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)

20 Replies to “brutal honesty”

  1. I am like you – don’t like giving it or getting it. I certainly don’t mind thinking brutally honest things about others but I keep from saying them most of the time.

    Live and let live.

  2. Interesting discussion…
    Don’t you think “brutal honesty” is sort of self-indulgent? I think that a high level of honesty is necessary in life, but am not really an advocate of brutal honesty. I have only been brutally honest once in my life. It was at a point in my marriage when my husband had a substance addiction problem and was not taking steps to help himself. We were on a slippery slope to self-destructing our entire family… and I had to look him straight in the eye and say, “I will love you till the day I die and I don’t want to be with anyone else, but I would rather live alone than spend one more day with you doing drugs.” It was the hardest thing I had ever said in my life! But very long story short… he has been clean for over 3 years and we will be celebrating our 28th wedding anniversary this year. 🙂

  3. I never like brutal honesty. In some situations, like Dawn’s, it’s definitely appropriate though it’s not fun to get or give. On the other hand I had a guy give me advice last night which may have been honest but wasn’t appropriate or helpful:

    It definitely felt brutal.

  4. Brutal honesty is the truth that hurts to say and hear. I believe that anything we do or say is directly or indirectly affects us, touch us personally on some levels. For example, if my parents or my siblings are making poor financial decision then I am going to let them know. And not only because I love them and want the best for them, but also because I start worrying about my family. Their reckless decisions may affect me in the future. Meaning that if they screw up, the burden may be on me to support them or get them out of their financial rut, which means I will have to take something away from my children to help my parents or my siblings. Or another example, if my husband is getting overweight, do I tell him to stop eating and start exercising (not exactly in those words, of course) or should I just close my eyes? It is directly affecting me, because first and foremost I do not want my husband to have high blood pressure, joint problems or heart problems or any other problems that associated with extra weight. Because I really care.
    I am a straightforward person and I will tell the “brutal” truth only if I care about the matter and people I am telling it to.

  5. @dawn: That’s a great story, because it points out more eloquently than I could have what the benefit to brutal honesty could be. Obviously in your case it helped, and I’m glad it did. Congratulations – that’s a short but very inspirational story. You have a lot of guts.

    @Mrs. Micah: Great post, and I guess that’s something that everyone faces at one point or another – fat, skin problems, bad habits. I guess in your case I understand your frustration and would just say that it will probably never end – so your ability to absorb the brutal honesty is just a test that’s been thrown your way (and it sounds like you’re winning so far).

    @Leah: You should tell the truth, but there’s always a consideration that being too brutal can have the opposite effect from what you intended. If you can guide people gently it’s often more effective than blurting things out.

    @Bethany: Sure! 🙂

  6. I take this position.

    If it is a close friend or someone dear to me, I’ll take time and trouble to phrase the issue carefully so that the honesty is a lot less brutal. Usually these situations are seldom very time sensitive, so we should have time to “ponder, plot and plan”.

    If it is an aquaintance, then I’ll just let it be. I am sure he or she would have other friends who should take up this slack.

  7. Heh, heh. No, really, honesty always hurts on some level. It’s one of those traits we all want in a person, and look to as a great trait, but boy, when you hear it… can kill you.

  8. I hate it someone is outright rude and defends themselves with “I’m being honest,” like that was a catch all that makes rudeness OK. I’m with you Brip

  9. I try to be brutally honest with myself because anything else is hiding my head in the sand which I have a tendency to do. With others, I try to be honest in a much gentler and more persuasive form. Being brutally honest with someone implies that you are not taking their feelings, thoughts or position into consideration and I don’t believe that wins friends or influences people.

    I think it differs somewhat in a case of intervention such as an alcoholic or drug abuser or even a compulsive spender. There is a time when you have to take off the gloves and just say it even if it hurts.

  10. i once had a boyfriend who asked me if he could be brutally honest. i said i didn't need brutality. so he softened his comment. we were soon over.

    today i have a great husband.

    1. I think being brutally honest with oneself is ok, it helps us accept things, most especially our flaws, but with others, I think we need to be a little gentle to avoid hurting their feelings. Although there are times and situations wherein there's no better option but to just be straightforward and brutally honest

  11. I had a boyfriend once who justified verbal abuse (brutality) by claiming he was only being honest. Honesty supposedly made his rages and putdowns okay…. I've since come to understand that the answer to your question depends on how the honesty is delivered and received.

