To be honest…

Is being too honest a possibility? I have heard quite often that the Dutch are too direct, or too honest. Especially now that I no longer live in the land of the overly honest, I have noticed that there are some differences, and that they are sometimes more than just subtle. When I just started working here, a professor from another department told me upon our first introduction that he had read my website and blog (uh oh!). He said he found it refreshing to read and that it exposed a level of honesty that was not often seen in Germany. I’m still not sure if he meant it as a compliment, or a warning. Maybe I am overthinking it. My boss said something along the likes of “Yes, he’s Dutch, after all” which confirmed the stereotype…

I have had the pleasure of working with colleagues and friends from all continents across the globe, and one of my main observations is that there are different levels of honesty. Often these levels are deeply ingrained in people’s culture, and I find them quite fascinating. For instance, in some cultures it is simply rude to say no, and often even more so to your superiors (superiors, what a word, ugh!). I have seen people nod in agreement and say yes to tasks or instructions that I knew they were never going to complete. Back then, I often thought to myself, why don’t they just say no? Why can’t they just be honest. It took me a long time to realize that these people were not dishonest, but they were culturally polite. In other instances, I have seen people refuse to criticize supervisors, when asked for honest feedback. I get it, but I would never let such an opportunity pass! Given that these – let’s call them levels of honesty – differ a lot between cultures, it is also often very tough to estimate how to interpret them. Therefore, I’m generally just dead honest. I try not to be a dick about it, but admittedly I think I have grown a little in how to present my honesty. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of sugar coating here and there. Although I clearly see this now, it hasn’t always been that way.

Years ago, when I was living in a student flat, there was this other flatmate and they kept on nagging everyone about their favorite sport and their fantastic club. It seemed that every day’s subject was how everyone should sign up for the latest recruitment round, because it was an awesome sport and everyone should do it. I’m not gonna lie. I’m no sports guy, and I never have been. I also don’t like people constantly getting on my nerves about something, or repeatedly asking me why I don’t join something that is oh so evidently amazing, when I clearly had indicated no interest. A simple no apparently did not suffice. So I was a bit more honest with the person and told them enough is enough. I told them I didn’t like this stupid sport, especially if it meant sitting on a sweaty smelly gym apparatus, doing repetitive movements most of the time. I overdid it a bit by adding that I didn’t understand why anyone would do such a stupid sport and that it seemed like a huge waste of my time. The nagging ended, so did any further conversations. There was nothing that my sincerest apologies could fix about this, and this person eventually moved out, partly because of this event. (They made this abundantly clear) Several other flat mates have moved out over the years in part because they couldn’t deal with my level of honesty. There were never fights, but I just didn’t hold back in discussions, and I guess I can be overwhelming in that sense. With those that could handle it, I often established deep and lasting friendships, or, as is true in one special case, a love relationship, marriage and parenthood. Of course the good outweighs the bad here, but over the years I have realized that there is really no positive in being a horrible cunt. I have never meant to hurt anyone, and doing so often haunts me for a long time. (“But why??”) These days, I try to be better and I am more modest in the way I present my thoughts. Less sarcasm. Less cynicism. Less ‘what the fuck where you thinking’. Those three – I think – are good pointers to navigate anyone through this process. (I do recommend practising being friendlier, it is a style that can be trained)

There are still times when I struggle with balancing my honesty. I think many of the people that I work with appreciate me for it. Although these days I try to keep quiet if no one asks my opinion, when people do ask, I will be honest and tell them my every thought, good or bad. I indicate to people that my opinion is simply that – my opinion, and that everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. Some family members do not like it so much. My opinions may not align with theirs, and that may be difficult to accept. In some cases it is better to limit my honesty to my absolute lowest bound – close to no opinion. As long as it is not completely dishonest. (But man! That’s difficult)

So, is there something as being too honest in my book? Probably so! My 20 year-old self would be a good example. There’s a level where honesty reaches the Absolute Prick level. Don’t ever aim for that. People leaving you, constant arguments with colleagues and family are good indicators. You can be honest and not share everything*. And for those cases where you do cross lines, learn how to apologize sincerely. Try not to be a prick, and if you accidentally were a prick without meaning to, say sorry, and mean it. That’s been my honesty approach for at least the past eight years or so, and it seems to work alright for me.

I’m probably still more honest than most – but I’m still Dutch after all!


*Just don’t lie – lying is one of the most appalling habits one can develop.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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