Is it better to be honest or nice on the social web?


A friend of mine recently posted a provocative question on Facebook. He had received less-than-stellar books to review from people he knew well. This was the dilemma he posted:

“So if I’m honest, I look like an ass and alienate my friends but serve those looking to me for my opinion. Or do I put a pleasant spin on it and help perpetuate the noise but don’t upset anyone? And I’ve apparently been upsetting more than my fair share lately.”

This is a complex and nuanced dilemma we all face at some point in our online career. On the social web, you may be facing it every day in some way. I think my friend posed an excellent question, and I thought I would riff on it a bit.

What is the answer? Should you be authentic? Should you be honest? Is it important to be nice? Can you have it all?

You have to make your own decisions about this stuff, but here are some thoughts about being honest versus nice.

“Authenticity” is bullsh*t

Nobody is authentic on the web. Let’s be honest. Is your online personality congruent with your offline personality? All the time? Or do you mostly present your shiny best self? Of course you do.

Stop expecting people to be authentic and stop saying you’re authentic unless you’re posting that you’re bloated, horny, gassy, constipated, heart-broken, depressed, and congested. At times, we are all of these things. Except me of course.

I think it is more fair to expect people to be honest rather than authentic.

Attack issues not people

There is plenty to debate on the social web. At one time or another, I have had public, blog-based disagreements with Mitch Joel, Jay Baer, Brian Clark, Joe Pulizzi, Chris Brogan, Jason Falls and many other well-known people on the web. And yet, we can remain friends because we can be civil and respectful, even in the heat of battle.

So it is perfectly OK to stir it up. Just be kind about it. It’s possible.

When I coach people and mentor young folks in private, I am brutally honest. I never want to give people false hope. If I am not honest, I feel like I am cheating the world. But there is no reason to make people feel bad in public.

No relationships, no business

You never know where your next business or referral is going to come from. So, it probably doesn’t make sense to burn bridges in the name of honesty unless the stakes are really high.

A public betrayal or embarrassment of friends is something that is not going to be soon forgotten. Business is built on connections and alliances that develop over years. It’s easy to destroy that in an instant with a careless remark.

Take it offline

There have been times somebody has really pissed me off. One guy had an advance copy of my book Return On Influence, he lifted a significant amount of copy from it, and put it in his own book. Others used original material from my blog as their own. One person created an entire concept for a book and consulting practice from my work, without attribution. Serious stuff. But it does no good to call these people out in a public way. At least, that’s not my style.

In the event of a bad problem, address it in a private way, a classy way. Sometimes you can fix it, sometimes you can’t, but don’t make it a public spectacle.

Be a light

My friend is struggling with balancing brutal honesty with caring for the feelings of an individual. In the long-run the feelings of the individual are more important. I think showing some grace to a real person is more important than upholding your personal brand though a hurtful public comment. At least in my view.

I don’t think we can best serve each other as humans by tearing people down in public, even if you think they deserve it. Lift people up. If you are the kind of person who tears people down, you might get some short-term attention — it’s like watching a schoolyard fight. But nobody likes or trusts a bully. Nobody invites a bully to be their consultant or to speak at a conference.

I’m not pretending to have the answers for everybody. And I am certainly not perfect. Like everyone, sometimes I am exhausted and irritable and there have been times I have posted something I probably shouldn’t have. But my intent is that the trajectory of my online presence is one of hope and encouragement.

All I can do is make my own decisions and control my own reactions to the best of my ability. My choice is to be honest without being hurtful, to be a light instead of toxic, to lift up everyone I can, instead of tearing them down.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Pete

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