being brutally honest with others. Probably tells you something about me, doesn’t it?

(photo by victoriapeckham)