Speaking the Truth

I have been experimenting recently with speaking only the truth. Not as a rigid rule, but simply taking it as an opportunity when it comes to mind. After practicing this for only a few days, I was blown away by the positive results that I observed. In this post, I will clarify what I mean by “speaking only the truth” and give a few examples of how rephrasing in the truth can really awaken a sentence.

Depending on your background, you may be apprehensive about the idea. You may be thinking that doing anything but speaking the truth is lying and that it is immoral! Or, conversely, you may think it very limiting to take away the powerful rhetorical tool of hyperbole. If you are thinking the former: I suspect that you probably do not speak in absolute truth as much as you think. If the latter: I suggest that by consciously limiting your hyperbole, you may notice your words having a new, powerful resonance with yourself and others.

Here are some untruths that I observe frequently:

  • “You” instead of “I”: For example, “when you exercise in the morning, you have more energy during the day”. It is very unlikely that the speaker knows this about the person they are speaking to (this is just a manner of speaking, it is clear that the speaker intended to make a generalization). A truer way to say this is “when I exercise in the morning, I have more energy during the day”. I hear the latter as less pushy than the former, as it allows the listener to reach his or her own conclusions, and it might also turn on a light in the speaker’s head to the order of “wait — that’s interesting — why am I not exercising in the morning?”, whereas that connection might not be as clear if he used the former.
  • Emotional accusations: For example, “she didn’t write me back because she is mad at me”. At this point, I have taken as an axiom that I can’t know others’ emotions, so “she is mad at me” raises a red flag for assigning an emotion to someone else. Perhaps the speaker meant “she didn’t write me back, which makes me think she is mad at me”. Suddenly the weak premise is exposed, and the statement bears less weight. I have had similar experiences where restating my sentiment in this way reveals that I am just being insecure. It reveals the world of feelings and perceptions, and prevents confusing them with reality.
  • Confusing behaviors and facts: For example, “whenever I see a cigarette, I need to smoke”. This has a similar connotation to “I am and will always be a person who must smoke whenever I see a cigarette”. A more truthful and less crippling version of this is “in the past, when I have seen a cigarette, I got an urge to smoke”. The speaker is empowered, perhaps realizing that this is not an intrinsic fact about himself but a mere statement about some things that have happened. The statement can still be true even if the pattern changes in the future. I first learned this as only applied to “negative” statements, but I have started to apply it unconditionally. I do this because I don’t want to judge whether something is “good” or “bad” before I talk about it. Which brings me to…
  • Judgments: For example, “you are so selfish!” If this was in response to some action, this could be more truthfully stated “that was very selfish of you!” But that is still a judgment of the action. How about “I don’t feel like you had my interests in mind when you did that.” Yeah, I know, you wanted to stick it to an asshole for being an asshole and saying something like the latter makes you sound like a pansy. But that is kind of the point: the latter phrasing diffuses the attack. How likely is a yelling, screaming, violent argument after you have said something like that? In similar circumstances for me, it results in a discussion where we listen to and understand each other. I don’t feel hurt, and I don’t feel like I have inflicted pain (which also hurts).

I have heard that there is a Hindu proverb like:

He who never strays from the truth, what he says, must come true.

If anyone knows the exact form, I would love to see it. The amazing thing about that statement to me is that it is not a myth, but that it is in fact a tautology: it is true. See how? But I love the power that it implies, and indeed I have noticed my word becoming more powerful the more I commit to it.

Try it. I suggest simply observing when you say something that is not really true, perhaps for “effect”, perhaps out of conversational habit. See if you can rephrase it in a way that is really true. You might be surprised by the difference.


12 thoughts on “Speaking the Truth

  1. I am not native speaker but I always imagined that ‘you’ from the first example is structure which does not mean anyone specific but rather is used as general pronouns like French ‘on’ and is different the the other 3.

    To smaller extend the ‘confusing behaviors and facts’ is “lesser offence” then others 2 – and surprisingly raises question about being scientific accurate in everyday speach (bringing whole debate of Popper vs. Positivists into everyday life ;) ). Both cases may result in Spock Speak.

  2. There’s such things as different kinds of knowledge, with different standards for justification. For example, I can uncontroversially say that I know where I live without having a priori proof of it.

    Also, the prohibition against judgments is pretty weird, not least because your blog post itself is basically value-laden. You’ll have a pretty hard time doing without statements of value.

    Language has lots of other, arguably legitimate, uses besides the communication of knowledge. Are we allowed to make requests? Express gratitude? Make laws? Tell jokes?

  3. @Xhevahir: Luke, correct me if I am speaking out of turn, but as I see it, the point is not so much about making no judgments at all, as it is about not stating how you feel something is, or why something was done, as if how you feel must be true.

    Also, while, certainly, language has other legitimate uses besides imparting knowledge, I believe the point Luke is suggesting here is more about clarity, or as we say (more in the past than is current), “say what you mean and mean what you say.” Saying how you feel is still making a judgment, but stating that it is how you feel, not how it is, reminds yourself, and informs others, that it is something that influenced how you felt (an affective effect, how’s that for a subtle phrase?) and meant to be understood as such, as opposed to an accusation of ill will.

  4. This kind of reasoning gives all the advantage to people who already live in safe, comfortable environments and who have plenty of free time to think about how best to express themselves.