    Honesty “out” or delivered brutally is abusive. There is no need for honesty to be delivered in an unkind or violating way. You might even say that if something *can't* be delivered kindly, then it's probably manipulation, abuse, or coercion and not true honesty.

    However, even the kindest honesty can be received *as* brutal. It can feel brutal on the receiving end to hear certain things. Things we would rather be in denial about.

    So useful honesty may feel brutal when *received*. But honesty *delivered* brutally is just an attempt to whitewash abuse.

  12. I have been Brutally honest my whole life and have worked out that it works with close family members. My wife and I have an amazingly open, honest relationship. We've been together 16 years and there is no resentment, no baggage and I feel this is all down to brutal honesty. If I have a problem I will tell her straight, it's sometimes hard to say and painful but it means that no rot is ever allowed to set in.

    I think it's all down to how to describe it. I wouldn't call it brutal honesty I'd just say I am straight with my wife. I TRULY believe that if everyone was straight with each other we'd be much happier.

    To give an example of me being treated with brutal honesty and the 'touchy touchy' way of dealing with confrontation.
    I am a freelancer and work in quite alot of different places. I have had some really horrible experiences where I have been forced out of jobs because no one was strong enough to tell me the truth. I was left thinking about it and going over again and gain 'what did I do wrong?' it left me a gibbering wreck, and paranoid when I didn't understand peoples messages 'what did that mean?' I was constantly trying to figure out what people meant because no one was directly saying anything.

    On the other hand I worked at one place where I had a brutally honest boss. I worked for him and he gave me compliments when I did well and was honest when I made mistakes. Anyway he called me into his office and said to me straight that they were getting rid of me because they needed someone with more experience and someone who could produce the work a particular way. So I was upset for about 5 minutes but I really respected his honesty. I went away, took note of what he said and improved in all the areas he said. I'm now a better worker for it. I have no baggage whatsoever and don't spend hours thinking 'what did that mean' 'why did she say this' 'what was that comment supposed to convey' 'was that aimed at me or at someone else' 'was that just a throwaway comment or did it mean something' etc. Give me brutal honesty any day. It hurts more initially but it does you good and stops you repeating mistakes.

    I think if people were more honest with themselves as well as each other they'd be so much happier. And the world wouldn't be such a mess of confusion.

    I read the post about someone who had problems with acne. Well I do understand your point of view but the chap probably thought he was being helpful. He is going to do it again to someone else. In my opinion you should have said to him honestly 'I find it offensive that you are giving me advice. I am 22 years old and have obviously tried any treatments there are out there already, you should know it is rude and unfeeling to offer advice when someone hasn't asked for it' The chap would have been offended and it would have been extremely uncomfortable but I KNOW that he would not have done it again and would have been more understanding of how of people feel. You didn't tell him anything and he is probably giving some other poor person advice now, until he meets with someone strong enough to put him in his place and then it will stop. And only then.

    Here's a silly quote:
    'If someones breath smells of garlic, tell them then they can buy some chewing gum'

    Or you could not tell them and let them breath on every single person they meet on that day.

    1. Actually can I just add that Brutal Honesty only ever works when it flows both ways. When both parties are being honest.

      If one person is holding their cards to their chest. It defeats the whole point.

      Another quote:
      'Everybody in the world is playing poker, let's all play snap and be happy'

  13. When you say you hate being brutally honest what you are telling me about yourself is that you don;t like to offend or hurt people in anyway. So here's a question for you. Can you be brutally honesst yet tactful? And if you can, does the point of whatever you are being brutally honest about come across or would the person miss the point entirely.

  14. If someone says they are being brutally honest and are trying to help you…BULLSHIT! That someone is trying to help their own EGO; They could care less about you!
    “Brutally honest” is double speak for “BEING AN ASSHOLE”.
    Just keep your opinions to yourself. If it bothers you that much; WALK AWAY!

  15. I have only been brutally honest once in my life. It was at a point in my marriage when my husband had a substance addiction problem and was not taking steps to help himself. We were on a slippery slope to self-destructing our entire family..

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