“You’re Fat.” How Honest is too Honest?


There’s a fine line between being honest and being rude.  The post title is a classic example.  If someone asks you if they look fat, should you tell the truth?    As this is CultureMutt you are right to expect a “cultural” spin on this.  The fact of the matter is that honesty expresses itself differently in different parts of the world.

The Geography of Honesty

I’ve lived in fairly blunt countries (Sweden, the United States, Argentina) and more tactful countries (Britain, Hong Kong and the Philippines).  Honesty is expressed differently in each of these countries.  You can obviously be honest in any of these countries but each culture has rules about just how much honesty you should offer up to people and how to do so.

Honest Lying

Growing up in Asia I was taught early on that saving face was very important.  You always wanted to allow people to save face and you yourself put a huge priority on saving face in delicate situations.  So while bluntness may have been called for in a Western setting, Asian etiquette required a more indirect approach.  For example, if you are visiting an Asian home and they ask you how you like their food, I would definitely err on the side on being overly positive.

Do not criticize it and do not even opt for calling the food “interesting”.  You are not being dishonest by saying that it tastes “good”.  If you do not like the food, nobody is interested in your honest opinion.  Keep it to yourself, smile and say the food tastes great.  This is common courtesy.

How ya doin?

Some may consider this lying.  It is not.  In American society we are forever asking others how they are doing.  It is a greeting.  Nobody really believes that you are “doing great” every time you say you are.  But you still say it, don’t you?  Well, it is the same in indirect cultures when it comes to expressing your opinion about something delicate.  Unless you absolutely have to confront or be direct, avoid it.  Beat around the bush.  It is the right thing to do.  You will get results much quicker this way than if you insist on blazing a trail of bullish, Western directness.

Nordic Bluntness

In Sweden and other more blunt cultures, on the other hand, the kind of indirect approach that is correct in an Asian setting is almost considered to be dishonest.  People want more of a straight-up approach.  If you say you like something to be polite while secretly you hate it, people will consider you dishonest or weak for feigning appreciation.  I have personally been called out on a number of occasions because I default to Asian indirectness in certain situations where Westerner norms crave candor.

My bad

Forgetting where you are can be a problem.  It typically takes me a week or two (and a few embarrassing mistakes) for me to readjust to where I am.  What I have found to be effective in situations where I mess up is a quick apology and an honest explanation that I am still adjusting to the different culture.  People tend to be pretty understanding and will often go out of their way to explain some basic dos and don’ts while you find your footing…



Bjorn Karlman

5 thoughts on ““You’re Fat.” How Honest is too Honest?”

  1. I hated moving from place to place for this reason. People were always upset at me for behavior that was expected at the last place I lived. They were always so insistent that their way was the only “right” way to behave. Sigh… apparently I’m still bitter.

  2. Growing up in a Filipino family, it always amazed me how blunt family members (and this means extended family up to first cousins) can be to each other, and yet, the amount of “delicadessa” that is required in dealing with general society. The duality can be confusing at times (especially as even the open bluntness in families usually only works in one direction: from older to younger.) My solution: err on the side of (honest!) flattery. Works every time. :)

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