Be careful what you say (Thought 14)

This is a reflection rather than a suggested activity – but it might affect your behaviour; the choice is, of course, yours.

To be known as “a woman of her word” or “a man of his word” is one of the greatest compliments you can ever be paid. It means that you “deliver on” what you say you’ll do.

If you “keep your word” – that is, do what you say you’ll do – then people will come to trust you; and being trusted – and trustworthy – is both a compliment and an asset to you.

Trust, however, takes a while to build up: you might have to prove on several occasions that you can, indeed, be trusted, before another person will take that for granted.

Trust is also very easily broken – and it is possible that you may never be able to rebuild it fully. It only takes one broken promise for the person to whom you made the promise to feel that he or she can never truly trust you again.

You may have heard the expression “white lies”. It means things that are untrue, but either unimportant, or a way of explaining something where the truth would do more harm than good. The Tooth Fairy might be an example of the first kind of white lie; saying that you like a present that a relative has given you when you don’t actually like it at all might be an example of the second kind of white lie.

Actually, I don’t believe that white lies are a good idea, or harmless. You may of course disagree. I think it’s better either not to make up untrue explanations – in the first example – or to find something different to say that is true, in the second (perhaps, “That is a really generous and thoughtful present! Thank you VERY much.”).

OK – enough of the “heavy stuff”.

Why does it matter that you keep your word? It matters because being trusted is the way that most of the important relationships in our world are built up. Personal relationships are an obvious example, but business and workplace relationships also work best when built on trust.

So does it really matter, in these bigger, more important settings, if you say, “I’ll get us something for lunch when I’m out this morning” and then don’t bring anything back? Surely that’s trivial – ? Or say you’ll empty the dishwasher, or put the clean washing up to dry, and then “forget” to do it – ? I think it does matter – because if you can’t be trusted with the small things, why should anyone believe you can be trusted with the bigger things? Are you a person who is true to his/her word, or not? Best to be able to answer that “Yes” or “No” rather than have to settle for “It depends …” – which isn’t really much use to anyone.

Think before you speak. If you can’t be sure that you’ll do what you say, then be honest: “I’ll try to get that done, but I might have to put it off until tomorrow or the next day.” Or “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not do that.” People will admire you far more for being honest than if you’d said what you thought they wanted to hear, and then failed to deliver on it.

You don’t have to be hurtful, however, to be honest. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing, or to say something different, rather than tell the truth and hurt another person’s feelings. If you haven’t already heard it, you soon will hear people referring to the classic excuse, “Sorry, I have to wash my hair this evening” – used when someone doesn’t want to go out on a date. It’s so well known now that it probably isn’t used any more in reality – unless the speaker wants to say it as a code for, “I don’t want to go out with you!”

Better not use that one, then – but there is no reason to be brutal and say, for instance, “I really don’t like you and I wish you’d stop asking me out”. How about, “I don’t see this friendship going anywhere, and I appreciate your asking me out, but I’m going to say no. Thanks anyway” – ?

I’m writing this from experience, as you can maybe tell. When I was quite young, my mother – who had brought me up always to tell the truth – was appalled when I told my grandmother that I didn’t actually like the present she’d bought for me for my birthday. Well – she had asked me what I thought of it! My mother told me later that day to go back to my grandmother and apologise, and tell her that I did like it after all. I still haven’t really got my head around that one – which is why I developed the belief that if you can’t tell the truth without hurting someone, you should tell a different truth instead, if that’s possible. Even although I was very young, I could have said to my grandmother, “Thank you! That’s really kind of you. I love you.”

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