This post examines a cluster of virtues that includes straightforwardness, frankness, sincerity, earnestness, candor, and parrhêsia. I hope it will help people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them. I am a technical writer by trade and have developed some strong opinions about the value of, and the techniques of, clear and accurate communication, and so I will also draw on that experience to inform this post.
What are these virtues?
“[L]et sincerity and ingenuousness be thy refuge, rather than craft and falsehood: for cunning borders very near upon knavery. Wisdom never uses nor wants it. Cunning to the wise, is as an ape to a man.” ―William Penn
These virtues have to do with communicating in a way that is clear, precise, efficient, and useful. They show respect for those you are communicating with by “giving it to them straight” and not forcing a lot of second-guessing and interpretation.
I briefly mentioned some of them in my post on the related virtue of honesty, but now I want to look at them more closely.
In short, what these virtues have in common is “saying what you mean, and meaning what you say” (but also not talking a lot of rot that’s not to the point). If honesty covers “the truth,” the rest of these virtues help to cover “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Other closely related virtues include trustworthiness, reliability, and authenticity.
In opposition to these virtues are things like beating around the bush, candy-coating, ambiguity, euphemism, flattery, winks-and-nods, insinuations, exaggerations, incantations, ostentation, deflection, pretension, evasion, false modesty, irony, sarcasm, manipulativeness, insincerity, flippancy (making light of serious matters), changing the subject, playing rhetorical motte and bailey, or being “all hat and no cattle.”
There is some tension between these virtues and the virtues of tact and discretion (see below).
These virtues span a spectrum of outspokenness. On the more reserved end, you may rarely speak, but when you do, you speak sincerely and straightforwardly to the point. Towards the middle, you may try to anticipate what people would want to know and, with frankness and candor express this, warts and all, whether they ask or not. At the unreserved extreme, you may feel compelled to reveal those things that people don’t want to know but need to be confronted with: this is the parrhêsia that made the Cynic philosophers notorious (and sometimes unwelcome).
I think maybe if we all exhibited parrhêsia we’d get sick of it pretty quick, but in small doses it’s valuable. It’s the person with a bit of parrhêsia who is the first to call out someone on their racist joke or sexist assumption, or to mention the elephant in the room, or to laugh at the emperor’s new clothes, or to confront someone about their drinking problem while everyone else keeps to the conspiracy of silence.
Being sincere isn’t always about what you communicate, but sometimes about what you won’t. If you feel the need to be mysterious, if you like to keep people guessing, if you present yourself as something of a code and judge your friends by their ability to crack it… well, you might want to consider how to be more straightforward instead.
But what about tact and discretion?
“[He] looked from me to the forms and back again, giving me the exact kind of smile of someone who, on Christmas morning, has just unwrapped an expensive present he already owns.” ―David Foster Wallace
Tact has to do with communicating in a way that will not hurt feelings, step on taboos, or in other ways be impolite or off-putting. Discretion can mean steering clear of topics that might raise hackles or open old wounds, or it can also mean keeping secrets and not being a blabbermouth about things that weren’t your business to begin with.
These things seem at first glance to be in conflict with candor. One possibility is that they are, and that maybe this shows that tact, discretion, frankness, and candor are not all virtues after all. Another possibility is that they are all virtues, but that we should not always expect virtues to fit together flawlessly in a mutually-compatible way: they are after all not commandments handed down from on high, but merely generalizations about human character traits shaped by generations of folk psychology. Another possibility is that they are compatible after all, but that it takes a little extra discernment and skill to make them work together nicely.
Let’s consider this last possibility:
There’s a fine line between giving someone an unpleasant answer accompanied with “a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down” and giving them the answer so candy-coated that the bitter truth can no longer be tasted at all. Sometimes not talking about something is a peaceful way to agree to disagree, or to mind one’s own business; other times it can be complicity with a foolish demand to ignore the elephant in the room.
This is to say that tact and discretion can certainly be deployed in the service of insincerity and cover-up; but that doesn’t prove that they are necessarily always deployed that way. If you can learn to be tactful in a sincere way, to be candid about your discretion, you will have found a way to improve both sets of virtues.
