The epidemic of Telling It Like It Is and how kindness is more important

The celebrities on this year’s Big Brother have one thing in common: an obsession with Telling It Like It Is. Yes, honesty is important, says Sali Hughes, but who does the truth really serve?

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By Sali Hughes on

Like many people I know, I currently find myself in the unexpected predicament of being hooked on Celebrity Big Brother for the first time post-Davina. This year’s line-up has me gripped, often in horror, at the housemates’ excruciatingly tense dynamic and constant losses of temper. One Hollyoaks actor is effectively telling a TOWIE star that she is worthless, because she has no obvious talent. A reality TV star is bellowing profanities at an actor for what she perceives to be his manipulative personality. An American woman is screaming at a housemate grieving over the loss of her ex-husband. Several are being admonished for being “two-faced”.

Clearly, it would be folly to assume Big Brother is a true and untainted depiction of group mentality in the real world, where people are not locked in a pressured environment fuelled by alcohol and deliberate emotional manipulation at the hands of entertainment professionals in pursuit of OMG moments. But the series has highlighted a dreadful modern-day phenomenon that seems to have reached epidemic proportions in all areas of life, and across all social groups: the Tell It Like It Is mentality.

The TILII person is upfront, straightforward, s/he speaks as s/he finds on all matters, whether their opinion is solicited or not. These types pride themselves on their rejection of duplicity in all forms – to think ill of anyone and not “tell them to their face” is seen as a mortal sin and an indicator of a flimsy moral fibre and a woeful lack of integrity. Any perceived wrongdoing, any character flaw, must be hacked apart by the mighty sword of truth of a person who’d probably describe themselves on a dating site as “feisty”. The target of his/her home truths must not only listen to a rolling broadcast on their shortcomings, but must also accept it readily, or be accused of thinking themselves beyond criticism.

Not to 'tell them to their face' is seen as a mortal sin, an indicator of a flimsy moral fibre.  Any perceived wrongdoing, any character flaw, must be hacked apart by the mighty sword of truth 

But the arrogance usually lies on the opposite side of the fence. Being searingly honest at all times is perhaps a greater reflection on ourselves than on those in whom we’ve found fault. Because to share every thought and opinion you have about a person who has not sought your take on their failings is spectacularly arrogant. It assumes that your personal feelings are required listening, that they should have an impact on another person’s self-opinion, that those who fall short of your exacting standard should correct and align their personality accordingly. I’m grown up enough to expect that many people may hate me or what I do. But I will never understand why anyone would feel the need to crash into my Twitter feed, for example, to tell me.

I know this common social-media style of interaction has made me a less honest person. I hesitate to say it, but I now tell lies all the time and consider honesty to be the most overrated of virtues. Whereas I was once opinionated to the point of being exhausting, I now understand that I’m wrong or ignorant about all manner of things. My opinion is just that and is no more true or relevant than anyone else’s. My thoughts on others are merely a matter of taste and I know that the world turns perfectly well without my telling someone they’re not my bag – I’m simply not important to the bigger picture. There are plenty of more significant people who value and respect them, and so I’m better placed to just smile and keep my own sometimes harsh counsel.

Most significantly, honesty can cause hurt that is simply irreversible and someone who merely annoys me on the telly – much less a friend – really doesn’t deserve that. An ex-mate once sent me a 700-word character assassination, because she was (perhaps reasonably) furious with me about something. She listed all the things she hated about me, all my flaws, spanning 15 years of friendship. I was devastated, not because I refused to accept a single criticism, but because, in reducing me to only the things she didn’t like, she effectively wiped out all the amazing times we’d enjoyed, all the happy memories and closeness we’d shared. She apologised and tried to take it back, but it was too late. Because to air unbalanced and unfiltered thoughts about your loved ones is an act of brutality that pollutes every moment thereafter. The screen between inner and outer monologue is more a safety curtain that should rarely be allowed to fall.

Certainly, honesty is an important value, but so is kindness and only the latter is essential to being a decent human being. The former is more elastic and should rarely take priority, because there are a million scenarios in which it’s unwelcome. If a friend asks if you like her new hair, she’s not really asking for a critique – she’s asking for reassurance via a rhetorical question. To let her know she looks like a member of Whitesnake serves only to hurt when there’s nothing immediate she can do to reverse it. If a child shows you a Plasticine sculpture that looks more like poo than the Batcave, then there’s no worthwhile reason not to offer approbation and encouragement. One school friend of mine once asked me to pinpoint her worst physical feature (yes, the teen years are MAD). I said, “Your weight.” She, in return, said, “Your big ears.” Twelve years later, I had plastic surgery and she was probably still feeling like crap about her dress size. No good could ever come of it.

A school friend once asked me to pinpoint her worst physical feature (yes, the teen years are MAD). I said, “Your weight.” She said, “Your big ears.” Twelve years later, I had plastic surgery and she was probably still feeling like crap 

There are times, of course, when home truths are required. To tell a friend that her relationship seems abusive, or that someone she trusts is consistently letting her down, is a risk worth taking in order to be a good pal. We will always value honesty where appropriate. I would much prefer a friend to sit me down and explain that I’ve upset them and why (no one is more persuasive in letting me know I’m being stupid, misguided or plain wrong than one of my endlessly wise and well-meaning girlfriends) than to tell everyone else while keeping me in the dark. It’s a dreadful way of handling relationships that deserve more respect. But context is everything. Airing grievances publicly with aggression and personal jibes, Big Brother-style, isn’t morally correct – it’s belittling and plain rude.

Perhaps this is the nub of the matter. Honesty should only be applied when the other’s best interests are at heart, so the best indicator of whether it should be applied is to ask yourself who the truth serves: them or you? Because given that, by the time we reach maturity, we basically are who we are, a critique of the fundamentals of a person’s character is unlikely to bring about change. Much more realistic to shrug and decide someone’s not for you, that your values are different and move on to someone less likely to press your buttons. And, if you are inescapably thrown together in an office or extended family, then it’s entirely human and a great deal less risky to confide in someone impartial, to unload any bitching, moaning and gossiping with impunity. It’s not ideal to speak ill of those who aren’t there, but it’s a human coping mechanism and one that’s a great deal less self-indulgent than letting someone have it with both barrels.

More and more, I think it’s better to live a life of lies than to be a slave to The Commandments. It’s called good manners. And, if that’s a sin, then I’ll be honest here – I can live with it.


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