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The Truth is Just As Tricky As Jack Nicholson Said It Was

The Truth is Just As Tricky As Jack Nicholson Said It Was

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"Yes, it's a perfectly lovely hat."

"Yes, it's a perfectly lovely hat." Source: Dave Hogan/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Source: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Imagine, if you will, a benign social situation. Let's say your good friend is sporting a new haircut, a haircut that does not flatter her. She is not the sort who should wear bangs. She may have discovered this uncomfortable fact herself after looking in the mirror — perhaps she has even called you in a flood of tears to come over and see the offending hairstyle in person. Like any good friend, you've picked up your arsenal of aerosols, jumped in the car and hurried over. Tear-stricken, your friend greets you at the front door, looks you in the eye and asks, "Is it as bad as I think?" Sigh. It's worse.

So here's the tricky thing. If you were to tell a lie, and reassure her that she looks just like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada post-makeover, she's likely to see through your charade. But who on earth wants to tell the truth if it's likely to hurt just as badly? You see the pickle, no doubt. And the rough thing is, a haircut is as benign as I can get — what if the truth in question is about an affair, a health issue, a hurtful opinion, a betrayal? So today, folks, be honest. When should you tell the truth? When do you want to hear it? And when, in that uniquely human way, is it okay to do the wrong thing — that is, lie — for the right reason?



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A person cannot grow or make positive changes in their lives without knowing the truth or facing the truth. The truth can be hard but we do a person a dis-service when we don't tell the truth.

Sent by Dawn Daniels | 2:11 PM | 2-5-2008

Bad Reality equals Bad Visions, No Truth...which is the confluence of good reality and good visions.
The problem with bad or no reality, is that you cannot achieve your visions, since it depends on having good currently reality from which to spring. This is why we need to get to the truth. And why these past 7 years have been characterized by both bad or no reality and bad or no visions.

Any chance we will get at the truth of the Bush Administration, per the questions raised in John Dean's "Worse Than Watergate"? Or will we remain unable to launch good visions...or honor the truth?

Sent by Dave Beckwith | 2:12 PM | 2-5-2008

When I've told a lie, I've always regretted it. If the truth is hard to tell then that's usually because someone, maybe me, has done something wrong. The truth is always right. Telling someone else's story, experience should be left up to them. But if someone asks me, I do all I can to answer honestly. My experience has been the lie causes more trouble than the spoken truth would have.

Sent by Melinda | 2:17 PM | 2-5-2008

The missing element, so far, in what I've heard here is the word "truth" itself. I believe it is the foundation of this discussion. Because telling "the" truth vs. telling "one's own" truth are two very different things. The former comes with an assumption, an almost God-like status for the person delivering it. It can sound arrogant and highly intolerant. The latter, "one's own" truth, suggests responsibility for one's own point of view which allows the recipient to take it for what it's worth. It is respectful and, in "truth", more deeply honest and respectful.

Sent by Robert Cochrane | 2:29 PM | 2-5-2008

Telling the absolute truth (as WE know it) discounts the empathy involved in human communications. If we care about others and our humanity, we need to consider the impact of our communications on others.

Sent by Keith Hamm | 2:30 PM | 2-5-2008

I am guessing that your guest will end up saying something like; "there is a great deal more to lies and truth than can be discussed in [the alloted time] whether to lie comes down to judgment."

We are constantly called on to make judgments regarding what we think people are asking when they ask a question. Often the best policy is to side-step the issue. Don't answer directly instead, offer support or an evasion. "We can fix your haircut." or "I've always liked your plaid skirt." Try telling the "truth" when someone at the office asks how you are and watch their eyes glaze over.

Sent by William Buchanan | 2:30 PM | 2-5-2008

In an instance where, say, you want to confess to a spouse that you've cheated, what about the idea that by telling the truth, you're very severely hurting someone else to make yourself feel better? Isn't that selfish?

Sent by Brian | 2:30 PM | 2-5-2008

There is a Zen saying in regard to telling the truth: Is it true, is it necessary, and is it kind? This adds the element of compassion to your true telling. Sometimes being brutally honest without compassion is just a cover for ulterior motives.

Sent by Andrew | 2:32 PM | 2-5-2008

What about the ultimate lies that we tell our kids....Santa, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny????

Sent by John Just | 2:34 PM | 2-5-2008

The truth will set you free. That is internal truth. We all have right to a private truth. The world doesn't need to know. Be true to yourself.

