The Virtuous Life: Sincerity

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 13, 2008 · 13 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue, The Virtuous Life

This is the seventh in a series of posts on Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues.


Photo by klbndc

SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

These days, “sincerity” has come to be narrowly defined and almost entirely associated with “earnestness” and the state of being truly interested in what you profess to be interested in. But Ben’s definition is a bit broader. The dictionary adds clarification as it defines “sincerity” as: “freedom from deceit, hypocrisy, or duplicity; honesty in intention or in communicating; earnestness.” At the heart of sincerity is honesty in all your conduct and especially your communications. Honesty and integrity are the marks of true men. Seek sincerity in all your communications by becoming a man who keeps confidences, curbs his sarcasm, and avoids dishonesty.

Gossip and Keeping Confidences

Most men would never dream of robbing a bank or stealing their friends’ possessions. But many men are far less careful with an equally valuable piece of property: private information. No matter how the information came to you, the sacredness of information in your possession should be closely guarded. You should consider the confidential information given you as money in a trust; you are the guardian, but you are not allowed to spend it. It is rare today to meet a man with whom you can share your private thoughts and know absolutely that that information will never leave the room. Be that man. Be a man of honor. Be a vault.

Gossip can hurt both you and the person you choose to talk about in several ways:

If you are someone who talks behind people’s backs, even those who like you will come to mistrust you. When you hear a man slandering someone else when that person is not present, you are forced to wonder what that man says about you, when you are not around.

Gossip is inherently unfair. Men should always seek to be just in their dealings with others. But when you gossip, you sully a person’s name without that person being present and allowed to defend themselves. Your reputation is important to you; show that same respect for the reputation of others by refusing to tear them down when they can’t fight back.

Gossip can ruin people’s reputations. Sometimes even information you are sure at the time is true, turns out to be faulty. Nevertheless, the damage is done and people’s perceptions of a person may be forever altered.

How to Keep Confidences

Determine whether or not a piece of information can be passed on or not. Gossip does not have to be false to be gossip. Gossip can be true, yet still no one’s damn business. If you are not sure if something can be shared or not, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?

If you can answer yes to all three, then go ahead. If not? Shut you pie hole.

But what if others press you to reveal something secret that you know? I recommend the following as an excellent retort: Draw the information seeker close to you and whisper, “Can you keep a secret?” Your friend will then answer, “Certainly!” At this point put your hand on his shoulder and say, “Well, so can I.” End of conversation.

Tone Down Your Sarcasm

I’ll admit it-I’m a sarcastic person. A well-timed zinger can sometimes produce comedic gold. But it’s a tool that’s more effective in moderation. Yet for some men, everything out of their mouth is dripping with sarcasm. It becomes their conversational crutch. When sarcasm becomes excessive it can hurt you and others around you for the following reasons:

Sarcasm is often the refuge of the weak and is employed by men who are too much of a pansy to say what is really on their minds. According to Psychology Today:

“Though they may not be aware of it, sarcasm is their means of indirectly expressing aggression toward others and insecurity about themselves. Wrapping their thoughts in a joke shields them from the vulnerability that comes with directly putting one’s opinions out there. “Sarcastic people protect themselves by only letting the world see a superficial part of who they are,” says Steven Stosny, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist and anger specialist. “They’re very into impression management.”

Sarcasm can hurt people’s feelings. It’s often a fine line between good natured ribbing and a really stinging comment. While you know you are only joking, others might take what you say to heart.

Sarcasm is too easy. Sarcasm is often used as a cop-out when a man cannot formulate a well-reasoned opinion. It is far easier to throw out a zinger than to make a thoughtful counterargument.


In the area of lying, most men do alright when it comes to blatantly fabricating pieces of information. But it is the more insidious lying that is harder to master. In our looks, in our tone, in what parts of a story we leave in and what parts we leave out, we may still be being dishonest. I often hear someone say, “No I didn’t lie to him. I just didn’t tell him everything that happened.” This is still a lie.

