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Radical honesty put to the test

Certain psychologists believe lies – even white ones – create an ‘emotional stain’ on our relationships. Rufus Purdy tests a bold initiative for truth-telling

by Psychologies

‘Do I look fat?’ ‘What?’ I murmur, half asleep. ‘Do I look fat at the moment?’ My wife is standing over me with a cup of tea in her hand. ‘Come on, it’s a simple question.’

I’m still in bed, but the resolution I made to her last night – that I’d avoid even the smallest of lies today – is already being tested. Thankfully, I’m able to tell her with conviction that no, she doesn’t look fat.

When US psychotherapist Brad Blanton founded the Radical Honesty movement I can’t imagine he envisaged situations such as this. According to Blanton, honesty is the precursor of psychological health, and only by being totally truthful in our relationships can we transform our lives for the better.

My day of uncompromising truthfulness should involve as little human contact as possible – my sister’s already told me she’s not going to call me today – but I need to pick up baby wipes for our daughter. Luckily, the shop is virtually empty, and I make it round without having to put the Radical Honesty manifesto – to ‘express every underlying thought and emotion, even anger, resentment and outright loathing’ – into practice. But at the checkout I find myself suppressing the first lie of the day. Usually, I’ll utter some platitude such as ‘That’s great’ as the assistant hands over the goods – but, as my purchase couldn’t be duller, to express any enthusiasm would be dishonest. I take the plastic bag with a curt ‘Thank you’.

Perversely, even though I’ve avoided saying something I don’t mean, I’m experiencing the ‘twinge of distress’ that social scientist Bella DePaulo, author of Behind The Door Of Deceit, claims we get every time we lie. Then I spot a chance to rectify this.

A friend is browsing the toothbrush rack, wearing a shirt so bright that it would make a children’s TV presenter weep. Were I to ignore it – according to DePaulo – there would be an ‘emotional smudge’ on our relationship. I must give it to him straight. ‘Hi,’ I say. ‘You look… jazzy.’ He turns around and smiles. ‘This is my summer top,’ he says. ‘Do you like it?’ ‘No,’ I say flatly. ‘It’s horrible.’ He laughs awkwardly, and looks a little shocked. ‘Oh well,’ he says. ‘At least you’re honest.’ I can tell he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

Radical Honesty doesn’t seem to improve my relationship with my father, either, when I tell him on the phone that afternoon I’m not interested in how his runner beans are coming along. Total honesty doesn’t seem to be smoothing my path to happiness, it just seems to be making me a pariah. Giving up lying is like giving up smoking. You don’t really notice how much you rely on your habit until you stop – and, only then, do you start craving the way it can help ease social situations. How else could we possibly deal with the complex nuances of our day-to-day relationships, never mind hold down a job or avoid being punched in the face every time we go to the pub? The proponents of Radical Honesty may be an admirable bunch, but I wouldn’t want them round for dinner.