I have been criticised on more than one occasion by friends and romantic partners for being "too honest". An example of this might be someone asking me if a dress looks good, and I will say if I think it looks terrible (or beautiful for that matter).

Why would someone not like this? Surely the honest approach provides them with the most value so that they can make changes if/where necessary. I also don't like lying.

When is it inappropriate to be honest and what is an alternative to brutal honesty that doesn't involve lying, or more specifically: "How can I say that I don't like a dress without being too 'brutally honest'? And how can I do that in general when someone asks for my taste opinion?"

Disclosure/possible useful information: I am on the Autism spectrum (High functioning)

  • Have there been specific incidents recently that have made you think about this? Or has it been a very long-running issue? Who have you been speaking to when these comments on your honesty come up?
    – user8671
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 11:34
  • I allowed myself to edit the title because the questions in there were off-topic. Feel free to rollback if you think I changed the question too much
    – Ael
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 13:51
  • For your question "When is it inappropriate to be honest", I find it primarily opinion-based right now as it depends what you wish to accomplish. Maybe you can change it by something like: "When should I not be so honest if I want to avoid X" (where X could be "upset someone" for example)
    – Ael
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 14:05

6 Answers 6


Why would someone not like this? Surely the honest approach provides them with the most value...

Before answering, let me state that this is a very common phenomenon in human communication.

Based on contemporary theories of communication (see Watzlawick et al. to name one), all communication carries content and relationship.

Saying that a dress “looks terrible” may in light of the above carry two messages, given the reaction of the other person.

  1. the content. Note that in the case you provide, no additional information is given , the listener does not learn how you arrived at “terrible” (color? shape? reminds of dress of Kate whom I dislike?), and what standard of comparison you applied (terrible in relation to another dress / in relation to having been run over by a tank? etc), and what context the dress is evaluated against (might be a good fit for a party, terrible for a wedding) etc.

  2. the effect of a word like “terrible” on the relationship, it probably may get parsed at an implicit level as “you = terrible” and have unwanted emotional effects.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that meaning is made by the listener, and it has a different effect from what the speaker intended (providing value, as I read from your statement above).

I therefore would advise the following:

  1. mark your evaluation as subjective (other observers would have a different response than yours), by using I-statements:

I think this dress ...

instead of “this dress is

  1. use less drastic terms to convey the almost same content without possibly straining the relationship-aspect:

“I think this dress looks not so good / less than good etc”

instead of “it is terrible

  1. provide some details on how you arrived at your conclusion

“... because I think the blue doesn’t match the color of your shoes...”

This may actually add value to the asker, if they don’t care about color, but shape, they may put less weight on your evaluation because it’s not as valuable in their subjective world.

Or give them your standard of comparison:

“... compared to the black shirt you used to wear at work...”

Or context:

“...for the wedding we are going to.”

Here’s another technique you may want to use while keeping your “brutally honest” style as it is, but prefacing it:

“Probably you will be shocked by my feedback, but since you asked... The dress looks terrible!”

By prefacing it this way, it will most probably diminish the impact of your evaluation.

You can also combine both methods and see if you are receiving reactions that let you know your contributions provide value content and relationship-wise.

  • great answer, insightful and helped me... thanks :)
    – Cloud
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 14:54

I'm on the autism spectrum too and I really don't feel comfortable lying. So here is what I do when someone asks me for my opinion and I know that they won't like the answer:

Instead of answering "I don't like this dress", I try to understand why I don't like it. For example, if I don't like the color, I can say:

I'm not a big fan of this color. I find it too much for me.


This color makes me think of < insert awful thing here >, so no, I'm definitively not a fan.

There are several important points with those phrasing. First, the "sugar coating" with "I'm not a big fan". The truth is "I really hate this color", but being less categorical won't hurt the other feeling as much and I'm comfortable with minimizing how I feel (which I find different from lying).

Another point is the "for me" and the "I am". Taste is very personal and insisting on how it is your taste and not a universal truth make the other person feel less judge about the fact that they do like it.

You notice that I gave two phrasing example. I find the second one to be even better than the first one because you are not simply saying that you dislike the color, you are also explaining why. In my experience, people will more easily accept your judgment if they know why you feel this way.

For example, I don't like food with mint in it because it makes me think of toothpaste. People might not feel the same, but they can't argue with how you feel (even if my dad roll his eyes every time I say that I don't like mint because of that).

For the dress, if the problem is not with the dress itself but with the other person wearing the dress, again, try to understand why you don't like it before saying anything.

For example, it might just be you that isn't accustomed to seeing them in something like that. In this you can just say:

It changes.


I'm really not used to see you inside something like that. It's weird.

In this case, you are not saying that it's bad or good. You are just stating the fact that you are not accustomed to this and thus, it might take you some time before liking it.

  • Could you try to cover aswell the "When is it inappropriate to be honest" part of the question? As I think, that is the more problematic part (at least for me it is) and I would love to learn a bit more about the rationals how to detect someone asking for confirmation and when someone is wanting an honest opinion.
    – dhein
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 12:34
  • @dhein I feel like this question is a little bit too opinion-based for now. I'm waiting on OP to answer the comment I posted under their question before answering that part (because the "When is it inappropriate to be honest" will depend on what OP wish to accomplish)
    – Ael
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 19:49

Why would someone not like this?