Consider the phone-call-ending phrase “I guess I should let you get back to work.” It usually means, more frankly, “I think we’re done now; let’s end this call.” The first phrase is often (and usually pretty obviously) insincere, if only a little grating; the second phrase somehow seems too blunt, maybe a little rude, implying that you’re eager to be rid of an unpleasant duty. I can’t help but think that a skillful person, well-practiced in both sincerity and tact, could come up with more graceful ways to bring such a call to an end.
Consider also this remarkable essay by philosopher Agnes Callard. She writes of some sort of trauma she endured long ago, and of some sort of neuroatypicality she experiences, but she steadfastly refuses to give names to either of those things. She wants to talk about them, but if she names them, she suspects we will use those names to apply a familiar template to her and her experiences, and then we will interpret what she says according to that template.
“And that means I can’t talk to you. No one can sincerely assert words whose meaning she knows will be garbled by the lexicon of her interlocutor.…
“[I]t chafes at me that you have decided that if I want to talk… with you, I have to follow your rules, and let you trample all over me.”
Callard here uses her discretion, even her blunt lack of candor, to be straightforward and sincere in a way that she feels would be otherwise unavailable to her.
But what about irony, sarcasm, and stuff like that?
“When people speak in a very elaborate and sophisticated way, they either want to tell a lie, or to admire themselves. You should not believe such people. Good speech is always clear, clever, and understood by all.” ―Leo Tolstoy
People use irony and sarcasm, understatement and hyperbole, parody and caricature, modest proposals and other such rhetorical devices to express themselves creatively in different registers. This can be entertaining, witty, and clever of course, but also sometimes insightful and poignant and biting in a way that would be difficult to match with more straightforward ways of speaking.
This raises the question of whether the virtues in this collection are ones that threaten to make us dull and to limit our expressive range.
If you are hesitant to give up these shades of your conversational palette, consider instead that there may be better and worse ways to use them. For example, if you speak ironically but in a way that is understood as such by those you are speaking with, that’s very different from speaking ironically in a way that some of your audience gets, and gets to feel superior about, at the expense of those whose heads you’re speaking over.
If you use hyperbole in a fun way, as another form of shared-irony, that may be innocent enough. But if you use it excessively or unthinkingly — if you seemingly can never be concerned by what you see in the news without being “deeply troubled” by it, for instance — consider recalibrating your verbiage.
I suspect that this is one of those cases where we will have to rely on the spirit of the law rather than any firm prohibitions. Use these rhetorical registers, but use them carefully, and question your motives for using them. If you resort to caricature to make a joke or simplify an example, maybe that’s all fun and games, but if you use it to reinforce a stereotype or to paint a grey area in black-and-white to hide its complexity, consider that you may have taken a step too far.
There is a lot of rotten use of this stuff going around these days. Someone says something insincere and offensive, and the next thing out of their mouths is something along the lines of “I was only putting it out there,” “That’s just what some people are saying,” “I only wanted to see how you’d react,” “Hah; you thought I was being literal,” “I sure triggered the outgroup with that!” Don’t be that guy.
But what about flirtation?
It were as
possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as
you: but believe me not; and yet I lie not; I
confess nothing, nor I deny nothing.
―Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing
Flirtation is a form of communication that is indirect and ambiguous and that stubbornly talks around the main topic without addressing it directly. You remain coy and veiled, hinting and feinting at your intentions and feelings rather than stating them outright. Rather than being sincere and straightforward, you create and amplify uncertainties. Irony abounds and the earnest are out of their depth: Playing hard-to-get is sometimes the only way to get got.
Flirtation has been likened to a game. As in a game, the players are sincere in trying to play well; but the game itself is a sort of make-believe. The moves in the game refer to the game, and not to the world outside. (The hockey player does not play the game in order to put the puck in the net, but puts the puck in the net because that is how you play the game.)
Telling someone who is flirting that they ought to be more straightforward and candid is like telling a courting peacock he’ll never get off the ground flapping his tail feathers like that, or like telling someone playing Monopoly that they should probably switch to real money if they want to have any hope of buying seaside property in New Jersey. It’s missing the point.
