Friday 20 April 2018

'Honesty' app: Can you handle the truth?

As Sarahah becomes the latest 'honesty app' to sweep the internet, our reporter investigates whether being candid really is the best policy when it comes to friendships…

Most people place honesty high on their list of priorities, but can you handle it?
Most people place honesty high on their list of priorities, but can you handle it?

Orla Neligan

Most people, when queried, place honesty high on their list of core values, but few of us exercise it wholeheartedly. Admittedly, it comes in various guises. Who wants to tell their granny, after she's spent three days knitting your Christmas jumper, that you're only planning on wearing it while locked in the bathroom?

It is appropriate to tell your work colleague that their lunch is still between their teeth right before they give their presentation, but I still regret the moment I told a friend what I really thought of her new dress. "I'm not sure it's really you," I said. Cue stony silence and then she left the room.

I realised in that moment that I had misread the situation and how my friend was feeling up to that point. She is usually someone with whom I can be frank but in this instance, she needed me to champion her; she needed me to be her 'yes' woman. Whether or not that nurtures self- delusion, I could have been more tactful in that moment and avoided hurting her feelings. The old adage 'honesty is the best policy' doesn't always ring true.

It's not always easy or convenient to tell the unvarnished truth; people often don't want or expect it and many friendships survive because of diplomacy - we choose to maintain friendships and protect the self-esteem of others rather than say what we're really thinking.

But honesty has its merits when used in the right way and applied fairly with compassion and without agenda. In professional situations in particular, honest feedback is a constructive and necessary tool for learning and development. The problem is, in the age of technology, the very fabric of honesty - its values and boundaries - are being tested and abused. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all offer people a platform to discuss, debate and vent. And now 'honesty apps' are going that bit further.

Sarahah, which means 'honesty' in Arabic, is an app created by a Saudi Arabian developer to improve communication in corporate organisations. The premise is that it helps people discover their strengths and weaknesses by giving employers and employees an opportunity to send and receive messages anonymously.

Since its launch in February, it has become one of Apple's most popular free apps - and has overtaken Twitter and Tinder in the Irish app charts - with over 20 million users. It seems people want validation, and the internet is one of the easiest ways to access it.

It is not the first of its kind - ASKfm, Yik Yak and Formspring all offer the same thing: a tantalising opportunity to find out what people think of you but, equally, a chance for someone to be brutally cruel. Subsequently, these apps have become a breeding ground for cyberbullying, the nature of anonymity giving them free reign to throw abuse without any accountability. Indeed, one city centre secondary school in Dublin has banned the Sarahah app and asked parents to delete it from their children's phones "to ensure the wellbeing of all the students"..

My own need for anonymous validation is low, but for the purpose of this article, I ventured into the Sarahah domain - tentatively, I may add. I was aware that I was welcoming anonymous feedback, good, bad and ugly. I checked it after several days and, much to my relief, there were no bites. I asked around.

Some had heard of it but weren't interested in "opening that can of worms". Others couldn't be bothered or didn't feel the need to find out what people thought of them. The majority of users are under-25s, a generation that is, perhaps, less assured and needs the validation more.

Once you sign up to the app it creates a username for you at Anyone who knows your username can post an anonymous message to the site, which pop up as notifications on your smartphone. Many younger users are inviting comments by sharing their usernames with friends, and the wider public, on other social media platforms, such as Snapchat and Instagram.

"Anything that's anonymous is thrilling," says Edie MacNamara (20), who admits to becoming "addicted" to the app. "I had a secret admirer on it for a while, which was really intriguing. There were negative comments too, but I wanted the positive ones so much, I didn't care. I closed the account when the negative comments got too much. Someone told me I looked like a horse and that upset me so much, it really affected me."

Her mother, Laoise, had a similar experience with ASKfm. "I originally thought it was a funny message board; I had no idea it was an anonymous forum. The first message I got was brutal, calling me horrible names. I shut it down after that," says Laoise. "Constructive criticism is easy to get: if you ask a professional or a true friend, they will be able to look you in the eye when they give it. Honesty is too often used as a passive-aggressive weapon by non-friends, and anonymous forums are no way to look for ways to improve."

