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Truth Dumping: When Are You Being Honest, and When Are You Just Selfish?

Sometimes you have to be a hero and tell a lie

Lying is selfish, but sometimes it’s nowhere near as selfish as telling the truth.

Maybe you’re the guy who tells his girlfriend she’s “definitely getting a beer gut.” Or the guy who, in an exit interview, tells his bosses working there was bullshit. Or the guy who tells his wife he constantly wants to have sex with other women.

There’s a term for this: truth dumping. Do you fancy yourself a brutally honest, tell-it-like-it-is sort of guy, who takes pride in saying whatever he thinks no matter how it lands? You may be a truth dumper yourself.

The trouble is, how do you know when you’re needlessly truth-dumping just to help yourself — or when you’re actually doing the right thing? Consider a few scenarios.

Don’t truth-dump when it makes things run smoothly

Most of our lies are the glue that holds the fabric of society together, and often our most cherished relationships. We ask how others are doing when we don’t care. We comment on a change in their appearance positively when we think it’s hideous or even just unremarkable. We laugh harder than we mean because it’s a superior, or pretend to enjoy something we’re indifferent to purely for the sake of getting along. We fake that we’re not fantasizing about someone else, or act like we really believe you’re going to get that new job. We “really enjoy” seeing your parents every weekend.

Though I personally believe these lies can be largely avoided by saying nothing, or giving a more measured response, or trying to put yourself in situations in which those reactions are as authentic as possible, that’s entirely different from saying that the brutal truth is a better bet. Remember that radical-honesty-movement guy who advocated for the direct, no-bullshit truth at all times? Yeah, that didn’t work out. One Esquire writer, A.J. Jacobs, tried to put it in practice with his friends and loved ones, and he found it radical, all right — radically shitty. In the end, he described it as “a hundred confrontations every day. Small, but they’re relentless.”

It’s nearly impossible to never need to squeak out one of these lies in life. To tell the real, dumpy truth takes two parts: being honest but kind, and knowing you’re talking to someone who is able to handle the truth and welcomes it.

If my meatloaf sucks, I don’t want to be told otherwise. But then again, I’m not the sort of person who would go putting a lot of feelings into a meatloaf and would rather improve it or stop making it. The last thing I want is to find out years later we’ve both been participating in some kind of meatloaf charade. What a bummer for me, your digestive system and the reputation of meatloaf, which desperately needs improving.

Still, far more egregious than this sort of lie is thinking you’re doing anyone else a favor if they’ve not made super-duper-fucking-clear they want the brutal truth. Don’t tell them their haircut sucks, their jokes aren’t funny or you hate their meatloaf. Don’t do it.

Be a hero. Tell a lie.

Don’t truth-dump when you’ve cheated

Most people think cheating is pretty despicable. Most people think you should fess up when you do. But many experts who normally advocate for truth-telling as a gold standard of good relationships explicitly warn against telling the truth about infidelity. I’m inclined to agree. Couples counselor Mira Kirshenbaum told Time that the illusion one’s guilty conscience will be cleansed by spilling the details on screwing around is false and pretty much always causes far more damage than it ever needed to. Kirshenbaum says:

Because how does it make a person less guilty to inflict terrible pain on someone? Which is exactly what the confession does. It puts the other person in a permanent state of hurt and grief and loss of trust and an inability to feel safe, and it doesn’t alleviate your guilt. Your relationship is dealt a potentially devastating blow. Honesty is great, but it’s an abstract moral principle…. The higher moral principle, I believe, is not hurting people. And when you confess to having an affair, you are hurting someone more than you can ever imagine. So I tell people, if you care that much about honesty, figure out who you want to be with, commit to that relationship and devote the rest of your life to making it the most honest relationship you can. But confessing your affair is the kind of honesty that is unnecessarily destructive.

She makes only two exceptions for when this truth dump is worth it: When you’ve potentially exposed a partner to an STI, or when you’re about to be found out anyway. Then, you must step up and speak the truth. Still, you need to find out what sort of details the other person wants to hear before you launch into some lurid, overly detailed account of how many times you went down on another woman or met up for a tryst.

I would add a caveat here: This advice is typically for someone who has cheated and doesn’t intend to again. However, if you realize you will probably never be faithful to the person you’re running around on, this still doesn’t mean you need to confess to the cheating. Just break up. Don’t be the asshole that has to confess the cheating to sabotage the relationship so they dump you.

Don’t truth-dump in an exit interview

Sure, the reason you’re quitting is because morale sucks and the office snacks are bullshit. But you don’t have to tell them that, and nor should you. A brutally honest exit interview is the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail on the bridge of your future work connections. Don’t toss it.

An example: You hate your boss and think he’s a micromanager. Business coach Michael Kerr tells Business Insider that your exit interview is not the place to dog this person out or even allude to any kind of beef. Just indicate instead that, perhaps, “the company needs to work on building a culture where employees are given more freedom and autonomy.”

Yes, it might stick in your craw to not stick it to the man, but you want another job, don’t you?

There are other instances where truth dumping is a bad scene, and when honesty can be had without needless cruelty. The devil is, indeed, in the details. Don’t come out and blab that you’ve faked every orgasm; instead, start talking honestly about new or different things you want to try.

Or when you want to break up. Or really, anytime the fundamental nature of your relationship has been altered and you owe it to someone to know what’s what.

If it’s time to end things, end them. Don’t mislead or pretend it’s going to work out. That doesn’t mean you have to give them a detailed PowerPoint presentation of everything they did wrong, as tempting (and hilarious) as that may be.

When should you truth-dump?

There is really only one exception I can think of to all of the above: If you just so happen to be with someone you can tell the real truth to. They want it, they’ve asked for it and they can handle it. If they haven’t asked for it, zip it up. But that still doesn’t mean you’re going to pour out the shitty details. Proceed with kindness. Don’t force it on them like another helping of shitty meatloaf.