Using Honesty


Sharing shameful or difficult facts has an effect opposite our expectation

How do you react when you know someone is lying? Most of us dislike the person because we know that relationships are built on trust, and you can’t count on a liar.

We are often nudged into lies and falsehoods and bending the truth because leaving others with a negative impression seems like social suicide. But there is a difference between broadcasting your secret to a crowded room and sharing it with just one other person:

When you share something painful with just one or two people, instead of judging you as weak or craven, they are more likely to have compassion and trust you more.

In addition to demonstrating your trust, you are anointing your listener as being trustworthy and special for being one of the few who know something damaging or painful about you. If the revelation is not too personal, you can even share it with a larger group and get a positive response. Even if it is something that makes you look weak or weird.

I am often asked in mixers and new groups I join to reveal some aspect of myself. Other people pick safe things like their love of bungee jumping or that they play guitar. I usually go with:

My parents were UFO investigators when I was a kid.

I picked something so unusual but plausible, it usually gets people coming up to me to ask more questions, and they remember that fact about me often years later. It has a bit of the weirdo vibe to it, but since it was my parents’ thing, and I and my sisters just got taken from our beds, bundled into the backseat of the station wagon, and driven to meet the witnesses, it doesn’t make me look too bad. It could even evoke pity for having such weird parents.

And that is the more frequent response when we reveal something painful. People take pity on us, even if we have some culpability for the result:

I grew up in a family of fast eaters. It sometimes brought me to tears as a child that they left me sitting alone at the table, often for a half-hour while I finished eating.

That still is a little more in the “poor Mark” category, but exposing my victimhood is not the most flattering. When I get to something really painful and difficult, though, listeners can still find a route to sympathy as with:

When my lover was so incapacitated by AIDS he was bedridden and frequently drifting into comas, the doctor asked me if he should increase the morphine dose. I said additional pain relief sounded good, but he clarified that the additional morphine would start to make his lungs so congested he would suffocate. I agreed to it.

Now we get into something I did that resulted, from one point of view, in someone’s death. But you see that many bad decisions we make are based on no-win scenarios. So most listeners still find compassion for a difficult decision I had to make, because the alternative was not any better.

I have much more shameful things I could share, but I require a lot more trust with you than I can have in our current relationship to feel comfortable with that. I had good reasons there too for what I chose to do, but the identity of the greater victim is more up to interpretation.

So how do we use honesty to make fictional characters more likable? Make them honest, even self-deprecating. Or even better, let your reader overhear your character sharing a rare, difficult story with another trusted character. It is another tool for manipulating your readers’ emotions.

This is the fifth and final installment in my series of blog posts on “cultivating emotion” in your readers. If you scroll back through the last four posts, you should find the others.

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