According to psychotherapist and behavioural change counsellor Siobhan Murray, negative comments can have a detrimental effect on an impressionable teenager whose self-esteem isn't well developed.

"There are a lot of keyboard warriors online, people who use the internet as a platform to vent, without any accountability. If you're not going to say something to someone's face, why say it anonymously? We are all entitled to an opinion, but we also have a responsibility on how we convey that to someone. I've yet to see how any of these apps can be positive." Murray notes that the millennial generation hasn't grown up with that 'Catholic' constraint. "We were brought up with the premise that it wasn't very Catholic to be rude. The Celtic Tiger generation hasn't had that," she says.

So, maybe it's our history of repression that has us tiptoeing around the truth, or are we too polite to say what we actually mean? An American friend once told me it took her a long time to overcome the disappointment of all those empty promises to "go for a pint or a coffee". She eventually realised it's part of the Irish vernacular: we're just being polite; it's not necessarily a concrete invitation.

"You could say the Swedes are more honest than Irish people," says Linnea Dunne, a Swedish writer living in Ireland and author of Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living. Dunne experienced quite a culture clash when she first moved here. In the context of a culture keen on superlatives, she explains that the Swedish way of communicating can leave Irish people feeling let down or misunderstood.

"Swedes are very direct and it takes a lot for us to call something 'absolutely brilliant'. There were many times my Irish friends were left hanging, waiting for me to enthusiastically praise their new purchase, with me simply responding 'nice'. It follows that all relationships must be understood in the context of some form of social contract, be it a long-standing relationship with a friend or just a cultural norm. Things can go terribly wrong if we don't consider where we are and how the people around us interpret us and how we talk."

Directly translated, lagom means 'just the right amount' and, in Dunne's terms, "an acceptance of life's full range of colours and feelings", knowing that something must be a bit mediocre and that the fact there's room for improvement is part of the journey of life. "Having said that, I think there's a lot to be said for honesty when it comes to trust," she continues, "especially in a professional capacity."

It's no surprise that Swedish businesses rank highly in terms of efficiency. According to Dunne, when we can provide constructive criticism without layering it with questionable compliments, we can work together to improve things more effectively.

I will always remember the advice a business mentor once gave to me when I was attempting to navigate difficult work territory: "Start with the positive and then move on to something more constructive, and be kind." I value honesty in people, but I also value fairness and compassion. It might be truthful to tell your friend she looks like a circus tent in that dress, but is it kind?

Real friends can gauge whether honesty is going to help or hurt someone. Friends are there to support you, not brutalise you. As Dunne and Murray point out, honesty is what helps us learn and develop and become better people, but our responsibility is in how we deliver and receive that information. According to Murray, it's about how we respond versus react. Not everyone is going to like you, or what you're wearing, so you have to bring it back to your own core values and beliefs.

"It's about understanding fact and fiction - someone else's opinion may not be your truth - and empowering yourself to understand your own self-esteem and take a step back and come from a place of responding rather than reacting," she says.

Somewhere between withholding honesty and using it as a hurtful weapon is a middle ground, somewhere you can express the inconvenient truths, the difficult ones that can often bring people closer together. The challenge is navigating our resistance to expressing our true feelings and respecting the other person's. I rely on some friends for that brutal honesty ("You probably shouldn't have worn the black underwear") and I know most of them appreciate my honesty and sensitivity when required ("Nobody saw you run into the side of the marquee").

Some things can be said, some things can't be, and by the time you get to the adult stage of friendship, you hope you have the wisdom to know the difference - and have no need for a webiste or app to gather honest opinion about yourself.

Honesty sometimes relies on trust. Only last week a friend asked me whether you could see her "moustache". You could (it was a full-blown Groucho Marx). There is great trust in our relationship and eventually I decided she could take it. "You should get that threaded," I offered. And you know what? She thanked me.

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