Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Lie to Me

Whoever said, “Honesty is the best policy,” must’ve been thinking of vote tallies, thumbs on scales, and other spots where truth is preferred. But if you’ve got some insight about me – let’s say you find my tics troubling, my grey hair aging, or my book underwhelming -- I’d prefer you curb your candor, and instead, lie to me.

I’ve thought about unsolicited opinions often, but the subject hit home after my Nov. 15 appearance on WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight” show. When a friend asked how I enjoyed the experience, I coyly admitted I winced each time I saw the TV-me lower an eyelid or pucker my lips. I was fishing for, “You looked great! I didn’t notice a thing,” but instead caught, “I know what you mean. I’ve seen you do it in person.”

Okay, in this case I take blame for providing a cue, and realize my friend had my best interests at heart -- perhaps thinking there was a remedy for my flaws. But, I wish he had taken a less honorable route and fibbed.

Am I the only one who feels thusly? To wish for duplicity, rather than frankness? To learn the answer, I queried a few friends and am happy to report -- when it comes to their looks or their books -- they’re just as eager as I for fudging.

First up, Jonathan Black, a fellow panelist on the “Chicago Tonight” gig, and author of “Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz,” offers this experience with unsolicited advice:

“The husband of a friend, a fellow I’ve talked to maybe twice in my life, called me out of the blue to share his thoughts about my book. He’d read a Chicago Tribune review and agreed with the one reservation expressed. Did I need to hear this? No. If he felt compelled to call—I still don’t know why—I’d have preferred excessive praise, even if he didn’t mean it. I was so stunned I actually listened to him for several minutes, adding cowardice to offense. Criticism is a right reserved for professionals and very close friends.”

Next to offer her riffs on the subject is Elizabeth Crane, author of “All This Heavenly Glory.” One involves her husband, Ben, and the other…well, read on:

“Ben got his hair cut a few days ago, fairly short. He knows I like it on the long side, but that I respect his preference to wear it a bit shorter. (His tendency to go a long time between haircuts usually works out well for me.) However, he's had a couple of - um, not so good short haircuts - one had some fringy, well, bangs, let's call them, even though no man should really have bangs, and another we took to calling the Prince Valiant. His most recent haircut came out pretty good, and I told him so, prompting him to tell me that I really could tell him if I didn't like it. I said I would if that's what he really wanted, but that I'd prefer to wait until it grew out so that he didn't feel bad the whole time walking around with a bad haircut. He insisted he really didn't mind. So I said, ‘Okay, but let's just understand that this doesn't work both ways. If I get a bad haircut? You're not allowed to tell me.’

As for writing - that gets quite a bit trickier. One of my friendships suffered dramatically because of some insensitivity on that account that was aimed in my direction. I think sometimes there's a fine line between help that's useful, and criticism, especially of published work - what am I supposed to do if you tell me I suck and it's already out there? But other times, the line is very clearly crossed, and I'd just assume you tell me I'm brilliant to my face and go tell someone else you think you're better than me. But you know, I don't dwell on this stuff too much...”

My third friend to weigh in is Josh Karp, the other panelist on our “Chicago Tonight” show, and author of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture. How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever.” Josh had this to say about comments concerning his looks:

“I was a teenager in the right place (Glencoe, Illinois) and at the right time (early 80s) for a certain brand of Jewish mom (not their daughters) to think that I looked like a movie star.

‘Oh my god!’ they would almost scream, ‘Tom Cruise!’

The overall effect was mortifying. But, in some way, it was a compliment as he hadn't embraced Scientology, jumped on a sofa or gone medieval on Matt Lauer yet.

From 1985-2003, no one thought I looked like a celebrity. I had only the memory of Tom Cruise to keep me warm. Then, while at a bar for a friend's bachelor party, a drunk woman from Ft. Wayne began hitting on me, sitting on my lap and trying to call my wife to tell her ‘how fucking lucky she is.’ Then she said, ‘Oh my god!! Do you know who you look just like?’ As I no longer even remotely resemble Tom Cruise, I began to think, ‘She's from Ft. Wayne. So, George Clooney maybe?’

‘Steve Perry!” She shouted, ‘You look just like Steve Perry! Your totally hot!’

Steve Perry was the lead singer of Journey. One of the 10 living men with a nose larger than mine, and dark hair (his long, mine is short) that integrated feathered bangs with a stringy mullet. The man who, as an 80's solo act, shrieked ‘Oh Sherry.’

The drunken Hoosier took my picture with her cell phone and ran to her friends, ‘Steve Fuckin' Perry!’

Lie if you think I look like Steve Perry. Say nothing. Tell me I resemble Robert Mitchum. Or, be like my vet who (2 years later), in a fit of White Sox fever, said I looked like Paul Konerko, with whom Tom Cruise, Steve Perry and I share a great deal: dark hair, largish noses and - well - the fact that we're white.”

And last in our list of contributions, my husband, Tom Madison. Tommy says he empathizes with Josh’s “You look just like…” problem because many people compare him to former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. My spouse realizes the resemblance is sparked mostly by their similar hairstyles, so Tommy blocks the shot with this favorite thrust, “I had wavy hair. Now it’s waving me goodbye.” Oy.

After reading everyone’s experiences with unsolicited opinions, I’m now wondering if I’ve ever been guilty of telling the truth when the recipient would have preferred otherwise? Did I supply a candid assessment of your temper, business skill, romantic choice, career path, grammar usage, creative work, computer preference, spending habits, addiction or affliction you would rather I have sidestepped? If so, I apologize. It’ll never happen again. Honest.


Anonymous said...

That same problem came to me when a 'friend' saw a photo I took of a colleague and told me "I've seen you do better!" An unsolicited cutting critique. How thoughtful.
Happens to all of us at one time or another. And like you, hope I don't do the same.
Love you and your work.....Renee

Anonymous said...

I don't usually send people to my blog, but I recently posted a piece about truth telling titled “The Truth: From Cordelia with Love.” As much as I love the truth, I’m both irked and surprised when people give unsolicited advice & commentary about my writing (unless, of course, they’re praising it). Recently, I received an unsolicited comment from a blog reader that was a veritable punch from left field. I seized (well, cut and pasted) his remark and turned it into a short story titled “Anonymous in Blogoland,” also posted on my blog—my only revenge; and, yes, it was sweet.

PS: Your writing is wonderful; your topics are captivating; I enjoy your writing very much.