  • Very often, the asker is not actually seeking your opinion of something. They're looking for validation of a choice they've already made. For example, when the girlfriend asks "Do you like this dress?", the real question is "Did I make the right choice wearing this dress?" So, "Yes dear, it's lovely" isn't a lie because you're really just agreeing with their choice.
  • "Brutal honesty" usually isn't very constructive unless there are immediate and long lasting consequences. For example, "No, it's terrible" doesn't give the asker any real actionable feedback. In cases where they are asking for you opinion, there is nearly always an implicit request for details or alternatives. "We're having Italian, maybe white isn't the best color to wear." gives a reason for not liking the dress.

what is an alternative to brutal honesty

The Interpersonal Skill here is using a related or underlying truth. Meaning, why you don't like the dress or a truthful related comment on the dress has some benefits.

"Do you like this dress?"

"I'm not a big fan of fuchsia." or "It's a garden party, that might be too much."

  • Is honest
  • Possibly constructive
  • Gives the asker a reason to dismiss your opinion
  • And isn't necessarily a comment on the askers opinion or choice.
  • Well... Clearly, telling your girlfriend that the dress is "lovely" when actually you think it's terrible is a lie. Maybe you mean it's a "white lie" for social reasons that won't harm anyone. (Although if the dress objectively doesn't suit your girlfriend and you know she'd care how others might see her, not telling her could do more harm than good.)
    – Llewellyn
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 14:18

It is almost always appropriate to be honest. It is almost never appropriate to be brutal about it.

There's 'brutal honesty', where you consider honesty the ultimate good, and don't care how much it hurts the person you are speaking to, and there's 'white lies' where you say whatever you think will make the other person happy, disregarding the truth, and then, luckily, there is a middle ground.

Some people might call it gentle honesty, or 'speaking the truth in love'. It's nearly always possible to be honest without being hurtful about it.

For example, if asked, "Do you like this dress?" it may be equally honest to say, "No way, it makes you look like a sea cow!" and "I really prefer the blue one on you," but the first one is hurtful and the second one is constructive, because it avoids making negative personal statements and offers a reasonable solution to the problem. Note that you don't have to have a ready-made solution-- something like, "I think we should keep shopping, that's not the dress for you" would also work.

Honesty consists of not lying-- it does not require speaking every unfiltered thought that is in your mind. (And really, no person can possibly speak ALL the thoughts they have out loud), so it's best to choose the honest thoughts that aren't also mean. In general, if you find yourself saying "I'm just being honest" as a defense when people say something you've said is hurtful, the problem is not that you have been too honest, the problem is that you have used honesty as an excuse to be thoughtless or even unkind.


(I am Asperger myself)

Why would someone not like this?

They don't like it, because of cultural conditioning. You didn't say where in the world you are, but in many countries, our culture expects criticisms to be packed in euphemisms and understatements. In some places, praise too! We are expected to be diplomatic in criticism. When someone doesn't follow this norm, it is seen as a shock and can come across as rude.

When is it inappropriate to be honest and what is an alternative to brutal honesty that doesn't involve lying, or more specifically: "How can I say that I don't like a dress without being too 'brutally honest'?

When speaking to neurotypicals or to individuals who have been conditioned to have neurotypical expectations, you need to adapt your language. That doesn't involve lying, it just means you need to understand what things mean. For example, if someone asks, do I look good in this dress?, you might answer:

  • If they look great: You look great (American version), or not bad at all (British version). You can use the American version in Britain too but not the other way around, as the British sense of understatement is not universally understood.
  • If they look poor in the dress, you can say: I'm not sure. It's not a lie if both sides understand that I'm not sure actually means You don't look good, it's just an odd quirk of our language. A neurotypical or someone conditioned to have neurotypical expectations will understand it is a diplomatic way of saying they do not look good.
  • If they look horrible: I think it doesn't really fit you

In practice, it depends how well you know someone. If you know the person well and you know they prefer direct communication, you can do that instead.

And how can I do that in general when someone asks for my taste opinion?"

If your taste opinion is related to a choice the other person has made (such as the dress), the same rules as for the dress apply. But if the other person is unlikely to feel personally attached to your preference (do you prefer painting X or painting Y? when in a museum and neither of you is or knows either author), you can be less diplomatic and more direct.


I also have Asperger's. It took me awhile to grasp this myself.

You should always be honest, but never brutally so. The opposite of brutally honest is not lying, but gently honest. So be gentle in your honesty and remember that you are stating an opinion based on preferences, not a fact based on the immutable laws of the universe.

"I don't think it flatters you" is a gentle way of saying "it's ugly on you". "I like the blue shirt better" is a gentle way of saying "I don't like this shirt". A statement like "if the hemline were a bit lower, it would be better balanced" gently says that the dress is wrong.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.