Say What?

Honesty is not always the best policy.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the October 1998 issue of Subscribe »

Our American custom is to be friendly right away. We call each other by our first names and share a few drinks at lunches. We talk about families and hobbies, and share observations that may be better left unsaid. In contrast, Europeans rarely get that friendly for at least a year--if ever. And Japanese businesspeople often want to socialize with prospective clients and business partners for weeks or months before they trust them in business.

Americans are known worldwide for our comparatively naive candor. Having conducted business in the United States, , , and , I can assure you that in an increasingly intercultural business world, "shooting from the lip" doesn't cut it.

Most of us were brought up to tell the . But we learn to politely finesse and negotiate the facts. What we say depends on whom we're talking to and what our ultimate goals are. We learn the "art" of white lies, half-truths and honesty on a need-to-know basis.

When working for someone else, we adopt company "policies" and join in consensus reality. But once we're on our own, we enjoy the freedom to be ourselves and set our own ethical agenda. And that's the catch.

Sometimes, with no well-known company name or track record to precede us, we want to make sure a prospective client knows how "above board" we are, and we end up confusing frankness with honesty. Entrepreneurs bubbling with gratitude might say "I'm dedicated to doing a terrific job for you. In fact, I haven't had much business for some months now, and I really appreciate your business." It may seem like good old American candor, but it effectively portrays you as a hungry freelancer who's desperate for work--not a strong negotiating position to be in.

A balance among the various cultural styles of candor is the safest and certainly the wisest approach. The need-to-know rule of thumb is handy: Does your new client need to know your mortgage is backbreaking? No way. Does your customer need to know you started out to be an architect but you're now devoted to selling telecommunications services? Why not? That won't undermine their trust in you, and it's a form of candor that simply sparks an exchange of interests.

I was inspired to write about this a few days ago, when my gardener stood me up. The next day he called to apologize, saying he had to see his probation officer. How refreshing to hear him try to make things right, but what a turnoff it was to hear that he had a criminal record. Build your professional reputation on timely performance, productivity beyond your clients' expectations and ethical business practices. But keep in mind that telling someone the truth at the wrong time can be just as destructive as lying. If you want to be known and respected as a professional, leave the candid stuff to daytime TV talk shows.

Home office workshop leader and author Jeff Berner can be reached at


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