Truth-telling is an art that requires practice, vulnerability, and our best efforts at tact.
"One of the most shocking findings of my work was the idea that the most compassionate people I have interviewed over the last 13 years were also the most boundaried." — Brené Brown, psychologist and best-selling author
At a gathering, a colleague of ours shared a story about one of the minor horrors of first-world life: getting a bad haircut. She sat in the chair, filled with rising dread as she watched the stylist work. He was not doing what she’d asked him to do.
Although they both knew it was bad, the stylist kept snipping, fluffing and blowing. He was going to take this haircut to the bitter end. They were caught up in a game of cosmetic chicken.
As she told her story, many of the others in the room nodded their heads and made sympathetic sounds. "What would happen next?" we all wondered. "Would she tell the stylist off? Would she refuse to pay?"
No. She thanked him. She paid the full price for the haircut. She tipped him 20 percent. She was "nice." Even though she was seething inside.
"I couldn’t tell him how much I hated the haircut," she told us. "If I’d said anything more than what I said, I would have burst out crying. I didn’t want him to try to fix it. I didn’t want him to see me cry, or touch me ever again. I just wanted to get out of there."
And she was still livid, several days later.
Some would say this is the best way to handle a situation like this: keep your cool, don’t reveal darker emotions, be kind and polite, and get the heck out of there.
When one of us suggested she could have spoken up about how she really felt, she answered that anything besides being nice would not have felt socially acceptable to her. She couldn’t imagine herself going there. She didn’t want anyone to see her as mean or bitchy.
Trying to imagine being honest in that moment made her literally squirm in her chair. Most of the other women in the room nodded; they understood her perspective. Women are supposed to be nice.
The problem with this is that "being nice" often means ignoring our own personal boundaries — being unable to say an unequivocal "no" where we want to.
If you’re female, think of all the times you ended up saying "yes" to something you didn’t want because you were trying to be nice.
Ask nine other women whether they’ve done the same thing. Now ask ten men the same question. We don’t mean to be sexist, but we’re betting that a lot more women will recognize this tendency in them than men.
It’s part of how females are socialized in our culture. Women are taught to be perky, nice, and accommodating. When we deviate from that spoken or unconscious mandate, we run a very real risk of being characterized as shrews. When we are bold and outspoken, we are often described as "controlling", "dominating", and even "castrating".
Meanwhile, men are expected to be tough, decisive, and powerful. Men who exhibit authority and are assertive about their wants and needs are admired as leaders. It's no wonder women have a hard time setting boundaries in their personal and professional lives.
"Assertive or competitive qualities are usually associated with men, and are thought to be essential for successful leaders. But for women, they can be a land mine," says Daina Middleton, Global CEO of Performics.
For women, being nice can feel like a prerequisite to social acceptance. If being nice is equal to being accepted, then it becomes difficult to say "no" when we need to. We may fear being seen as harsh or un-feminine.
The pressure to be nice also makes giving others honest feedback a challenge. If we imagine that the recipient will be hurt by our feedback, we may let our fear of their reaction stop us.
Have you confused being nice with being compassionate or kind? Genuine compassion never deprives people of an honest exchange. If I honor my needs and wants and communicate them to you, I've actually offered you something far more valuable than the shallow back-and-forth of playing nice: the possibility of a true connection.
If I share with you my perceptions and opinions in a caring yet direct way, we are both more able to discuss our real issues or concerns without posturing and pretension.
Here are a couple of examples of ways to navigate around nice and into honest relating.
Let’s say my colleague George has asked me ten times to let him know more about what is going on with a certain project. I have been diligent about sending him updates, which he frequently loses or forgets about.
Typically, I avoid bringing this up to him because I do not want to confront him about his own weaknesses. This causes strain and distance in our relationship.
I finally decide to say, "George, I notice that you keep asking me for more information, but then you frequently don’t read the e-mails I am sending. How can we find a way for you to be updated that honors my time and yours?"
Let’s say Mary has a great friend, Eloise. They both have sons in eighth grade. Eloise keeps asking Mary to have time together and to include their sons in the mix.
Because her son does not want to be friends with Eloise’s son, Mary keeps avoiding the invitations by making excuses. Eloise keeps reaching out, hoping to make this a great mom/mom and son/son friendship.
Mary doesn't want to hurt or offend Eloise by telling the truth; she starts to pull away from her good friend because she is now sheepish and afraid of disappointing her.
Finally, one day, Mary goes to have tea with her good friend Eloise and says, "E, I wish our sons had more in common... but actually, my son isn’t interested in being better friends with your son, which is so sad. Can we just keep our friendship close without trying to involve them? You mean so much to me."
Yes, Eloise might be a little hurt or sad; however, now she has the truth, where before she just had evasion and a lack of sincerity. True friendships endure well even in the face of disappointment.
"Hiding how you really feel and trying to make everyone happy doesn't make you nice, it just makes you a liar," says Jenny O’Connell, author of The Book of Luke.
Relations that require niceness over authenticity ring false.
Someone once wisely told me, "You'd better be who really are if you want to be loved, because if you are pretending to be something you are not, you’ll never trust that people love you."
It holds true, too, that where someone we care about cannot hear a difficult truth spoken clearly and lovingly, that relationship probably has problems that extend well beyond the issue at hand. And if, like our friend, you’re struggling to be nice to someone you might never see again — a hairdresser, an Uber driver, a barista — instead of being honest, you may end up holding on to unexpressed anger or frustration.
This isn’t only uncomfortable. A growing body of research shows that it might also be bad for your health. The other person also won’t have the benefit of criticism that could end up serving them well in their own lives.
Truth-telling is an art that requires practice, vulnerability, and our best efforts at tact. It requires the courage and kindness to show our real emotions and tenderness even if we feel embarrassed (such as breaking down crying in the middle of a hair salon).
There will be breaches and stumbles along the way. We need to help each other be patient in learning this skill.
When we are genuinely kind and honest, we have broken the most oppressive of glass ceilings, the one that has kept us from trusting that we are loved for who we really are.