Honest lying for beginners

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 10:56 a.m. CDT

To be honest, anyone who starts a sentence with the words, “to be honest,” probably isn’t.

Say what?

It’s true. Starting sentences with expressions like “to be honest” or “to tell the truth” actually indicates that you are not at all going to be honest and not even coming close to telling the truth, and you know it. That’s why your sneaky little unconscious brain used the verbal “tee-up” phrase in the first place.

I discovered this hot linguistic news flash in an Elizabeth Bernstein article in The Wall Street Journal. In her story, “Why Verbal Tee-Ups Like ‘To Be Honest’ Often Signal Insincerity,” Bernstein turns to the academic community to reveal the downright dishonesty lurking in these common phrases. (Of course, the academic community has a $2 word for such expressions. They’re called “performatives.”)

According to James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin, performatives may seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. That’s the problem.

“Politeness is another word for deception,” Pennebaker explains. “The point is to formalize social relations so you don’t have to reveal your true self.”

Once you discover that our world is full of performatives, you’ll be amazed at how many times a day you hear — or say — “I want you to know” or “I’m just saying” or “I hate to be the one to tell you this.”

At the very least, these tepid tee-ups give us time to consider what we’re going to say. We need a beat to figure out how to put the best spin on what is going to be a particularly nasty spitball, or to convince ourselves that it’s perfectly OK to tell a co-worker that her breath smells like a broken sewer main, because we “hate to be the one to tell you this.”

Naturally, we go right ahead with the slam, because, after all, we’re not just mean or just evil or just sadistic. “We’re just saying.”

One acutely wounded victim of a personal performative attack is Betsy Schow, a 30-something fitness consultant in Alpine, Utah, interviewed by reporter Bernstein. Arriving at one of Schow’s yoga classes, a friend delivered a whispered message that started with the dangerous phrase, “I’m only telling this because I love you.”

Following this declaration of yoga solidarity and affection, the friend lovingly “pointed out that lumps were showing beneath Ms. Schow’s yoga clothes and said people laughed at her behind her back.”

As someone whose lumps are visible under a stadium blanket, you will surely understand Schow’s reaction to this declaration of love, which, by the way, was followed up with an offer to provide the name of a plastic surgeon who specializes in liposuction.

You and I are used to people laughing behind our backs, but Schow felt like she was “hit in the stomach with a cannonball,” and realized that her helpful friend wasn’t really being helpful, or, for that matter, a friend. (I don’t want to diminish Schow’s pain, but it strikes me that being “hit in the stomach with a cannonball” might be an excellent way to explain that giant glob of adipose hanging over your belt. Just saying.)

While the thrust of Bernstein’s article is to make us more forthright in our communications, I think there is another lesson here for me and thee. Especially thee.

Being so excellent at everything you do, you likely find quite a lot of occasions in your life where it is necessary for you to criticize a co-worker, a friend or a spouse. As you have probably noticed, these helpful critiques do not always result in the expected response — a heartfelt “thank you for pointing out my weaknesses. I’ll endeavor to do better in the future.”

What you need, my perfect friend, are a few powerful performatives. One of my favorites is “I want to say.” As in, “I want to say that you are excellent at your job” or “I want to say that replacing my Barcalounger with a $7,000 dollar Italian sofa is an excellent idea.”

Yes, you want to say it, but, of course, you can’t, because your co-worker totally stinks at his job, and the only way anyone is going to remove your Barcalounger is over your dead body, but you’ve smoothed over the waters well in advance, and now, no one could ever get mad, or hurt, or hurl a frying pan at you.

Hey, I’m only being honest here.

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