The Ugly Truth

You’re walking down the hallway of a corporate office building.  The elevator door opens in front of you, and out of the elevator steps your next-door neighbor – a nice young lady with whom you’re very friendly.

“What are you doing here?” you ask.

She replies, “I’m so excited; I have a great job opportunity.  I’m interviewing with a corporate law firm in this office right here, right now.  How do I look?”

You look her over and think: “O-M-G. No one should walk into the bathroom looking like that!  Did she look in the mirror before she left the house?”

How do you respond to her question?

Grapple with the gray

  • List two or three reasons why you should tell your neighbor she looks great.
  • List two or three reasons why you should tell your neighbor the truth.
  • Is there another option?
  • Having weighed the options, what would you do?

Gray matters

Consider the effect of telling the truth; what would you accomplish with brutal honesty?  If you had caught your neighbor going out her front door, you could have suggested a change of attire while she could actually do something about it.  But now it’s too late. Telling her the truth will merely make her self-conscious.

On the other hand, telling her she looks great is dishonest.  What’s more, it denies her the opportunity to learn the importance of self-presentation.  When she doesn’t get the job, and later contemplates how she might have made a better impression, she’s likely to think, “My neighbor told me I looked great; I guess my choice of outfit wasn’t the problem.”

In awkward situations, many of us naturally turn to deflection:  “Oh my gosh, look at the time… gotta run.  Good luck!” or “How about those Red Sox?”

The problem with deflection is that it’s usually recognized as deflection.  It may not be overtly cruel, but most likely it will be interpreted as uncomplimentary and have a deflating effect.

The best option is clever evasion: “You are definitely going to make an impression!” or “Just make sure you show them who you are on the inside!”  These responses sound supportive without being untruthful or reinforcing her error.  Sometime later, you might offer some advice. Or, she may reflect on her own that you didn’t actually compliment her choice of outfit, then reconsider how to dress for future interviews.

The first steps toward an ethical response involve evaluating honesty, benefit, and timing, as well as thinking outside of the binary mindset – “do I tell the truth or lie?”  There is almost always another option.

What yes-or-no dilemmas have you faced that might have been resolved with creative thinking?

Excerpted from Yonason Goldson’s forthcoming book, Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity, due out this week from Business Expert Press. Grappling with the Gray offers a collection of case studies, real and hypothetical, intended to ignite thoughtful consideration of ethical dilemmas in our personal and professional lives.  It provides a guided discussion of how to work inward from both extremes toward a rational and equitable middle.  Click here for more information.


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. Such a great topic, Yonason! I think there’s a way to be honest in the situation without hurtful. It would take being very clear about your intention. Saying something like, “I’m really excited for you and I want you to win. I’ve had a chance to get an inside look at this company and I’d love to support you to make the best first impression you can, do you want some suggestions?” And then, assuming she said yes, I’d offer some constructive suggestions that she could implement right away. For example, I had a gal I hired to work with me one day to support me on a corporate program I was teaching. I had asked her to dress in black and wear conservative clothing. She wore a black top that was far too low cut to be appropriate for a corporate audience. So instead of making her feel bad I said, “This is a pretty conservative crowd (making it about them, not about her), so it’s important to make sure we play it ultra-safe in the way we dress. I really want you to be set up for success and I’m a little worried that your top might be a little low cut for this group. I think if we can find some safety pins to bring your neckline up just a smidge we’d be in great shape.” It turns out she had the same concern but it was the only black top she owned. She ended up being grateful I helped her out. If we are clear about our intentions it gives us great leeway for truth-telling. We can be kind and honest at the same time. Most often when we’re not, it’s more about our own discomfort than it is about the other person. If we ask ourselves, what is the impact we want our comment to have? That is where our answer lies.

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