Erica Brown

To be honest

Illustrative: Beautiful bride. (iStock)
Illustrative: Beautiful bride. (iStock)

To tell you the truth…

To be honest…

Honestly speaking…

Truth be told…

Truthfully speaking…

I’m gonna be honest with you…

Why do people use these expressions before speaking? If you say, “to be honest,” were you not being honest before? These phrases are so ubiquitous that I catch myself saying the very words I’ve come to suspect. Let’s face it, we preface our words with the truth because we’re all partial liars. We exaggerate the truth for the sake of a good story. We fudge the facts for the sake of domestic harmony. We minimize saying what we mean for the sake of workplace decency. It gets worse. Dostoyevsky wrote in “Notes from Underground,” “A man’s true autobiography is almost an impossibility… man is bound to lie about himself.”

The Talmud creates a fabulous fictional location called Truth where only truth was told: “Concerning the lack of truth, Rava says: ‘Initially I would say that there is no truth anywhere in the world. There was a certain one of the sages …who was so honest that if they were to give him the entire world, he would not deviate from the truth. He said to me: One time, I happened to come to a certain place, and Truth was its name. Its residents would not deviate from the truth in their statements, and no person from there would die prematurely. I married a woman from among them, and I had two sons from her’” [BT Sanhedrin 97a].

This sounds like a great place to live. I’m going to move there. You can trust everybody. But wait…

“One day, his wife was sitting and washing the hair on her head. Her neighbor came and knocked on the door. He thought: It is not proper conduct to tell the neighbor that his wife is bathing. He said to her: ‘She is not here.’ Since he deviated from the truth his two sons died. The people residing in that place came before him and said to him: ‘What is the meaning of this?’ He said to them: ‘This was the nature of the incident,’ and told them what happened. They said to him: ‘Please leave our place and do not provoke premature death upon these people.’”

So it’s not really great to live in a place called Truth. What’s more, the story itself does not ring true. It sounds like the mediocre Ricky Gervais comedy, “The Invention of Lying,” about a man who lies in a town where everyone tells the truth. Who knew that Gervais pirated the Talmud? The message is clear: Even those who are rigid about truth, might find themselves lying to protect what they perceive as a greater good. “Love truth and peace,” says Zechariah (8:19), because it’s near impossible to achieve them at the same time.

The chief rabbinic debate is whether you can tell a bride she’s ugly for the sake of truth. Now why would you want to do that? Just talk about the registry or the food at the shmorg. No sense hurting a bride’s feeling on her big day. Maybe what catalyzed this argument was an ancient crisis of honesty. We can relate. Today, the single biggest cost of our current political climate is that truth-telling has become a collector’s item.

What is fake news but packets of lies?

It’s time to learn to spot liars, even in the mirror. In a Bustle article on “scientific” ways to tell if people are lying, Erica Florentine states that a liar’s story is long, detailed and coherent. Liars sustain eye contact. She cites Psychology Today: “…liars maintain more deliberate eye contact than do truthful people.” A complete stare down might be a lie. Dr. Lillian Glass in “The Body Language of Liars,” claims a liar may breathe heavily while speaking or use negative outside forces as excuses: “I’m late again because there was so much traffic.” Truth-tellers are less likely to do so. “I should have paid attention to the traffic report. Sorry I’m late.”

You might detect a lie because liars tend to cover or touch certain body parts when lying: throat, head, abdomen or chest. A liar may sneeze or scratch his nose, claims Dr. Alan Hirsch of The Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. This is because certain tissues in the nose of someone who is lying get larger and release histamine, making the nose itch. There are lots of itching noses these days.

We no longer trust that people are telling us the truth. Lying has become the norm. It’s crisis time. Here’s the call for vigilance. In the words of Dan Ariely in “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves”: “The first dishonest act is the most important one to prevent.”

Erica Brown, whose column appears the first week of the month, directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her new book is “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet” (Koren/OU).

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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