Let’s Be Honest about the Phrase, Let Me Be Honest

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“Let Me Be Honest”

We often have good intentions when communicating with one another. Yet, no matter how well-intended our message may be, what we say may not bode well for our credibility. “Let me be honest. To tell you the truth, or may I be frank”, are phrases you have probably heard repeatedly over time. You may have heard the statement in one form or another spoken by a coworker, a supervisor, a salesperson, your child, or a close friend or relative.

Pause for a moment and think, what were your thoughts when you heard someone speak any of these phrases? You might think that the message to follow is something important. You may believe the opposite, that the communicator is generally a deceptive communicator, but trying to be honest with you for this specific conversation. Whatever your perception might be, you have an instant opinion of what the communicator’s intent is, and that determines how you will listen and respond to the message.

No matter what you think of the communicator’s intent, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the phrase “let’s be honest” as communication that states something is true or that the information following the statement is undeniable.

However, in a recent survey conducted online by Allen Stafford (see survey results below), a majority of the surveyed people believed that a person speaking any form of the phrase, “let’s be honest,” could be a deceptive communicator or may be deceptive with other people when communicating, but honest with them.

The survey results are quite the opposite of what the definition states, yet communicators continue to make the statement as part of their presentations, or dyadic conversations. If stating the phrase or its variations causes the communicator to be perceived as lacking credibility or deceptive, then why do people continue to use the phrase?

Why We Say the Phrase, “Let’s Be Honest.”

Despite that millennials adopted the phrase, to be honest, or tbh for short, communicators have been using the phrase for a lot longer than millennials. The phrase could have its origins rooted in a 16th century English proverb, “tell the truth and shame the devil” which means “to be honest or to tell the truth, always, in all situations.” Given this definition, it is understandable that the Merriam-Webster meaning of the phrase is to state that something is true. Recipients, however, perceive the communicator’s message differently. Before we can explain why a person may perceive a communicator as lacking credibility when they speak the phrase, “let’s be honest,” we need to understand presuppositions.

Let's be honest survey results image

2022 Google Survey Results for Let’s Be Honest phrase.

Presuppositions are the Culprit

Presuppositions are tacitly held beliefs accepted before an argument takes place. In other words, they are assumed in advance. Presuppositional beliefs are either concepts or claims. A presupposed concept is a definition that you assume. A presuppositional claim is a proposition that you assume is true. Remember, they are concepts or claims assumed truthful but may be incorrect. Let’s look at the following presupposition example:

Have you stopped telling lies?

The statement presupposes that you have told lies in the past. This may either be true or not true, it just assumes that you have lied consistently before.

When a communicator prefaces their statement with “let me be honest with you,” the phrase automatically presupposes that, at some point, the communicator may have been untruthful. The receiver automatically assumes that the speaker may have lied before, but is telling the truth now — whether correct or not — but it automatically raises a red flag in the receiver’s mind, causing them to question the authenticity of the communicator’s message that follows.

Presuppositions lead to stereotypes, dogmatism, bias, and intolerance. Presuppositions create various lenses that filter our view of the world and other people. They help prevent dialogue because of these stereotypes and biases. It is for this reason that when a communicator makes the statement, “let me be honest with you,” the person listening automatically filters out that part of the speech based on their biases and decides if the communicator is telling the truth or going to tell them a lie.

Stereotypes also play a part in determining if a person is or is not telling the truth after making the statement, “to be honest.” For example, you may perceive that if a car salesperson makes the statement, “let me be honest with you,” that they are not being truthful because of the generally accepted negative stereotype of car salespeople. In contrast, if a parent or trusted confidant made the same statement before sharing information, you would perceive them as more credible because you do not have a negative bias toward them.

Despite its official definition, the phrase, “let me be honest with you” may hurt your credibility when communicating your message. But what if you are sincerely trying to convey an honest message? What should you say that stresses the importance of the message while making you look credible?

What to Say Instead of Let’s Be Honest?

The best way to say, “let me be honest” is to eliminate the statement from your communication all together. For example, instead of saying, “Let me be honest with you, this is the last car at this price,” you can state, “This is the last car available at this price.” By doing so, you eliminate the possibility that the receiver will attribute a preconceived notion to what you are saying. Yet, if you wish to use a qualifying statement before your explanation, some of the following phrases can serve as a substitute for “let me be honest.” These substitute phrases may help improve your communication credibility by eliminating any presupposition that you are being dishonest.

Synonyms for the phrase: “Let’s be honest.”

  • Actually
  • As a matter of fact
  • As it happens
  • With all due respect
  • In all fairness
  • To be fair
  • Let me set the record straight/Let’s set the record straight

Final Thoughts

Language is ambiguous and dependent on how the receiver perceives the message. What the communicator may intend as harmless conversation, the receiver will draw upon their experience, biases, and beliefs to help decode the message.

Presuppositions can help or hurt the intention of the communicator. In the phrase, “to be honest,” the receiver may presuppose that the communicator (sender) is not always being honest. Our survey above shows the perceptions of people when they hear the statement, “let me be honest with you.”

If you can avoid using the statement and just communicate the context, it may help improve your communication credibility. There are ways to use qualifying language that eliminate or reduces the chance that the message receiver assumes you are not being truthful.

In the end, meaning is defined by the message receiver. Regardless of what a word or phrases definition may entail, if the receiver perceives otherwise, then the communicator must take the steps to communicate their message so that the receiver fully understands their intent.

Communication Activity: Self Reflection

Keep an ear out for the phrase, “let me be honest with you,” “can I be frank with you,” or any expression similar to “let’s be honest.” When you hear the phrase, let me be honest, or its synonyms, what presuppositions cross your mind about the speaker? Do you think what they are about to say is a lie or the truth? Also, identify if you have any bias toward the person speaking. How does your bias or non-bias toward the speaker impact if you believe them after they make the statement mentioned above?