Is It Better To Be Nice or Honest?

What do you say – Is it better to be nice or honest?

It goes without saying that it is good to be nice. Most people prefer to associate with individuals characterized as being nice. But being nice can have its drawbacks. One of the synonyms, and a common characteristic of nice people, is being agreeable. Agreeability can be a wonderful quality, especially when used to act as a peacemaker, but it can also result in dishonesty.

Minnesota Nice

I have lived in Minnesota for the past 14 years, but come from California. Minnesotans are proud of two things: how cold it gets here and how “nice” Minnesotans are.

I agree that people in Minnesota (in general) are more peaceful, patient, and less aggressive than other places. But being nice is not all it’s cracked up to be. Stopping at a four way stop and waving someone else through that disrupts the established pattern of order is not nice; it’s dangerous. Telling someone what they want to hear to their face is not nice, it is dishonest and disrespectful. And telling your neighbor that you don’t hear the relentless barking of their dog because you don’t want to make them feel bad is not nice; it’s a flat out lie.

The reality is all of us will occasionally say things that aren’t true just to be “nice.” But is that really nice of us?

Honesty is the Ultimate Nice

It can be difficult to be honest. And sometimes we just need to lie. For instance, if someone asks you, “does this outfit make me look fat?” It probably does, but the majority of us will lie and say “no.” There would need to be an established relationship of love, respect, admiration, and a very sensitive response to answer that truthfully and not start a fight. As a side note, several years ago a comedian posed this question between spouses. Whereupon, the other spouse responds by saying, “No. Your fat makes you look fat.” OK, maybe we don’t want to be that honest.

But for most things in life, being honest, even when it is not easy, is the ultimate form of respect and niceness. If someone is asking your opinion or feedback, they are asking for one of two reasons: to feed their ego or to really hear your advice. If it is the former, maybe they could benefit from a dose of humility. If the latter, your relationship will strengthen or weaken based upon the truthfulness of your response. When we are truthful with someone, we give them the opportunity to improve. And isn’t that what we want for everyone, especially those we love?

Framing Your Honesty

As a behavioral finance coach for advisors, I help advisors communicate more effectively by providing comments and suggestions to their spoken and written words. This could be a marketing piece, an email with the advisor’s thoughts on the current financial situation, or in communicating directly with a client or prospect. The reality is many advisors know exactly what they want to say but are not good communicators, especially in written form. Psychology and emotion drive the majority of our opinions and decisions, yet receive very little consideration from advisors. So, when advisors send me stuff, there is often quite a few comments and suggested changes.

Before I provide the feedback, I am very upfront with the advisors. I invite them to share it with me and tell them that I will look to poke holes in what they are communicating. I tell them I am not doing this to be a jerk, but to obtain the best result for them. I tell them that if I rubber stamp anything, that is a sign of either laziness or indifference. Right up front the advisors expect comments and suggested changes. Being forthright and transparent with my intention eliminates the potential hard feelings from being honest. When we are honest with others, the result is greater mutual respect, greater trust, and frequently results in deeper connections.

Be Honest with Your Clients

Three statements illustrating how financial advisors can be honest with their clients:

  1. “I don’t know what the Fed, market, or economy will do and neither does anyone else.” (and stop entertaining such questions – pivot to what you do know and can control)
  2. “In my ____ years of experience, I have found that investors who watch the market often and constantly evaluate their portfolio, experience much more stress and anxiety – and are more likely to make a costly investment error – than those that don’t.”
  3. “At your current spend rate you may be left with just Social Security in your late 80’s. If that is fine with you, then no changes are needed. If not, we need to take a deeper look at your budget and some adjustments will need to be made.”

Related: How Anchoring Affects Investors