Biased for honesty, blind to the facts

What do I value? I value honesty. I’ve known this for a long time. Recently, though, I’ve realized how the value has gotten a bit puffy in my head. It’s become a bias, because that’s how a bias operates: it starts as a healthy appreciation for something before inflating like a balloon until it blocks our view of other equally or more important things. It’s so ridiculous! It makes me laugh. But first, I’ll explain.

There was a guy I met in college who I saw pretty regularly for a brief period of time. We met through my advanced Korean class; I was a junior, he was a grad student in East Asian Studies. I don’t know what else to call it other than a semi-regular thingie because we never ventured off the comforts of campus together and there was neither commitment nor risk involved. It did feel vaguely exclusive and intriguing. We would sit and talk for hours at a cafe outside one of the libraries and he was pretty affectionate. And, now that I’m writing this post, I remember how it all started. He had asked for my phone number early in term to get to know me more. He told me all about a paper he was developing—just a personal project, independent of his degree—about his philosophy on relationships: an intricate model involving levels of intimacy and an interesting labeling system. Looking back, that conversation probably solidified my interest in him because at least one efficient way to my heart is through my head, and discussing interpersonal relationships fascinates me anyway.

After a couple of weeks, I recall him holding my hand by that library cafe and telling me, “I want you to know I’m really interested in you, and once I really start liking a girl, I’ll want to have sex pretty soon.” Okay, but what I actually heard was: “I’m not afraid to broach awkward topics, and you can trust me to be honest with you.” All I heard was quality of honesty, and my attraction to him skyrocketed, which inevitably led to major confusion on my part once he stopped calling, things started feeling tense in class and our connection was clearly cut. 

Except, a month or so later, the other shoe dropped. I finally registered that he had asked me a legitimate question… to which I had never responded. Did we have the same stance on sex? Coincidentally, my nonresponse was the same as what my verbal response would have been (i.e., Probably Not, Cause I’m One of Those Odd Conservative Ones—which he had probably figured out already anyway), so it all turned out for the best. But, I wonder about the mental storm I might have been spared had I respected his actual question, had I not been so distracted by the mere fact of honesty. Had I acknowledged the question, I would have processed at the same time he did that we had different road maps for the relationship. Clear knowledge like that is what it takes for me to happily move along from stuff. Unfortunately, my absolutist value for honesty obstructed the way.

That whole episode came to mind again after I stopped dating someone here in New York a few months ago. I foiled myself yet again! On our second date, he confessed that there was another girl with whom he was preoccupied, and we both concluded that it was fruitless to keep dating. Of course, later that night I was still so struck by that act of honesty, assuming he could have easily led me on without telling me at all, that I restated my interest to keep dating (why not? we’ll learn something!) and for whatever reason he went along. We saw each other for another month or so until I started to become torturously confused about things, to the end and a while after the end.

Clarity arrived months later when I remembered the keystone piece of information on that second date. I had already been told that the girl of interest was not me. Though I promptly forgot that part and focused myopically on the honesty alone. Like being offered facts on a platter, and tossing the facts and keeping the platter.

Honesty between people breaks ground. It clears space for the truth and deepens the way we relate, live, grow, agree and disagree. I find incredible beauty in all of that. In practice, though, it seems my value for honesty verges dangerously on self-defeating, because of my also-habit of ignoring the actual truth, contained in the honesty. This is the blinding nature of a bias, such a close, close relative of attraction. (“Attraction is the fatal flaw of mankind,” someone once said to me. Just had to stick that nugget in.) I may not be able to change the bias, but it’s worth knowing it in advance. Left unmanaged, my blind spots left unchecked, I will keep walking into the same personal messes over and over again.

It now feels like a bad bubble in my head has popped, opening up more precious space for me to see my missteps. I literally burst into giggles (seriously, I’m sitting on the subway or walking home when I just start laughing out loud) thinking about these kinds of epiphanies, so I know I still find joy in clarity and revelation. Here’s hoping I can keep that intact with a little more balance, a little less bias, moving forward.

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3 thoughts on “Biased for honesty, blind to the facts

  1. Wow this is such an insightful idea, that a virtue can at the same time be a bias. I suppose too much of anything might not be a good thing. Thanks for making me think, as usual! =]

  2. This delayed clarity thing is clearly something I think the both of us have in common (and which I’ve been experiencing so that’s something else I’d love to talk about with you sometime soon). This is so interesting though, in terms of how you react to honesty because you place it so high in esteem that ironically, it can end up blinding you to what’s really being said. It sounds as though your brain lights up so much at the fact that someone is saying something that most people wouldn’t think to say straight up (which in most cases is what honesty often looks like I’ve found) that it tunes out the actual content of the message. Anyway, I’m glad you can see the humor in this and keep positive despite it all.

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