Is Too Much Truth Uncouth?

The headlines have been full of the story of Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels hitting Washington Nationals rookie Bryce Harper in the back with the baseball a few Sundays ago, and afterward admitting publicly that he had done it on purpose. Most commentators seem to agree that the real transgression was not the “drilling” but the ill-advised confession. In other words, Hamels was not suspended for the act itself; what he was guilty of was too much honesty. Everyone accepts the reality that pitchers will sometimes aim for the batter, but no one is supposed to talk about it.

I’m not at all sure how I feel about the seemingly unsportsmanlike practice of pitchers intentionally throwing the ball at a batter’s body, but the recent incident gives me a good excuse for my semiannual rant about the importance of little white lying. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: The truth (and nothing but the truth) is often just as unnecessary as it is unwise—especially as far as our social lives go. All human adults need to lie sometimes, just to make life workable. I, for one, do not want to live in a world that does not allow for the comfort and beauty of the occasional friendly fib.

Let’s consider a day of complete honesty:

You wake up to find that your 6-year-old daughter has lovingly made you a breakfast of Pop Tarts and Frosted Flakes that looks like a bad science experiment—and tastes like one, too. She asks you if it is “yummy delicious.” You smile back and say, “Honey, it’s icky horrible.” In the elevator on your way out of your building, your neighbor inquires about your sneezing, wanting to know if you have allergies; you explain you are sneezing because her perfume is so strong.

When you get to the office, your boss stops by your desk to ask what you think of the new office procedure report he wrote up and sent you yesterday. You confess you think it is not really much of an improvement on the last one—and that even though you did not bother to give it a particularly close read, you can see it’s filled with flaws. Your boss raises an eyebrow and remarks that maybe you’d better work on some of your own flaws, and by the way the budget is tight and you won’t be getting that raise after all. Next, a client phones and asks you to lunch. You tell him you are, in fact free, but that you are not really in the mood to see him, having just had rather a bad run-in with your boss, and you would really rather eat alone. An hour later you get an email from the client; he is canceling his account.

When you get home, your wife has had her hair done at a new salon. You can’t remember ever seeing human hair that color before. She asks you if it looks good. You tell her that it looks weird, like Day-Glo paint. She starts crying and goes off to repair her makeup and look in the mirror again, leaving you to finish the preparations for the dinner party you are having.

One of your friends brings his new girlfriend to the dinner. She talks incessantly about her cats throughout the meal and knocks over a large glass of red wine, ruining the new tablecloth and another guest’s dress. Upon her departure, the new girlfriend thanks you and says she had a lovely time, to which you respond, “I’m not at all happy you could come.” She and her date (your now ex-friend) storm out.

Finally the horrible day is over, and you get ready for bed. As you are pulling down the covers, your wife says to you, “Well, everything went pretty well tonight, don’t you think?”

Some people may prefer the unvarnished truth but, if you please, I’ll take mine with a nice thick shellac of kindness, along with dashes of prevarication and evasion, as needed. And yes, I do think I may have lost some weight—thank you so much for asking!


  1. Ha! I may very much need your advice as to mingling (through your book), but parts of this I can answer. Sometimes truth is needed, and lying does not have to be the first course.

    "Sorry, but I there are some perfumes that drive my nose nuts. I do not know why." (Subtext: this is not at all your fault, but the perfume you are wearing will cause me difficulty. All of which is true, and what a friendly contact would want to know.)

    "Give me a bit. I have a few suggestions." (Subtext: I intend to be an asset, a friend, and not be over-critical. If the guy is your boss, odds are the flawed writing did not matter much in the past. If you start with modest offerings, you will not invoke the defensive aspect of ego. With time, larger corrections will be readily accepted. If your aim is to build working relationships, and turn out better work, this is a true reflection of your intent.)

    With thought, you can very often find a constructive way to tell the truth, and build trust.

  2. Dear Preston,

    Of course you are right; telling the truth in a tactful and kind-hearted way is always a good choice. In these pieces, I like to exaggerate to make my point. (Besides, there are many people who take their adherence to the truth way too far.)

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!