10 Ways to Stay Honest in a Dishonest World

Who doesn’t like a good story?

After spending my prodigal youth hitchhiking cross country and circling the globe, living abroad for a decade, and teaching high school for over 20 years, 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.

The new normal?

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 lies.

And that has consequences for all of us.

But there is something we can do.

Here are 10 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 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. Like 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. And 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 a 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. And 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 publications and which reporters can be trusted.

And always keep in mind that there are two sides to almost every story.

6. Admit ignorance

It’s okay not to know something. But 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 Aristophanes said:

“The ignorant can be educated, but stupid is 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 is one 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 teach character and responsibility. 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 the truth. We 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 definitely 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 bit more caution with our own words, we might be less suspicious about those stories of 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 ourselves and the people who share our lives.

Adapted from an article originally published in Finerminds.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Dear Yonason I loved everything about this principled masterpice I can only applaud! I am concurring with all the passion and fire in my heart wishing to witness more and more folks come back to the original Center!👏💙👏

    The keys which resonated the most with me were: the accountability, the critical thinking and putting a question mark on anything (that’s what helps us spot the manipulators even the most brilliant of them who could ironically be recognized at “helpers”), the humility of being a lifelong learner, and the internal security giving us the power to admit our mistakes quickly and sincerely!

    These are to me some of the incredible virtues of a principle-centered servant leader! 🤩🤩🤩

    This being said and since I’m very inspired by Steohen Covey, I like to seperate between honesty and integrity.
    While honesty is conforming our words to reality, integrity is confirming reality to our words.

    For instance, if I’m saying that I hate gosspip and that a friend of mine starts gossiping about a common friend, that I just validate their saying (thinking it’s okay as I’m not the initiator), then I’m anything but anything but a person of integrity!

    • Thanks so much for your enthusiastic reply, Myriam. I’m delighted that my article resonated with you on such a deep level.

      Stephen L. Carter, in his book Integrity, observes that the root of the word is integer, which means whole and of measurable value. We can’t have integrity part time.

      Thank you again for your warm comments. Best regards!