My guess is that flirting of this sort is ubiquitous, cross-cultural, and ancient. But I may be overgeneralizing from the culture I grew up with and what it has found meaningful from other cultures and times. If flirting is one of the essential things human language is for, and it operates by its own set of rules, perhaps it is best to sandbox it appropriately, like our other games, and play it as best we can. But if flirting is merely a sort of inessential insincerity we sometimes allow ourselves to indulge in during courtship, maybe we should see if we can disarm it with surprising candor and begin our romances on a more sincere note. That might work out better. To me, it’s an open question. I’ve experimented with both modes, and with many experiments under my belt by now, all I can say for certain is that you’d be a fool to take any romance and relationship advice from me.
But these days, with an increasing percentage of couples meeting through on-line dating sites, it seems that at least some flirting has become moot. There’s little point in being coy with the person you’ve met through looking-for-love-dot-com. The secret’s out.
I had finished writing this section before I remembered the whole pickup artist scene and its ruthless cultivation of insincerity in pursuit of the ol’ in-and-out. I don’t want to dwell on it, but one way of looking at it is that it just takes some of this logic of flirtation to extreme conclusions: if flirtation includes pretension, misdirection, flattery, and the like, why not just declare no-holds-barred and play to win on your terms?
But what about culture jamming?
For a long while I was a fan, scholar, and practitioner of “culture jamming,” and I admiringly cataloged historical pranks, hoaxes, frauds, impostures, counterfeits, tricksters, trolls, fakery, hacktivism, performance art, fauxvertising, forgeries, scams, modest proposals, and things of that sort at a 20th century web 1.0 site I called Sniggle.net: The Culture Jammer’s Encyclopedia.
Most of this site highlights deception, but it’s not because I have a thing for liars and cheats. I think there’s a brand of immunizing deception that helps us to expose and correct the lies we tell ourselves and the webs of falsehood that make up our societies. Harmless fibs can remind us that we’ve dropped our guard and let the Big Lies in.
In an interview I doubled down on the therapeutic explanation of culture jamming:
A whole lot of the evil of the last century was conducted by people who followed rather sheep-like the twisted consensus reality of their societies. What the trickster does is to find flaws in that consensus reality and to construct creative performances to exploit and uncover those flaws. If this happens enough, perhaps people will come to develop an instinctive distrust of consensus reality and will be more likely to see reality as it is.
I don’t think time has been kind to my theories. The increasing prominence of outrageous lies and fakery has not immunized people against their effects or caused people to become more vigilant, as I had naïvely hoped might be the case. Instead of the collapse of illegitimate authority causing people to think for themselves, people seem to have responded by saying “well, I guess there’s no way to know what nonsense to believe, so I’ll just believe whichever nonsense I like the best.”
I still think there is something useful in the art of culture jamming, and I still admire a well-delivered hoax in a good spirit. I wasn’t all wrong, I don’t think. But today, older and wiser (I hope), I choose to err on the side of sincerity instead.
But what about framing?
“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” ―George Orwell
Framing (or “spin”) is the attempt to fit revealed or asserted facts into a rhetorical framework in such a way that they will lead people to desired conclusions or away from undesirable ones. When this is called “spin” it usually implies purposeful dishonesty; when it is called “framing” its proponents sometimes claim it can be done in the service of clarity and honesty, or to defend against spin.
However, I more often see framing deployed as a way of trying to manipulate the audience into adopting a certain belief without putting that belief forward and defending it explicitly: in other words, as just spin with a new name. Here, for example, is George Lakoff, a scholar of framing, explaining a textbook example:
The phrase “Tax relief” began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush’s inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add “tax” to “relief” and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.
So he recommends this frame instead:
It is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country? It’s about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the golf course. But they didn’t pay for them in their membership. They were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It’s the same thing with our country — the country as country club, being a member of a remarkable nation.
This is just trading one unstated and poorly-defended set of background assumptions for another. To me, describing tax cuts as “relief” seems more accurate and honest than describing them as “reduced country club membership fees,” but they’re both examples of manipulative spin. A more straightforward and respectful way of discussing this issue would be simply to describe the proposed tax law changes, what effects they could reasonably be expected to have, and whether or not you think that would be a good thing.
This then brings up the larger debate — which I don’t want to wade into now — about whether one has to leave one’s virtues behind and fight dirty when one steps into the ring of political action.
But to sum up: If you are thinking of your argument in terms of what framing and spin to apply to it, you’ve probably left the field of candor, frankness, sincerity, and so forth, and it’s time to take a U-turn if you want those virtues back.
