Honesty and Social Clues

There’s this quintessential moral dilemma: someone asks for your opinion on something and your honest feedback is…less than positive. Do you give positive feedback out of a sense of compassion, or give negative feedback out of a commitment to honesty?

It’s a question open to great debate.

But it may be primarily a debate of theory – when asked for feedback on someone’s hideous new outfit, for example, it’s possible that the most common reaction is neither lie nor truth – it’s paralysis and, possibly, fear.

Nobody knows what to say.

It’s not just a problem of moral paralysis, it is a problem of social paralysis. What is the “right” thing to say? Asks both about what is moral and what is socially optimal – and the later is definitely context dependent.

If someone is bristling with excitement over the outfit they just dropped a small fortune on you may not want to respond in the same you would to someone who is trying to decide how they feel about their newest hand-me-down.

What’s particularly interesting is that in many of these conversations you – the person beading with sweat trying to figure out how to respond – are really just a spectator to another person’s inner dialogue.

When someone asks what you think, it doesn’t always mean they care what you think.

Perhaps they are looking for validation or confirmation of what they’ve already decided. You can give it or not, but either way it’s not really about you. You’re just a mirror for what they want to see.

The real social challenge is that generally we don’t know what’s in the other person’s head. Do they really want feedback? Do they just want a reinforcement of their view? If that’s the case, what is their view and what kind of reinforcement can be provided?

These are the types of thoughts that run through my head as I stare panic-stricken at my interrogator.

So I think, actually, the best response to stall for information. Ask questions, make non-committal statements, see how they play their hand.

My favorite response is what I call the air-suck, that is, the noise you make when someone asks for feedback and you respond with, “Well….<air-suck>.” It may be the universal sign that you’re not comfortable providing your honest feedback.

And it provides your questioner with an important opportunity – they can create a space for honest dialogue or they can finish the thought for you. In that case, you didn’t lie – though you didn’t tell the truth – but you did serve as a mirror, which is all that was really asked of you anyway.

And, of course, if someone is genuinely interested in your honest, open feedback, the solution is simple – give it.

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