Sent by dusty | 2:35 PM | 2-5-2008

It is not possible to go through life without offending other people, nor should that be our goal.

If we all had to go through life worrying about how other people feel, we would not be living authentic lives that would be true to ourselves. We would be lying to ourselves.

I am not responsible for how someone else feels. I am only responsible for how I feel. If I tell the truth to someone but they get offended by it, then it is up to them to figure out what there is about their own character that causes them to be upset.

And, if we each value our relationship, then we will each have to come to terms with our individual values and determine where we match up, and where we don't. At that point, we will come to understand our Selves better, and we will reach the point -- known as the "moment of truth" -- when we decide if we want to continue to be in relationship with the other, or not.

Sent by John-Michael Battaglia | 2:36 PM | 2-5-2008

Many of the callers have been indicating that while they value honesty, of at least equal concern is DIGNITY. There are MANY examples of how speaking the truth, or revealing the truth, is to be condemned (such as sharing gossip with those who have no need to know). Lying is wrong when its intent is to deceive. Lying to the Nazi about harboring a Jewish person is not wrong when its intent is to protect another...again recognizing the value of human dignity.

Sent by Lisa Schuebel | 2:37 PM | 2-5-2008

One thing that I have not heard mentioned is the issues around honesty, both personal and professional, faced by those who realize they are homosexual. I do not think others realize the immense difficulties around "coming out"/being honest about who we are and our relationships-both at home AND at work!

Sent by M. Miller | 2:38 PM | 2-5-2008

I've always found that you have to trust the people you are honest with. Honesty is earned in a relationship. Not everyone deserves your "honesty" gift

Sent by g | 2:38 PM | 2-5-2008

VERY INTERESTING! A few months ago, WBUR/NPR featured a new internet business called Primary use was to allow people to have extra-marital affairs. THe VP of marketing said "we ALL LIE. Lying is a fact of life." I was appalled.

Honesty is NOT VALUED in today's society. People who tell the truth are considered chumps. I have always wanted my children to learn to become good liars in professional get ahead. But on the personal level, I agree w/ the author of Radical Honesty...without truth and trust in personal relationships, we have nothing. BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR is NOT ABANDONING THOSE WE HAVE COMMITTED OURSELVES TO. Yes, we need to be honest, but within that commitment that we will not abandon the relationships that are of the quality/nature that requires honesty.

VERY RELEVANT DISCUSSION...esp. for any of us who have been victims of lies and/or abandonment. I believe our society is coming apart at the seems due to the breakdown of primary relationships, esp. when do to lies and abandonment. How can children grow up with any sense of terra firma?

Sent by Candace Clemens | 2:39 PM | 2-5-2008

What about political honesty? It seems to be OK in the US for politicians to lie to the public when it serves what is considered to be a legitimate purpose.

Sent by Casey Wood | 2:39 PM | 2-5-2008

I like to hear the truth, and i believe that it is my obligation to tell the truth.

Sent by madlen connor | 2:43 PM | 2-5-2008

I believe truthfulness is of the utmost importance, but must be coupled with extreme wisdom. There's a mystic tradition that says, "Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it." Baha'u'llah

Sent by Lee Wood | 2:55 PM | 2-5-2008

Another really great quote regarding the powerful impact on personal relationships (in the long term) of being honest is:
"The person, who being really on the way, falls upon hard times in the world, will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages their old self to survive. Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the difficulty and pass courageously through it. Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within. In this daring lies dignity and the spirit of true awakening..." Durkheim

Sent by Lee Wood | 3:01 PM | 2-5-2008

I have to agree with the doctor who stated that while the truth may hurt, what makes the difference is being there through it. As one receiving very little honestly regarding many situations in my life both past and present, I must say I'm sick of folks always skirting the issues and trying to either "sugar coat" the truth for me or completely shutting down when it comes time to speak honestly. It's as if they are afraid of breaking me.

I much prefer the "you've been diagnosed with cancer and have three weeks to live" instead of "well, your medical situation is a challenge but we can get through this." First tell me the facts, THEN give me more facts regarding how it's possible to overcome the challenge, but please do not dilute the truth from the beginning - that to me does more harm that good. So yes, give me the truth - it might hurt; however it will also allow me to make choices based on said truth and THAT in the end is what matters.

