It’s probably why we avoid being straight up with people around us. But Clara How says being a good friend means daring to say what no one else is saying. And she’s proof that you can be brutally honest and not become a social outcast.
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Recently, a good friend asked if she could tag along on a trip I was planning with someone else. We were already looking to do something a little more adventurous – hiking and swimming in the wilderness was one option. My friend who wanted to come along? She’s not into that sort of thing. (She thinks she is, but really, she’s not, and she’s quite likely to make things diﬃcult.)
So no, I don’t want her to come along. But how do I tell her that? Should I? And if I were honest about my feelings, would I lose her friendship? More importantly, how did it all get so complicated?
Everyone knows honesty is the best policy. But it’s never that straightforward. Nobody wants to be labelled the judgmental, unempowering friend who just isn’t supportive enough, even if the reasons for telling the truth are well-intentioned. So we don’t tell our friend those jeans make her butt look big, that her boyfriend is crap and she could do better, or that she’s inconsiderate and rude for never being on time.
My friend Josephine* gave honesty a go, and quit after it led to a fallout with her best friend, who didn’t take it well when Josephine said she didn’t like her boyfriend. Her anger prompted the other girls in their group to also turn against Josephine. “I now feel that I can’t be honest unless I have the assurance that the friendship won’t be ruined, and of course that’s almost impossible,” she says.
It’s understandable, and not surprising, that we prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to telling the truth. But that might mean we end up enabling our friends’ self-delusions, when what they really need is a huge reality check.
I’ve reaped the benefits of having friends who don’t shy from telling the truth. So I’m making a case for honesty, and I’m saying yes – it does pay oﬀ.
There are moments when being honest can salvage friendships, rather than tear them apart. I’ve been there. A few years ago, a boyfriend told me that a mutual friend of ours had questioned his decision when we became oﬃcial. She said I was “two-faced”, and that she couldn’t understand why he wanted to be with me. I was crushed, because I had been friends with her longer than he had, and had no idea what had inspired this vitriol.
After months of agonising over this, I finally decided to confront her. We talked, and I discovered she had had a crush on my boyfriend for a long time, and as she was the one who introduced us, it stung that I started dating him. And because she wasn’t honest with me about how she felt, I didn’t know that I had inadvertently broken the girl code. We cleared the air, and I’m happy to say that while I’m no longer dating that guy, she and I are still friends.
So here’s what I gleaned from that incident – the truth hurts, but it pays to be brave. If my friend had been honest about her feelings when she saw him pursuing me, I would have been more mindful. In the same vein, if she had not fessed up about the real reason behind her anger, we might not have been able to salvage that friendship.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
I’m all for being honest, but I think there’s a time and place for it – and if there’s a chance it might sound catty, then don’t do it. If I hate my friend’s new haircut, or think that the bridesmaid’s dress she’s chosen for me is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, I would never articulate how I truly feel. Why? Because hair eventually grows out, and I have to put on an ugly dress for just a day. My philosophy is, there’s no point upsetting someone I care about over something that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t matter.
But if I felt that my friend was on the cusp of making a huge mistake, or that her lifestyle was detrimental to her health, I’d speak up – the way a particularly astute friend of mine did. She was part of her colleague’s bridal party, and picked up that the bride might have doubts about the impending nuptials. At the wedding rehearsal, she took her aside, and asked outright if the man she was marrying was really the right one. Her colleague took it well, was unfazed, and went ahead with the wedding. “But I’ve never regretted voicing my concerns, because I had her best interests at heart,” my friend told me.
DON’T BE MALICIOUS
Let’s face it, honesty can be a bitter pill. When I was a teenager manoeuvring schoolyard politics, I noticed that my group of friends were keeping their distance. I didn’t understand why, and I tried harder to get noticed. The harder I tried, the more distant they got. Finally, one girl broke the news: “We don’t want to upset you and I don’t know how to say this, but you’ve become very needy, and we just wanted some space.” Appalled, I burst into tears. Her words stung for months, even though I pretended that they didn’t.
Her words took on greater meaning for me as an adult. I realised that my own insecurities and eagerness to please might have the opposite eﬀect on people. So since then, I’ve learnt to let go and just be myself – whether or not it pleases people. And I have to say I’m a lot happier for it. Perhaps my friend did not put things across in the best possible way, but I’ve always remembered there was no malice in her words. Even though it hurt at the time, her honesty stayed with me.
Sometimes we pipe down and think there’s no point in telling the truth, because we assume that our friends aren’t ready to hear our words. But this incident taught me that even if someone is not in the right place to accept what you have to say, if you speak out of concern, they will remember the conversation, tears and all.
SOMETIMES, YOU HAVE TO BITE THE BULLET
Your heart might be in the right place, but the way in which you deliver your opinion makes a huge diﬀerence in the way it’s received. I’m a believer in waiting for the right window of opportunity. Too often, I’ve seen friends engage in a war of words in the heat of the moment, and things get ugly. Because there is such a thing as being too honest – when you bring irrelevant (but very personal) details into the argument and turn it into something bigger than it needs to be.
Not so long ago, I noticed that a friend was on a path of self-destructive dating. The men never lasted long, and she would always end up disappointed. To her, it was par for the course on the dating scene. But it became clear to me that she was picking the wrong men – those who only saw her as a stop-gap measure, and never as a long-term option.
I held my tongue at first, debating if it was within my prerogative to talk to her about her dating choices. But after seeing her let down yet another time, I decided to bite the bullet. I didn’t tell her upfront that her pattern of choosing men seemed dubious. Rather, I asked her a series of questions about why she was dating, and what she was really getting out of all these men. As she answered, I could see realisation dawning upon her that even though she professed to be “having fun”, the reality was far from that. Epiphanies tend to resonate more when we discover them on our own – sometimes we need a friend to nudge us in the right direction. My friend has yet to find the perfect guy, but the good news is that she has a clearer idea of what she’s looking for, and is more careful about the men she dates.
This was two years ago, but she still occasionally thanks me for my honesty. I believe our friendship has grown stronger, because there’s now a greater level of trust that we have each other’s back. And the feeling is mutual, because she didn’t freak out when I was honest with my feelings, so I’m assured that this friendship is for keeps.
Oh, and as for that friend I don’t want to travel with? I plan to tell her the truth – but I’ll let her down easy, of course.