We’re all afraid, afraid of asking for what we want because we are afraid of hearing no. But, according to New York Times bestselling author Luvvie Ajayi Jones, with practice, we can all learn how to embrace honesty, speak truth to power and live more boldly.
We are afraid of the truth. Point-blank, full stop. We don’t like hearing it, sharing it, or seeing it. The truth can be the boogeyman. What’s wild is that the truth is essential in a well-functioning society, so how are we doing when it isn’t welcome, let alone prioritised? We’re doing terribly.
We fear honesty because it exposes the rawness of life and our flaws, which we are too willing to ignore. It calls us out and once you know it, you can’t unsee the ugliness of what was exposed. You might even have to do something about it. The truth challenges us to change and be better, and those are all tall orders.
We are also afraid of rocking the boat, which often comes with speaking the truth. We don’t want to disrupt harmony in our spaces, and that tends to happen when we challenge what feels comfortable or expected. This is why I believe that one of the biggest forms of courage is being radically honest and transparent.
Growing up, I wasn’t the kid who was getting in trouble for climbing trees or touching fire. I was a very self-assured child, so when I got in trouble, it was because of my mouth. I was always defending myself or somebody else. “That’s not fair” was one of my favourite phrases as a mini-human. In fact, I’d often get in trouble for saying something that was so direct that it would come across as rude, then I’d get in further trouble when I’d try to justify what I said. And when I was punished, I didn’t understand why I was in trouble for telling the truth.
My very Nigerian mum probably wanted to wring my neck a few times. I’m actually sure she did. And when she did punish me, I’d tell her that I felt offended and that she owed me an apology. I would write her letters expressing my disappointment in her disappointment and how I felt like I got the short end of the stick. Bruh, I really tried it. Petite and bold.
Even though I’d take whatever punishment came my way, I’ve known for a long time that truths make people deeply uncomfortable. What did I do, as the professional troublemaker that I am? Made a career out of it.
Collectively, we aren’t used to truthfulness. It’s not because we are bad people, but we shirk honesty so often, even in small instances, that when the big moments come, we don’t have the language or capacity for them. If we lie in casual conversations, what happens when we’re confronted with important things that really matter or make an impact? We don’t have the practice.
I’ll give you an example of a small moment. Your friend walks up to you and says, “So I got this new haircut from a new stylist. Do you like it?” You look at your friend and somehow their fringe is cut crooked and this stylist has sabotaged their hair. It’s not really curling all the way over.
Your instinct is to instantly say, “Yes, of course, I love it.” Because right then, you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings or rock the friendship boat. I understand. But then your friend takes a selfie and drops it on Instagram. Now they have a different angle of this haircut and they’re like, “Aw hell. That was not what I wanted. This looks really janky!” They come back to you and say, “I just posted my picture on Instagram. Why didn’t you tell me my fringe was busted? I asked you if you liked my haircut, and you said you did.”
Your friend knows you lied to them. You didn’t love their haircut. I know you wanted to make sure you didn’t hurt their feelings, but now your friend has a reason to doubt your word. The next time they ask for your opinion, they might be wondering if you’re telling them the truth or giving them an answer that appeases, without candour.
In a world that is overflowing with things to side-eye and question, let us not be the type of people who others feel the constant need to distrust. Instead, I want us to be the friends or village members who others count on not only to please them, but to see them at their best. In that way, honesty is a love language. Affirm me with facts. I cannot say I am my sister’s or brother’s keeper if I’m expected to lie to you constantly. How can I care for you when I can’t be open and honest with you?
So how would I deal with that small moment of the haircut gone wrong? Well, two ways. If it’s completely messed up AND your dye job is weak, I might have to tell you since you asked me. If it’s simply not MY taste, I might reply with something like “What matters is that you like it. If you like it, I’m good with it.” Smooth. You can’t accuse me of lying. Of course, I also believe in “Friends don’t let friends be raggedy without telling them.”
I won’t lie to you and say, “Follow your heart, speak the truth, and nothing bad happens.” NAH! Shit can get real and there can be consequences. There is certainly risk to speaking up. However, I would rather risk that than risk regretting my inaction or my silence.
Being a truthteller is no walk in the park. It is exhausting always feeling like you have to be the adult in the room. It is tiring to be the challenger with no backup. But I also think rooms are elevated when we’re in them. If people know you are in the room, then they might be less inclined to bring rubbish in with them because they know you’ll throw it out. It means they know they better come as correct as they can so they don’t hear your mouth.
Similarly, if you’re in the room with the person who’s going to ask the questions that matter, the person who’s going to say, “Is this idea as fully thought out and as thoughtful as it could be?” you will not present half-baked ideas. If we all exist in a world where we know that everybody’s expecting the best of us, that is what we’re going to bring into the room.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones is 36 and lives in Chicago. Her newest book, The Fear-Fighter Manual: Lessons from a Professional Troublemaker, £14.99, Quercus, is available to buy online.
Main image: Getty/Photo credit Kesha Lambert