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"Does my butt look big in this?"

I am a fan of the idea of honesty. This is no secret. I've written before about why I think lies, even supposedly harmless "little white lies," are destructive. (tl;dr: They teach people not to listen to the good things we say, and to dismiss compliments and positive things as white lies, while making negative things stick more.)

Inevitably, every time I write something like this or I say this at a workshop or lecture I'm giving, someone always, always says "but what if my girlfriend asks if her butt looks big in this dress? I shouldn't tell the truth then, right?"

And I say "honesty in communication works both ways. It is wrong to give dishonest answers. It is also wrong to ask dishonest questions."

Far more often than not, "does my butt look big in this?" is a dishonest question.

Questions like this are not requests for information. They are passive, indirect requests for validation. They are an indirect way of saying "I am feeling insecure. I want you to tell me that you think I'm attractive." And, of course, they're harmful and destructive ways of seeking that validation, because if you say "no, your butt looks awesome in that," the other person is just going to dismiss it as a white lie. The answer doesn't meet the need for validation, because on some level, the person you're talking to won't believe you. We're all conditioned to know that other people are likely to prefer white lies to honesty, usually under the guise of sparing our feelings.

And if you say "yes, that's unflattering," well, not only have you not offered the hoped-for validation, you've confirmed the other person's deepest fear. These questions are lose-lose: affirmations aren't believed, unpleasant answers cut deep.

"Does my butt look big in this?" It's the most obvious example of an indirect request for validation masquerading as a question, but we ask dishonest questions that are less obvious all the time. Whenever we ask a question expecting to hear a certain answer that validates us, that's a dishonest question.

Honesty is just as important in the questions we ask as in the answers we offer. Dishonest questions are just as harmful as dishonest answers. Indeed, they might be even more harmful, because they set the other person up for failure.

I don't believe they're always a deliberate setup. It can be difficult to tease out all the threads woven into the way we communicate. Sometimes, we ask questions that we believe are honest, but then become upset when the answer doesn't validate us. Sometimes, we tell ourselves we want an honest opinion while secretly longing for the answer that feels best.

But dishonest questions are not fair. They put other people into a difficult bind that offers no easy way out. At best, they are a sign of chinks in our own sense of self; at worst, they're manipulative, immature, or both.

I am a fan of honesty in communication. I would like, therefore, to propose an idea: If you ask a question, be prepared for an answer that surprises you. If you're not prepared for that, it's probably a dishonest question. If you ask a question and then blame the other person for giving an answer that doesn't follow the script in your head, it's definitely a dishonest question.

Relationships do not thrive when everyone is reading from the same playbook of dishonesty, they thrive when people are straight with each other and ask for their needs to be met directly rather than indirectly.

How, then, do we deal with our ordinary human need for reassurance and validation? I propose a solution: direct communication. I'd like to propose that we strive for relationships where we feel safe to say,"I'm feeling insecure about thus-and-such, and I would like your validation." I think that looking within ourselves to understand what we really want, and doing whatever may be in our power to ask only honest questions and to advocate for our needs directly, is a gift we can offer our partner. By offering this gift, we avoid putting our partner in a position where they must either compromise their integrity or hurt us.

I would also like to propose the suggestion that by answering questions honestly, instead of telling white lies, we are offering a gift to our partner: the gift of integrity. This gift allows the people in our lives to believe us more fully, and not dismiss the positive things we say.

Honesty works both ways. We can, and I believe we should, seek to ask honest questions as well as answer questions honestly.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 6th, 2016 07:40 am (UTC)
Nonviolent Communication is the key
This is a classic opportunity for Marshal B. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication. He even addresses the exact same situation, but instead of blaming the other person for the dishonest question, he advocates hearing and listening to the insecurity behind it and addressing that.

Mar. 7th, 2016 06:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Nonviolent Communication is the key
I don't think "blaming" is in it, really -- it's more productive to talk about what they were looking for out of that conversation, and find a healthier way of doing it. I've framed similar concepts for myself before as "don't ask a question that you're not okay with hearing any answer to"... I may not LIKE what my partner has to say, but they have to be free to tell me what they think there. If you circumscribe their acceptable answers and make there rewards for answering one way and disincentives for answering another, people are going to be less than honest with you out of fear or avoidance or a desire to please. So I end up doing a lot of self-examination to make sure that I'm not setting up my partners for failure before I engage with a difficult subject. If I go in knowing what I do and don't want, and prepared to hear them out regardless of where they are and what their feelings are, it helps me navigate that.

If the other person isn't doing that work for themself, and is handing you a trap for a question... this tends to be one of those compatibility-Darwinian situations. I'll try the above strategy, but if they're not interested in engaging or do feel that there's a "right" answer that I have to give, that may eventually become a relationship-limiting move.
Mar. 9th, 2016 08:43 am (UTC)
There are lots and lots and lots of dishonest questions out there. ESR coined the term kafkatrapping a few years back to describe one particular type:
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )