by Yonason Goldson
Who doesn’t like a good story?
After spending my prodigal youth hitchhiking cross country and circling the globe, and after a decade living abroad and over 20 years of teaching and lecturing diverse audiences across the country, I have a few stories to tell.
But it still happens that friends and neighbors occasionally respond to my recollections by asking, “Did that really happen?”
Are my tales so truly unbelievable? I never claimed to have helped Edison invent the light bulb or to have masterminded the Normandy invasion.
I’ve merely looked for the story within the story, plucking insights from slightly quirky encounters and offering a bit of wisdom from my observations on the human condition.
“I loved your article,” someone will say. And then, predictably: “Did that really happen?”
I even get it from my mother.
To be honest, it should come as no surprise. After all, honesty has seen its market value tumble over the years with countless reports of plagiarism, factual carelessness, and blatant fabrication.
But as troubling as such prevarication may be from the media, it’s far more disheartening when it becomes the norm among our political leaders.
The sad truth is that we expect our politicians to lie. But the brazenness with which they conjure up easily verifiable falsehoods grows ever more astonishing.
Once integrity disappears, the only motive not to lie is fear of not getting away with it—and in a society that has grown indifferent to lying, there are rarely consequences for even the most brazen untruths.
That has consequences for all of us.
But there is something we can do. Here are ten ways we can prevent the erosion of our own integrity:
1. Don’t exaggerate.
-“I could have died.”
-“I’ve said it a million times.”
-“You never listen when I talk to you.”
These expressions may seem harmless, but every exaggeration makes us a little less sensitive to honesty and authenticity.
Disciplining ourselves to speak accurately reinforces respect for the truth, both in ourselves and in those who hear us.
2. Don’t embellish.
How many popular motion pictures “based on” or “inspired by” true stories are guilty of wild embellishments that distort fact into Hollywood fiction?
How often do we ourselves add details to make a good story “better?”
But consider what it says about us—and what it teaches our children—when the truth isn’t good enough.
3. Don’t look for loopholes.
When we use truth as a means of deception, it becomes an even more perverse form of falsehood. Consider the employee in Isaac Asimov’s short story, “Truth to Tell,” who swore that he did not steal either “the cash or the bonds” when in fact he had stolen the cash and the bonds.
Will we ever forget the presidential defense of perjury that rested on “what the definition of is is”?
The letter of the law becomes irrelevant when we no longer respect the spirit of the law.
4. Know your facts.
If you don’t know or can’t remember the details of a story, don’t make them up.
Again, it might seem irrelevant; it might even be irrelevant. But commitment to Truth is never irrelevant.
If a story isn’t worth telling without details you don’t have, don’t bother telling it at all. Presenting uncertainty as fact only adds fuel to the spreading wildfire of moral confusion.
And remember what Mark Twain said: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
5. Be a skeptic.
Have you heard some interesting news? What’s the source? A forwarded email? Conservative talk radio? MSNBC? Fox news? NPR? Most outlets have some bias or agenda. Some are outright fraudulent.
Before repeating a story, do your homework and make sure it’s credible. Over time, it’s possible to determine which news services and reporters can be trusted. Always keep in mind that there are two sides to every story.
6. Admit ignorance.
It’s okay not to know something. However, to claim knowledge when you know you don’t know is irresponsible—and usually comes back to bite you.
There’s no shame in admitting a lack of knowledge, especially when followed up with a sincere promise to do some research and fill in the gaps.
Remember what Aristophan
es purportedly said: “Ignorance can be educated, but stupid lasts forever.”
And remember what else Mark Twain said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
7. Admit guilt.
We all make mistakes. Acknowledging error promptly and attempting to correct damage swiftly are two of the surest signs of integrity.
How many personal and political crises blossomed out of momentary lapses that grew into scandalous cover-ups?
When we admit guilt, we model character and responsibility to those around us. We also help our own cause. By acknowledging guilt when we are guilty, we earn others’ trust when we declare our innocence.
8. Avoid liars.
Behavior is contagious. The more we associate with people who don’t care about the truth, the more likely we are to stop caring about it ourselves.
9. Avoid political correctness.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be civil. Good manners are always in order, and many people still find profanity offensive.
But resorting to ludicrous euphemisms because someone somewhere might take offense is just another way of obfuscating truth. We should treat the janitor with respect because he provides an essential service, not because he’s a “sanitation engineer.” There’s no insult in calling things what they are.
10. Look for the good.
Honesty doesn’t require us to say everything we know or anything we think. Sometimes, honesty is the wrong policy, as in the case of malicious gossip or hurtful, personal remarks. However, with a little creativity we can avoid conflicts between truth and etiquette.
If we exercise more caution with our own words, we might be less suspicious of those stories about little miracles and inspirational irony that make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell.
And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, think how much good that will do for us and the people who share our lives.
As King David writes in Psalms, “Would you be one who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking falsehood.”
Excerpted from “Grappling with the Gray: An Ethical Handbook for Personal Success and Business Prosperity,” published by Business Expert Press. Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to limit liability while earning loyalty and trust. He’s also co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink: Everyday Ethics Unscripted.”
Visit him at ethicalimperatives.com.