THE BLOG

Tell It Like It Is

07/13/2013 11:36 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2013

I pushed the heavy wooden door open and started to walk through. At the same time, a younger man was starting to come out though the same door. Obviously, we both could not get through the doorway at the same time. He backed up a couple of steps, held the door open for me, and, with a smile, said, "You first, old man."

When I tell my friends about this, they say, "That was really an unkind thing for him to say." Or, "Man, that was rude." Or, something like that. But I tell my family and friends how much I appreciated his comment, because it reflected the truth.

Compare that with what happened at the car wash. When it came time to pay the bill, the cashier said to me, in a condescending voice, "How are you, young man," emphasizing the "young man." Anyone who looked at me, an eighty-year-old man, knows quite well that I am not a young man. So, even though it is not especially pleasant to hear, I appreciated the first man telling it like it is -- referring to me as an "old man."

What is it about today's culture that makes it popular to fudge on telling the truth? It seems to me that it has to do with our infatuation with being politically correct, whatever that means.

The last two weeks I have written about being the coordinator for a group of young French people visiting St. Louis to learn about how we in the United States fund non-governmental social service agencies. During the interview with the staff members of an agency that helps immigrants get settled in St. Louis, one of the French persons asked whether or not it appeared likely that the United States Senate and the United States House of Representative would be able to reach an accord to deal with our illegal immigrant situation. The staff person he was talking with was quick to correct the young Frenchman: "We do not refer to them as illegal immigrants; they are undocumented immigrants."

Why not call it as it is? "Old man," not "Young man"; "Illegal immigrants," not "Undocumented immigrants." Or, in an article in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, July 11, 2013, page A7, about the Republicans in the House debating among themselves what their position should be in dealing with immigration, the Associated Press used the term "unlawful" immigrants.

I was taught that life is too short to spend time beating around the bush. My father always said it is important to be kind in one's comments, but to be direct. He contended that beating around the bush leads to unnecessary misunderstanding, and I have found that to be correct. Just tell it as it is so people can deal with the very root of the situation!

As an ordained minister, time and again I found that many problems were made worse by people trying to "sugar-coat-the pill": for example, a behavioral problem -- with children or adults -- made worse by not facing the truth of the problem head on; official boards not shooting straight with church members about financial issues, prolonging facing up to the issue and dealing with it; or honestly discussing changes in worship that many older people do not like but young families applaud.

As a college president, I found the same thing: beating around the bush causing unnecessary misunderstanding -- such as, faculty members not talking in-depth with the students, roommates not dealing honestly with one another when they didn't get along, administrators and faculty members letting differences in governance issues fester before really telling one another what is bugging them. And I have seen the same thing in business: owners and managers and employees not shooting straight with each other from the outset, fearing hurting the morale of the workforce or fearing being fired.

How many times it would have been better had everyone just been honest with one another in the first place instead of hiding the true crux of the matter. I'm sure you can recall many such instances, personal and professional, as can I.

I studied at the University of St. Andrews fifteen years after the end of World War II. The people frequently talked about the war years and how much they appreciated the fact that Winston Churchill told them the truth. They related the way that Churchill, in his evening radio broadcasts, would always tell them how bad thing were -- that he never sugar-coated the pill -- and then when he told them about something good that had happened, they knew he was telling them the truth.

Just think how refreshing it would be if: we could be relatively sure that our government is always telling us the truth instead of our having to decipher the vocabulary of political correctness; or if our political parties would forget about making themselves look good as an election approaches and just deal honestly with the real issues at hand; or if our presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat, would stop the practice of using biased spokespersons in daily briefings to put their administrations in a more favorable light.

Do you remember the early morning walks that Harry Truman took, inviting reporters to go along with him! He didn't need professional "spin doctors" to talk for him! And whether you agreed or disagreed with his decision to relieve the very popular General Douglas MacArthur of his command during the Korean War, President Truman, the Commander-in-Chief, did not beat around the bush -- he solved the problem and moved on, not worrying about being politically correct or consulting the polls to determine if such a move would be popular.

It has been my experience in life that most people are able to deal with the truth, even if it is bad news. It is uncertainty that is hard to deal with. And wondering if someone is telling you the real crux of the matter leads to uncertainty and anxiety.

I'll admit that I did not like to be reminded that I am an old man, but as my father always suggested, the man who held the door open for me and said, "You first, old man," did so with a cheerful voice that caused me to reply, in an equally cheerful voice, "Thank you very much. I hope your day goes well."

In my opinion, it would be so much better if people just stopped beating around the bush, stopped trying to be politically correct, stopped putting off the sometimes unpleasantness of dealing in-depth with a problem and just told it how it really is from the beginning.