Sent by James Downing | 3:03 PM | 2-5-2008

With regard to truth and lies, I believe that increasingly, technology is turning us into a much more personally invasive society. We're not allowed to have our secrets, no less the right to NOT answer an unfair question. The "should I lie?" question becomes a mute point, right? Well, it should be a mute point. The catch-22 is that so much can be suggested or implied in the aftermath of an unanswered, unfair question. Choosing not to answer can be almost as personally damaging as telling the truth. It's like pleading the 5th; one incriminates him or herself with silence. Your boss asking you if you have information about your friend; his wife, having an affair. Unfair question; but it's not like it can be unasked. It's out there.
Another observation: Love the fact that you're talking about lying on Super Tuesday. If one thing can be associated with politics, it's lying. So sad. Also, I think it must be terribly difficult to raise a child, no less to BE a child/teen today, endeavoring to live honestly in our society, bombarded and inculcated as we are in our online, 24/7 connected world. Gorilla marketing and hit and run politicing attempts to sell products, services, and political ideas, with little regard for the truth. How are we expected to live 100 percent truthful lives in the current state of our normal? It's seems impossible, but it never hurts to keep trying.

Sent by Susan | 3:15 PM | 2-5-2008

There is an interesting book "Tower of Babel" by Richard Wetherhill ( that focuses on the distortions that become lodged in the mind as we repeat emotionally driven "rationalizations" to excuse behavior we know, on clear honest reflection, to be wrong. However created, by early abuse or caving in to avarice, etc., the cure is brutal self-honesty. The way to a fulfilled life is by honoring what is right and avoiding what is wrong, essentially a natural law of wellbeing. Avoid doing wrong which involves lying to self and others to clarify the mind and spirit.

Sent by James Reichle | 3:24 PM | 2-5-2008

Anyone remember the title of the male guest's book?


Sent by K McCallum | 5:29 PM | 2-5-2008

The comment posted by Mr. Lee Wood @ 2:55 P.M.It was one of Writings of Baha'u'llah was saying it all.
Thank you NPR for this service.

Sent by madlen connor | 5:43 PM | 2-5-2008

I always tell the truth. Especially about myself. I think that anything I do is already out in the open, so why should I lie about it and wait for things to get worse? When it comes to opinions about haircuts and such, perhaps we shouldn't readily offer negative comments to people around us, however, I think that if someone who is any closer to you than a stranger, asks for your opinion, you should give it to them. I certainly would and do respect people much more for sounding sincere than offering the traditional, "oh it's not that bad" statement.

The bottom line is: the truth, and especially in the form of honesty, is irreplaceable. Each person should be secure enough with themselves to tell the truth about themselves and others. Along this same vein, I think that many people in society have no idea when to keep their mouth shut---which they have opened only because they are telling the 'truth'.

Sent by ellen | 6:57 PM | 2-5-2008

I definitely take the position that honesty is the best policy and I let it be known to those with whom I'm close with or have a personal relationship. To me, being honest and people being honest with me is a matter of fairness and respect. I want to make my own decisions based on what's true and I have no desire to be in the dark about anything. Yes, the truth can be ugly and can hurt, but give me that any day before a lie. No one is doing me any favors by lying to me and I don't need to be protected. I want to know if my outfit is terrible, if I'm doing a bad job, if I'm being cheated on, etc., so I can do something about it and make my own decision as to appropriate action. I can and I should be able to take care of myself and I guess it really bothers me when others take it upon themselves to decide what I should and shouldn't know when I'm relying on that information to guide my behavior or build a relationship. Others may take a different stance (e.g. may not want to know the truth) and that's a personal decision, so I think it's important to let it be known what your position is in this respect so it's not assumed and you're treated in a way you don't appreciate.

Sent by aileen | 7:02 PM | 2-5-2008

There is a difference between the rule and the exception to the rule. I find that many of us try to be the exception. In reality the exception is rare. We need to be honest with those around us; that is the rule. There may be extenuating circumstances but we should not seek to be that exception.

Sent by Greg Doermann | 10:18 AM | 2-6-2008

I just wrote a long involved opinion about lying, then I typed my name and e-mail. Then I clicked on the (privacy policy): When I came back, my whole dissertation was gone. I wish I had been warned about that. I am not about to type for another half hour. My main opinion was to never lie. Certainly, if it is a matter of life or death from some Nazi group, lying is okay, but to try to spare sopmeone's feelings, or if you think that a lie will not hurt someone, you are wrong.

Sent by Ken Hebel | 8:53 PM | 2-14-2008