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Is Being Frank Always Advisable?

Adele Blanchard

On an almost daily basis, I hear of instances of persons making critiques of other individuals in the name of being frank and open. Sometimes it is a spouse who thinks an obstacle in the marriage can be overcome by pointing out the other spouse’s faults. Often it is a child announcing to parents their shortcomings. At other times it is an exchange of harsh (albeit true) words between employer and employee.

A couple having an argument

Frankness can often lead to harsh feelings and resentments
This need to be completely frank, although quite commonplace today, was rare in past generations. When my mother was a young woman, for instance, a sense of propriety prevented her from telling others their faults. If someone’s actions offended her, she would first consider whether there was something she herself had done that had prompted that action. She had been taught to analyze her own deficiencies, in order to more readily understand and forgive the faults of others.

Out of respect for the other person, she would refrain from confronting him with a list of grievances. Again, she was following a basic rule of civility, to show consideration for others and to treat others as she would like to be treated. I am afraid that today we have replaced that sense of respect for others with a spirit of frankness.

We are told that we will feel better once we say everything that is bothering us. To be open and frank would serve the cause of honesty. Self-help books are famous for giving this type of advice. We are taught we cannot get past our anger until we explain to those to whom the anger is directed their faults. Therapists advise their patients to bare their souls. In an effort to improve our mental health, we gladly point out, often in harsh terms, another’s shortcomings.

Even if this kind of frankness were good for the one baring his soul, which sometimes it is not, what these advisors don’t consider are the disadvantages an unexpected accusation can produce in the spirit of the one who receives the complaint. In fact, the solution of “being frank” is not so simple. Actually, it is very difficult to evaluate the correct psychological moment to tell “the truth as I see it” to another person and have him accept it.

Frequently his perspective and concerns will be quite different from yours, and he will resent your conclusions. Or you may provoke him to take a position of defense, or even counter-attack, closing his soul to the supposed good that would come from your revelation of the “truth” regarding him.

A cartoon showing hurtful and excessive frankness

According to modern psychology, everyone should say whatever he is thinking about others to "feel good"
What is the end result of this type of exchange? On analysis, it seems to me that the consequence is quite different from what was intended. Instead of getting rid of the angry feelings, deeper resentments can develop because the accusations form part of the permanent memory.

This desire to “tell all” appears to me to be somewhat egotistical, exclusively turned toward the good of one party, who wants to “release” his anger or frustrations over a particular situation. Perhaps it can be related to a type of narcissism, for this kind of frankness is usually motivated more by the longing of one party to feel better or justify his position, rather than by a desire to be charitable.

If we want to know how to correct our neighbor, we can learn from examples of the sovereign tact used by the Catholic Church to advise souls to change their thinking and behavior. Take, for example, the counsels that used to be given on a regular basis in the confessional. When one of the faithful is kneeling at the feet of the priest asking forgiveness for his sins, he truly opens his soul. It is impossible to imagine a more propitious psychological moment for that soul to receive a correction. However, instead of being rude or what is considered today as “frank” with him, the priest used to treat such the penitent with a supreme respect, even when he was objectively correcting him.

Before addressing the specific confessed sins in order to rectify them, the priest would often invoke the highest motives to help the soul to accept the correction:
“My daughter, remember that we are now in May, the month of the Most Pure Virgin, you should take her as your model and your patron….” or

“My son, Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and shed His priceless Blood to purchase the pardon of our sins. He did this personally for you, because He wants you to be with Him for all eternity. So, take this in consideration and make the firm purpose not to sin again.”
No embarrassing small talk, no offenses, no hard feelings, nothing personal, but, rather, elevated principles. The whole exchange was guided by discipline, self-control, and restraint, rather than by spontaneity and frankness.

A refined ambiance in a parlour

Restraint and politesse make life easier for all
This supreme delicacy of the Church in dealing with our defects produced Catholic Civilization, where each one strove to treat his neighbor with respect. How far removed from the Catholic mutual consideration of times past is the modern “baring of the soul” and telling the defects of the other in the name of being honest and frank.

There is often another deplorable consequence. When someone “tells the truth” to another, he can think that this gives him the liberty to also communicate it to other people. And so he starts to gossip about the defects of his neighbor. But since each one of us has the right to a good name, this constitutes what the moral law of the Church call defamation, which literally means an action against the good fame (reputation) of another. The fact that what is being spread is true does not justify its being spoken, it is still defamation. If it were a lie being spread, it would be worse: it would be calumny or slander. Harsh words to describe the day-to-day gossip that unfortunately we have become accustomed to hear.

I am reminded of the saint who made an analogy between gossip and feathers that had escaped through a tear in a pillow. It is impossible to collect all those feathers and put them once again inside the pillow. The same can be said for words spoken in a spirit of this false frankness.

It would do us well to reread the Epistle of St. James. His advice to guard the tongue is widely ignored today. The prime time sitcoms serve as evidence that the quick and witty retort has become the norm in friendly conversation. Are these persons truly better off after saying everything that comes to mind? Or do you get the feeling at the end of the segment that everyone is more wounded than before? Have we really benefited by replacing charity and restraint with this spontaneous and impulsive frankness? How I long for a return to the days of courtesy and civility.


Posted June 4 2004, 2004

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