To be totally honest, sometimes it's better not to be polite

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The Independent Online
IN ONE of H G Wells's short stories, there is an argument between two men about whether you should be polite or honest. They both realised that the two are incompatible, but they can't decide whether honesty is the best policy, or whether hypocrisy is. Accordingly, they both agree that one should spend 24 hours telling the absolute truth, and the other masking his true feelings in polite white lies, and see who gets on better.

There is a timeless message in this story, because life is for all of us a constant dual questionnaire. When we have to describe something, or answer a question, we almost always have a choice of polite or real replies - indeed, the English language is kitted out with a set of alternative adjectives from which you can always select the option that you think fits the case.

Example? If you wish to praise a finely liquidised soup, you call it 'smooth'. If you don't wish to praise it, you call it 'bland'. Same soup, different words. If you want to be nice about modern music, you call it 'intriguing', or 'challenging'. If not, you call it 'baffling'. If someone on your political side of the fence makes a quick decision, you call it 'appropriate'. The other side calls it 'knee-jerk'.

This especially applies to areas where value judgements abound, notably in the arts. One man's 'innovative' is another's 'incomprehensible'. Your 'eclectic' is my 'magpie-minded'. Your 'parodic' is my 'plagiaristic'. If you like a painting or song that you know in your heart of hearts is not exactly up-to-date, you call it 'timeless', but I call it 'old-fashioned'. You say 'hypnotic', I say 'repetitive'. This may even govern what you call the activity itself. Theatre people often call it the 'drama', whereas non-theatre people never do.

The practice can even extend to the names of entire countries. The brutal, thuggish government now running Burma has renamed the country Myanmar in an effort to do an image relaunch, but anyone who cares about the place at all still calls it Burma.

You call it a coach; I call it a bus. You call it a sport. I think it is just a game. You are a tourist, but I am a traveller. I eat in a restaurant, as opposed to your eatery. I am an onlooker, you are a voyeur. I am a listener, you are an eavesdropper.

Is it fear of causing offence that persuades us to use these code words? If you have no job and I don't want to turn you into a statistic by calling you unemployed, is that why I go for the word 'unwaged'? If you are my blunt, fearless friend, I call you blunt and fearless. If you are anything but

my friend I call you rude and aggressive. . . .

You only have to listen to the British talking about the weather to hear this in action. People are constantly surprised by the frequency with which the British discuss the weather, but as the writer Peter Dickinson once shrewdly pointed out, it's a purely practical measure; the weather changes so often in Britain, often at variance with the forecast, that it is of great importance to most people to know how to dress in the next hour or two, whether to walk or drive, whether to take a brolly, etc, etc.

What is more surprising is that we also use a dual set of adjectives to describe the weather, depending on whether we personally like it or not, and want to be polite to it or not. If it's too cold for us, it's 'freezing'. If it is equally cold but nice, it's 'fresh'. 'Nice and fresh this morning' is not the same as 'phew - brass monkey weather this morning]', but it usually refers to the same conditions. 'Warm' is nice, but 'close' and 'muggy' are not. 'Windy', bad, 'breezy', good. Same weather, different viewpoint. 'Nippy', good, 'parky', bad . . .

I have no great message lurking behind these philosophical ruminations, or what a blunt and fearless person might call pointless ramblings, except that you might be interested to learn that in the H G Wells short story both the man who told the truth all day and the man who lied all day got into terrible trouble. And that in the course of my research for this article (or daydreaming at the typewriter) I came across something which I doubt exists in any other language: two words that are opposites but can mean the same thing.

Don't believe me? The words are 'best' and 'worst'. They mean the same thing. Still don't believe me? Well, in a battle, the loser is bested by the opposition. He is also worsted.

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