When Honesty Is Inappropriate

October 8, 2012


“Mummy says you are too uptight and that is why no man wants you.”

I cannot resist an open house. I love snooping for decorating ideas, and admiring clever architecture. My friend was not so keen. He pointed out that the agent will demand we leave him our names, our addresses, our e-mails and our telephone numbers. Watch out for incoming spam! He is right, it is now a common marketing ploy. “Yes, but no one said the contact details had to be accurate, ” I said. My friend was mortified. It deeply offended his sense of honesty. I did not want to enter into a debate  about the difference between honesty and appropriateness. It was neither the time nor the place. And isn’t that the crux of it?

As a writer I continuously think about appropriate words, the correct tone, the precise phrasing–and if it is fiction I am writing, the details around them are a pack of lies anyway. However, if I manage to get the context and reference of the lies right, then I might reveal fundamental truths about the human condition to the reader. Thanks to this training in daily life I am now more aware of what I say, to whom I say it to, and just much to reveal. And of course I give attention to the tone and phrasing. Because I now appreciate that being appropriate is much more than being accurate with the facts.

I am sometimes startled by patients at the hospital when they reveal too much confidential information to me, a stranger. One patient (who lives alone) confided that he has $5000 cash hidden in his apartment freezer. His address is on hospital records–if I were the dishonest sort! In his deep loneliness he confessed the facts with dangerous accuracy, but was oblivious to its inappropriateness. Appropriate dialogue, just like appropriate conversation, reveals only as much as the readers needs to know–no more, no less.

With the popularity of cellphones, more and more people are saying too much in the wrong place. I can never forget the young woman who entertained a crowded streetcar during  rush-hour one evening. I was sandwiched midway in the vehicle. She was at the back chatting loudly into her cellphone, in the midst of breaking up with her boyfriend. It seems the young woman had been unfaithful with his best friend. She was so caught up with her emotions that she was unaware that as she revealed these salacious tidbits, the rest of us on that streetcar fell silent. We did not want to miss one word. (It turned out she had slept with most of his soccer team.) She was being honest confessing to her boyfriend, but not in the appropriate place.

 Others get the place right but not the timing. A friend was rushed to hospital with kidney failure, her life hung in balance.  When she did come round, an inexperienced intern choose that moment to reveal to her that, by the way,  we found a cancerous tumor in your breast. Sure, the patient needed to be told this information at some point. But did it have to be now, when she was regaining consciousness? The intern was honest, but it was an appropriate time.

Then there are those who get the place and time right but the phrasing is inappropriate. I once had a cardiologist tell me that I would be dead in six months from a second heart attack. That was four years ago. In sharp contrast, another cardiologist said the same thing but he did it constructively. He advised me to start exercising, because if I did not improve my heart function, I was at a high risk of another heart attack, possibly a fatal one. Same information, but one was appropriately phrased, the other was merely honest.

We can get the time, place, phrasing right, but if overlook the tone of voice, we will be dishonest. Because the tone of voice is always truthful, it reveals the genuine mood and emotions of the speaker. I read a lot of amateur fiction and much it fails to engage the reader precisely because the writer has not grasped the significance of tone and mood. If this is true in fiction then it is doubly so in daily life. We may like to believe we are rational, practical people but the reality is we respond to emotions much more. This is why insincere apologies do not work: the words may be correct, but the resentful, angry tone of voice will betray the speaker’s true feelings. It is also why advertisements come across as insincere.

Nowadays so many people, from telemarketers to shopkeepers ask for inappropriate information. People of colour routinely complain about being asked that question: Where are you from? But here’s the irony, the only reason we find the question intrusive is because we feel obliged to answer honestly. It is not necessary. I say, first figure out the motive for the inquiry (why is this stranger asking me this question? What does he hope to gain from this information?) then answer appropriately (though not always accurately). If you ever travel to India this question gets outrageously magnified. Indians will shamelessly ask what caste you belong to, how much money you make, why you are unmarried. It was in India I realized that a ridiculously inappropriate question deserved only a ridiculously dishonest reply. It is a polite and humorous way to let them know that I am not playing their game.

In fiction writing, as in daily life, appropriate dialogue needs constant attention. This is because accuracy is a science, but honesty a fine art.

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4 Responses to “When Honesty Is Inappropriate”

  1. What a great post! I get asked inappropriate questions and sometimes struggle with the answers. My brother advised me to make things up because it’s no one’s business! I often say, “Why do you ask?” You’d think that would stop people in their tracks, but there will always be those who keep on asking inappropriate questions no matter what!

  2. las artes said

    Allow me to share a true story. A student at a prestigious U.S. university was studying abroad, and e-mailed the dean of Undergraduate Affairs to determine the status of his Resident Advisor application. Because this particular student had been away all semester, the dean had forgotten to include his application in the pool. The student, having lost his opportunity to be a Resident Advisor, was quite upset. He shared his displeasure with the dean via e-mail. The dean became defensive. He intended to forward the student’s e-mail to a colleague in the office, adding the comment, “What a little snot. These spoiled brats think they’re entitled to everything. Why doesn’t he just transfer?” Unfortunately, the dean accidentally hit reply, and the student received his nasty retort instead. No matter how much the dean apologized, the damage could not be undone. The already irate student had a field day distributing the dean’s inappropriate and unprofessional response to everyone he knew, and, within a few months, the infamous e-mail exchange had made its way across the country. Ask yourself this question: How many e-mail offenses like this does it take to ruin a prominent university’s reputation?

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