Can you handle the truth?

During a stimulating walk and lunch with Dave Winer today, our conversation digressed to obituaries. There’s a striking distinction between British obituaries – irreverent, witty, enjoyable – and US obituaries – sententious, eulogistic and boring. Dave nailed the reason: “This country isn’t good at handling truth.”

I think he’s right. Obituaries are just one of the manifestations.

Go on a school tour led by a volunteer parent. Everything is wonderful; the sun always shines. In Britain, at the opposite extreme, there would be constant grumbling and sniping. But there’s a happy medium of helpful truth. After all, everyone knows that there’s no place that is absolutely perfect. Wouldn’t some honesty about that help people make decisions?

In universities the phenomenon of grade inflation seems a manifestation of the same blindness. The truth is that individual performance varies. But in a world where everyone gets an A or an A- that’s another truth considered too difficult to handle. The same applies in the world of job references (reinforced by the worries about litigation). Everyone is wonderful; you have to read between the lines to figure out whether someone was truly wonderful or a no-hoper.

On an issue of greater importance, consider the craven US mainstream press. Now that the worm has turned, the papers are full of the incompetence of the Bush administration and the unfolding disaster in Iraq. When it was unfashionable to criticize the president? The press was largely silent. Truth wasn’t part of the equation.

4 thoughts on “Can you handle the truth?

  1. marek

    Overheard at a meeting of British managers today: the only time the British give positive about somebody is at their funeral. There are different kinds of truth which are difficult to handle in different places and cultures.

  2. Hal O'Brien

    I’ve noticed much the same thing, and it seeps into all kinds of unexpected places. Much of the problem with Sarbanes-Oxley, it seems, is the requirement to actually tell shareholders the truth. Corporate blogging is frowned upon because it means telling both shareholders and customers the truth.

    At first I was willing to chalk this up to the seeping of untruthfulness from the top — we have the least honest president since Warren Harding, and what can one possibly expect? (Mind you, I said this about the previous president as well. Little did I know that just one administration later I’d be looking upon the Clinton years as halcyon days of honesty and transparency.)

    But a friend pointed me at this article, “We Are All Waiters Now,” by Thomas Geoghegan. It starts out about tax policy, but the better, broader observations come toward the end. We in the US have a truth problem in much the same way a waiter has a truth problem when it comes to telling you Today’s Specials. (Parody I’ve done: “Oh, you’ve ordered the rhino snot pie.” {beat} “That’s my favorite!”)

    On the other hand, I’ve also long held it says volumes that the US’ great TV show about politics — The West Wing — shows the government as more engaged, intelligent, and truthful than it actually is. The UK equivalent — Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister — show the government as less engaged, less intelligent, more venal, etc., than it actually is. (It also continues to baffle me why the Canadians, so good at other forms of comedy, have yet to do a good political one. I can only think they believe anything about Ottawa won’t sell abroad, and they may well be right.)

  3. John Wunderlich

    Just to let you know that there was a great Canadian political TV series. For the life of me I can’t remember the title, but it was about an accidentally successful Quebec politician. He was so incompetent and bungling that his screw-ups were mistaken for political maneuvers, and he climbed the ranks.

    It was kind of Yes, Minister meets the Pink Panther, and I wish I could remember the title. It was a Quebec production (in French), but I think a sub-titled version was released.


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