Manipulative framing and other forms of insincerity are so ubiquitous in political and culture-war discussions that I think it’s usually best to avoid them entirely so as not to be infected. Mute every pundit. Kill your television. Ignore politicians. “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”
Appendix: The trouble with passive voice sentences
Professionally I am a technical writing consultant in the software industry. A company will sometimes call me in to fix things when nobody can understand the documentation that was written by the engineers who created the software. If I have time, one of the things I will do for such a company is write up (or occasionally present a class on) “technical writing for software engineers in one easy lesson.”
That lesson is essentially this: hunt down and kill every passive voice sentence. If they can grok that, they’re 80% of the way to being able to write reasonable technical documentation themselves.
Quick grammar review: An active voice sentence has a subject, verb, and object: “Elon unwisely tweeted insider information.” (Imperative sentences are an exception: they do not have an explicit subject, but the subject is implicitly whomever the sentence is uttered to.) A passive voice sentence may leave out the subject entirely: “Insider information was unwisely tweeted.” A missing subject means missing information, which means ambiguity, which makes trouble for precise technical communication.
“The transmit box should be checked.” Who is responsible for checking it? Do I need to check it somehow? or ought I to make sure someone else has checked it? or is it not being checked a suspicious error condition I should be on guard for? There is no way for me to know based on that passive voice description.
Passive voice sentences are often accurate without being complete or precise. Their accuracy makes them seem non-problematic to those who write them, while their imprecision makes them non-helpful to those who read them. People often write in the passive voice out of laziness, or because it can sound a little more formal and academic and so has a false air of sophistication to it. But people sometimes also use it to hide their ignorance or to sweep things under the rug.
The so-called “past exonerative tense” usually takes advantage of the blame-dodging obscurity of the passive voice. It’s most notoriously put to use by police department press releases that test the limits of grammar to avoid straightforwardly describing officer misconduct. “Handcuffed Man Fatally Shot Inside Police Cruiser” reads the headline. “The man was shot multiple times by the officer’s service weapon, the police spokeswoman said.”
In summary: I recommend that you look very skeptically on any passive-voice sentence you intend to deploy that obscures the subject — not just in technical writing, but in any communication that you want to be clear and precise.
William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude In Reflections And Maxims (1682)
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011)
Agnes Callard, “I Don’t Want You to ‘Believe’ Me. I Want You to Listen.” New York Times (30 November 2020)
Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom (1910), February 15
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, act Ⅳ
Alex Shashkevich, “Meeting online has become the most popular way U.S. couples connect, Stanford sociologist finds” Stanford News (21 August 2019)
David Gross “About sniggle.net”
David Gross “Interview With a Sniggler” (ca. 2006)
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” Horizon (1946)
Bonnie Azab Powell, “Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics” UC Berkeley NewsCenter (27 October 2003)
H.D. Thoreau, “Life Without Principle” The Atlantic (October 1863)
Radley Balko, “The curious grammar of police shootings” Washington Post 14 July 2014
“Handcuffed Man William Green Fatally Shot Inside Prince George’s County Police Ofc. Michael Owen’s Cruiser” CBS Baltimore, 27 January 2020
I appreciate the advice to avoid the passive voice. I work at an organization where that is a relatively ruthlessly enforced rule, and that's a good thing. But I think there are exceptions, such as where the thing-being-acted-on is what we follow from sentence to sentence as it is acted on by multiple agents. Ideally English could have verbs that let me write the sentence in active voice anyway, but sometimes this makes things unreadable at the paragraph level. The Atlantic has a piece on this that gives several examples.
I don't think most writers are anywhere near ready to hear advice that subtle, but if you find yourself facing this problem, I suggest at minimum making sure the sentences all contain and clearly identify the agent even if that agent is not the grammatical subject.
Sometimes the passive voice is more graceful or effective. In those cases, you can avoid the trouble that passive voice usually causes if you explicitly add the grammatically-optional subject.
For instance: "Insider information was unwisely tweeted by Elon." By using the passive verb "was tweeted" you change the order, and therefore the relative emphasis, of "insider information" and "Elon" in a way that may be appropriate to what you're trying to communicate. But by explicitly adding "by Elon" you successfully resist the temptation to leave the subject unstated, and thereby save the day for clarity and precision.
I cover that in my advanced "technical writing in one easy lesson" class ;-)