    A: “You take all the food and leave none for us because you hate us.”

    B1: “You can’t make accurate judgments about my emotional state based the amount of food I allow you to eat.”

    B2: “Here is some food. I don’t hate you.”

  5. Epimetheus: Consider the person who is speaking the Bn. I would say that B2 is the more truthful of the options. The gushy emotional language that you show in this conversation I am only using to describe the technique (it did come out a bit in point #4). I would get irritated with someone who spoke in B1’s style all the time.

    Walt: Thank you for clarifying. As I reread my article, I realized that some of my points were less clear than I thought when I wrote it. To add to the clarification, I also don’t mean to imply that such truthfulness should be applied as a universal doctrine. Consider it more like a tool with which to experiment. I don’t think there are enough tools in my toolbox to apply this unconditionally — there are legitimate things that would just be too hard to say. But, as with functional programming, maybe this is something my brain must be taught.

    Maciej: yes, I was trying to clarify that with the parenthetical, but upon rereading it did not clarify so much. In any case, replacing “you” with “one” to make the generalization explicit does not help the truthfulness of the sentence.

    Dan: Yes, E-Prime inspired this to some extent. I also sometimes apply E-Prime as a tool for increasing clarity.

  6. This is interesting as I had (and still sometimes have) similar problems with “ordinary” language, and colloquial uses of certrain phrases and terms. I would really love for people to at least say what they want to say and not confuse words because they think everyone should know that saying this means that. But there is one problem: Most people I have met in my life really do not see the problem or when they begin to dismiss the notion of trying not to abuse language needlessly in the interest of more efficient, precise, and most of all pleasant conversation between human beings as one which is best left in the ivory tower where no doubt it must have come from in the first place. And there is some deeper truth to that, too, although people who pride themselves on their intellect and strive for rationality feel uneasy about that, and then start to rationalise their feelings. Now, that goes against being honest to oneself and ultimately to others. Furthermore there are reasons for using one expression over the other although one might have the (dubious) virtue of being “more literally true”: People have feelings and rhetorical devices (of which hyperbole is just one example and a very uninteresting one at that) cater to them; any fruitful argument involves both hemispheres of the brain. There is nothing to gain by prohibiting oneself from using certain expressions when in fact they may be exactly the ones the situation (i.e. audience) calls for.

    I agree however that one should be very careful to avoid accusations based on the unjustified hypothesis that the accuser exactly knows the motives of the accused. But not on the grounds that this is a violation against some artificial law which forbids speaking anything that is not the absolute truth. There can be nothing such as an absolute truth. Truth is something that is about things and facts and thus cannot be removed from them unless the term truth is to lose all of its meaning.

    Just some random things that came into my mind while reading your post. Not to be taken too seriously (because after all: what is there that humans can grasp that could or even should be taken entirely seriously?).

  7. Interesting post, and good points.

    In fact I once tried to implement a similar policy on myself. However, I probably got it wrong and over-interpreted “telling the truth” as “taking everything literally”. So my friends were confused, after they casually asked me “how was the weekend”, I took several seconds trying to recall the weekend and enumerated what I did.

    I still believe that it is a nice policy, though. It helps me to think clearly, and discover what I really mean and fell.

  8. I agree with Maciej that your third item (“confusing facts and behaviors”) appears out of place in this list. Speaking precisely is one thing, but avoiding casual statements about correlations in human behavior seems… difficult at best. For instance, is “when I exercise in the morning, I have more energy during the day” really any different from “whenever I see a cigarette, I need to smoke”?

    Your other examples are legitimately ambiguous or misleading when taken literally. I can’t find anything similar in the cigarette example, except perhaps a connotation that the future will resemble the past – surely you’re not trying to kick the habit of inductive reasoning!

    That said, I like the rest of the post. The goal of bringing one’s speech closer to one’s actual beliefs reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

    We believe that promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs is an act of sabotage. Don’t do it to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires.

    Black Belt Bayesian

  9. Good stuff Luke!

    It reminds me of how I practice right speech. It is to the point where it is edgy and exciting to *not* tell the truth and just enjoy small talk for the social lubricant it is.

    Another speech pattern I am working on is declarative statements. I find that I like to state plans for the future as if they are truth, e.g. “I am going to work on just telling the truth for the next week!” In practice, I find that frequently the reality works out differently, and then I am upset about speaking untruthfully and feel ashamed that I made a goal, announced it, and then did not follow through. As an alternative, I either say “I am experimenting with just telling the truth” to bring it into the present, where it is true, and also not setup the disappointment and pressure down the road. Sometimes I simply say nothing of the sort, realizing that the need to make such declarative statements can be rooted in my own insecurity and a need to impose an impression of myself on other people.

  10. this reminds me a little of Sokratian dialogues. Sokrates never implied knowing anything but just asked intelligent questions and gave the other person a chance to speak and reflect on it’s own believes.

  11. The “you” versus “I” reminds me a lot of how sports fans, and I’ve been guilty of this, will often refer to the team they support as “we”, as in, “How did we do?” “Oh, we won today.” I’ve made a conscious effort to say, “How did the Twins do?” “Oh, the Twins won today.” Much better, as I do not play for the Twins.

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