Lying is easy to rationalize, especially when telling the truth will bring upon us negative consequences. But we must strive for complete honesty. If you start telling small lies, it becomes easier to rationalize the bigger ones. And if you are almost always honest, and yet are caught but once in a lie, people will question both your past actions and your future remarks. You integrity and trustworthiness will have been effectively shot.

But what about lies to preserve people’s feelings?

This is the age old question. What do you say when your wife asks you if she looks fat in something, and she does? How about if she gets a horrendous haircut and she wants to know if you like it? If you are breaking up with a woman and it’s because she is annoying or shallow, should you tell her the truth?

Telling these “white lies” present sticky judgment calls. The right answer varies from situation to situation. A certain amount of white lying is necessary to maneuver at home, in society, and in the workplace. But in general I recommend erring on the side of honesty. I personally tend to be honest to a fault. Sometimes it gets me trouble, but generally it has won me the respect of my peers. The problem with telling white lies is that while they may flatter a person in the short term, they hurt the person in the long term. Take the example of the bad haircut. If everyone tells a woman that it looks fantastic, she will keep on getting the same horrendous haircut. If you tell a woman you are breaking up with that “its not you, its me,” when it really is her, you deprive that woman of a chance for evaluating how she might change that flaw. But I can say unequivocally that if you wife asks you if she looks fat, you should always answer no. Even if she begs you to be honest. It is a trap.

Finally, it should be noted that some people use the cloak of honesty as an excuse to deliver callous and cutting remarks. When questioned they say, “Well, I am just being honest!” That may be true, but there is often no need to pipe in if your opinion is not expressly solicited. Use sound judgment and be a gentleman.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cameron Schaefer April 14, 2008 at 5:50 am

Great post! As far as gossip goes, a great friend and mentor once told me that any time someone try to gossip to him about something he looks at them, smiles and says, “these things are too wonderful for me,” then changes the subject or walks away. It’s a great way of keeping his heart clean.

Second, I think the quote explains it well…sarcasm almost always has a hint of truth to it. Notice that children are rarely sarcastic. It seems that sarcasm replaces innocence as we grow up.


2 Steve April 14, 2008 at 8:33 am

I appreciate posts like this. The true sign of a man is not his strength, size, or other physical measures, but his character. It’s strong characters that seem to be lacking in this day and age. Thanks for the posts. I enjoy reading your blog.

3 Ben April 14, 2008 at 10:40 am

As far as the lies go, refusing to answer is another option.

“Does this dress make me look fat?”

“I refuse to answer that question.”

“Oh, so it DOES make me look fat.”

“I told you that I am not going to answer that. Either it does make you look fat or it doesn’t. You’ll have to decide which one.”

Maybe she looks like a beached whale. If so, she already knows it and will look fat in any dress. In that case she would probably like to know that you still love her.

Otherwise you can just leave it at that and she’ll learn to stop asking.

Of course most people don’t like the truth when it forces them to confront shortcomings in themselves. If you have a close personal relationship with someone who can’t handle the truth there is a serious problem.

I’d add that if you are not honest when the truth is something “bad” (i.e. “That’s and ugly shirt.”) then the weight of your positive statements (i.e. “You look absolutely fabulous.”) will be diminished greatly.

4 Ron April 16, 2008 at 9:06 am


“Does this dress make me look fat?”

There are two things to consider when answering this. First, she’s possibly asking if you think she’s beautiful, and she wants affirmation. You need to give it to her. Tell her she looks beautiful.

Second, she’s looking for an opinion. Yes or no doesn’t cut it – she’s looking for details. Tell her something like “It doesn’t flatter your ____ the way the blue dress does” or “I prefer a dress that is cut in this way to show off your _____.

These are positive and helpful answers that answer her questions honestly and make her feel beautiful. Pleading the fifth may work in a courtroom but it won’t help your relationship with a woman.

5 Ben April 16, 2008 at 3:56 pm


Good points.

I was not advocating against commenting on appearance. I was speaking to a specifically loaded question and finding a way to respond honestly and generally ways to be honest with questions like it.

“Do you like this?” and “What do you think?” are very different questions from “Does this make me look fat?”

