July 13, 2003

"Can I be honest?"

Ever had someone say this to you? It's a bit like a linguistic red flag. No good conversation this way lies. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Engage tact fore and aft. You'll need it.

Of course, I've noticed that it's usually just when that someone about to say something potentially hurtful. Well, potentially. Some people tend to brandish this phrase around like a personal liability shield. Their time will come.

And it makes you wonder: have I been lied to all this time? Has my previous interaction with this person needed a polygraph? Or a good deal of space, say the size of Montana? Am I the kind of person to whom lying is easy? And now they've changed the rules and switched to truth?

I'm tempted at such times to reply: "No, please don't! Anything but the truth. I'd much rather you lied through your teeth. I mean, after all: why change now?" I'd then watch in entirely inappropriate glee as they walked off in a huff, their potential 'honesty' wrapped around them like a security blanket. Hopefully really tightly across the mouth and nose.

This phrase however, provides, in their short-sighted mind, diplomatic immunity for something that would probably otherwise be called less than flattering. This phrase is the email disclaimer of conversation, and it should accord the same distaste.

"Can I be honest? That outfit really doesn't suit you."

"Can I be honest? People don't like you."

"Can I be honest? I don't trust you."

(Notice too, the careful cowardice in the transferred epithet of 'people' above. You can be sure that 'people' refers to one person.)

So assuming for the moment that Captain Honesty's intentions are pure, even if their marketing is not, is there an alternative?

Yes. Choose your words carefully. Words have the most incredible power: they can motivate, inspire, and challenge. They can also insult, hurt, and do disservice to the point being made.

But more importantly, and more subtly, they can colour your communication to your advantage. You can wield your words to provide a fecund framework within which your communication will be received, subconsciously in the mind of the other party. And it is this framework that that goes a long way to the support and understanding of your communication. A poor framework is often the make-or-break part of the communication, that, well, broke.

Ever heard the phrase: "play the game, not the man"? Remember an argument that degenerated into a mudslinging match? This is what happens when the words and terms used have been less than carefully chosen.

So how do you choose the words? Think about it from the recipient's point of view – what makes sense to them? The only thing that you have at stake here is your point, so couch it in a way most likely to match the recipient's sensibilities.

(It helps, of course, to have a large vocabulary, and clear diction. Mumbling just indicates that a part of you doesn't really believe what you're saying. And don't be afraid of the pause. In any communication, there needs to be time for the information received to be processed. You goal is to achieve the Ikea of conversation. Clean, crisp lines of thought, elegant surfaces, and clear spaces in which to absorb the artfully chosen vocal ornaments. What if you're spewing the linguistic equivalent of wall-to-wall bric-a-brac, the rooms littered with 'um' and 'ah', and not a silent piece of surface in site? You've effectively dressed your communication in the equivalent of DayGlo neon, and hurled it at the recipient with all the finesse of an overweight dance class.)

Princess Adrian, by his own admission. (Or emission. I'm not sure which.) pointed out that he uses the phrase: "Can I be brutally honest?" And promptly is.

Although when he does say this, my mind recoils in a horrified anticipation of the snap of a rubber glove.

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Hehehe... that's a funny one :)

But oh so true.

Posted by: Stefan at July 14, 2003 04:11 PM
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