Honesty in a relationship should go in both directions. If she wants affirmation she should ask for it. If that is what she wants then THAT is the truth.

My wife has only asked me that twice in the six years we’ve known each other. When she asks me a question I know what information she is looking for and so does she.

Everyone is different but this kind of candor between my wife and I has served us well.


6 Frank April 18, 2008 at 7:17 pm

“Be a gentleman.”

Maybe. But first, be a man.

It is universally acknowledged that not all men are gentlemen. A less popular truth is that not all gentlemen are men.

A gentleman may view character as not causing hurt to others, but a man has a longer view. He is concerned with moral truths, not with anything so irrelevant as the feelings or dignity of one person.

7 Velvet Verbosity April 26, 2008 at 5:33 am

I’ve read that Benjamin Franklin was a tireless womanizer, contrary to his moral writings.

8 Brett McKay April 26, 2008 at 6:49 am

@Velvet-That label certainly gets bandied around a lot, but it’s not based on fact.

From the University of Delaware’s website:

“Although Franklin was an inveterate flirt, and he sired an illegitimate child before his 1730 wedding to Deborah Reed Rogers, there is no evidence that he had any affairs during his marriage.”


“the one thing everyone thinks they know about Ben is that he was a rake. Was he? Probably not. A legendary self-publicist, Franklin liked to give the impression he was a great womanizer, but he was in his 70s and troubled by gout while serving as an envoy to France, alleged scene of his most celebrated conquests. While he was charming and popular with the ladies, and it’s not beyond belief that he got physical with a few of them (if women find Jack Nicholson sexy, anything’s possible), there’s little evidence of any Casanova-like proclivities. As a youth he patronized brothels and sired an illegitimate son (who became royal governor of New Jersey–proof of how far being a bastard can get you in this world, or anyway in New Jersey). For what it’s worth, he never formally married his partner of 44 years, Deborah Read, with whom he had two more kids. Still, most scholars think stories about Ben’s romantic exploits and legion of little Franklins are exaggerated.”

Finally, as we have mentioned in a couple of other places, Ben never claimed to have attained moral perfection. He admitted his shortcomings but said he was a far better man for having made the attempt.

9 M. Steve May 23, 2008 at 10:46 pm

I heard a story about an old rabbi once (I don’t remember who it was):

A woman came to her rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I have done a terrible thing. I have said something false about my friend, and now everyone believes it. Her reputation is ruined. I am so sorry; I feel terrible. How can I repair this damage and make the situation right again?”

The rabbi said, “Take a piece of paper, and tear it into little, tiny pieces. When you have done this, throw them into the air on a windy day, and let them scatter. Finally, go around town and retrieve them all. It would be just as impossible to complete this task as it would be to repair the damage you have done.”

Gossip is one of the more serious sins in Judaism, precisely because the damage, once done, usually cannot be undone. Insightful post!

10 arkanabar t'verrick ilarsadin May 24, 2008 at 11:55 am

Sins of the tongue, mouth, and lips get a lot of play in both the Old and New Testaments, but particularly Proverbs, the Sermon on the Mount, and some of the letters of St. Paul.

11 Nathan November 9, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Sir, I recommend to your excellent attention the words of the Buddha, a 2,500-year-old proponent of moderate speech. In his instructions on “Right Speech”–one of eight parts of the Noble Eightfold Path–he may have been the first to formulate the three rules of true, kind, and useful. For many examples, see:

Buddhism itself is a practice of moderation (not asceticism as it may often seem), and if you have the time I recommend even a brief study of its basic tenets. You may find in them much food for thought. Just now it occurs there may be a whole treasure of material on “Eastern” ideas of manliness, in addition to those of other cultures.

12 Booger Brain May 3, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Or take a look at Wicca… It is the path I have chosen, and the only rule states: An ye harm none, do what ye will.

13 Adam August 8, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Man, this got me thinking about how often I’m snide or sarcastic. I realize that with a lot of my friends and family I tend to poke fun at others and it made me think maybe that can be hurtful. “Sarcasm is a crutch” really got me thinking!

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