Teaching students to be honest: the pragmatics of brutal honesty

We’re not making this up. It’s National Honesty Day and we have some ideas for and ESL lesson about honesty using pragmatics, or the social and cultural rules that determine how we communicate effectively. People seem to appreciate honesty these days, but what are the pragmatics of brutal honesty? How do we act direct questions and say potentially hurtful things without hurting peoples’ feelings?

Brutal honesty can be broken down into how to ask direct questions and how to give give honest answers. And because those things are sensitive and the rules of how we handle them vary from culture to culture, context to context, even person to person, the pragmatics of honesty are complicated. But brutal truth can be a great topic for an ESL lesson precisely because it’s something students may need to do AND it’s important to do it in a way that follows social conventions. The conventions of English may be very different from students’ home environment!

Being “brutally honest” can be quite hurtful to the other person. So in English there’s a whole host of conversational strategies we use to mitigate that, depending on our relationship with the person we are talking to. We may use hedging language, or humor to soften the tone, criticize ourselves as well, give the other person an out, offer a pre-emptive apology, and/or surround the potential criticism with compliments. In other situations, we may revel in being brutally honest and talk about the benefits of getting honest, objective feedback. So how can we teach students to navigate these pragmatic challenges?

Using drama to teach students to navigate any sensitive situation is a great strategy. First, acting out a scene adds some distance. Second, the play can be a kind of practice role-play to prepare students to be brutally honest in real life. Students can explore language choices and rhetorical strategies to see what works, while picking up natural conversation!

The Incredible Jessica James

Find a script with a scene where one character is telling another character a direct truth or asking a direct question. Choose a scene where the truth may be hurtful to the other person, where being honest may be difficult. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in the movie The Incredible Jessica James where two people agree to be honest on a blind date that neither of them are enjoying if you can find a transcript.

  1. Share the scene with students. If possible, show them a recording of the scene, then let them read a transcript themselves.
  2. Ask them to identify who is trying to be honest. What potential harm could the honest truth do? Could it hurt someone’s feelings, for example, or reveal a secret?
  3. Ask students to highlight the lines in the script that the character uses to introduce the truth in one color. What strategies does the speaker use to tell the other character he or she wants to be direct?
  4. Now ask the students to highlight the lines that try to mitigate the damage in another color. How does the speaker try to make the listener feel better or accept what they are saying?
  5. Finally, take a look at the result. Is the speaker successful at changing the listener’s mind? Why or why not?
  6. While students are analyzing the language be sure that they keep in mind the relationships and context. Dialogues between close friends use different language than dialogues between a boss and an employee.
  7. Now students can write and act out, or improvise, depending on their comfort level, their own scenes.  They can act out a similar scene but in a different context or the same scene but with different strategies and outcomes.

An ESL lesson about honesty from the play Her Own Worst Enemy by Alice Savage.

In this scene, two friends are discussing their futures. One of them, Aida, is a talented actress but she wants to pursue a career in science. The other, Vanessa, thinks she should consider acting. Here’s a short excerpt:

Aida: There’s no way I’m going to be an actor

Vanessa: (Surprised) Seriously? You really don’t want to?

Aida: Nah. It was fun. But I’ve got other plans. Anyway, how do they know if I have any talent? I’m their daughter. Of course they think I’m amazing.

Vanessa: Can I say something without you getting upset?

Aida: I don’t know. What is it?

Vanessa: I think you’re good, too.

Aida: Now don’t you start.

Vanessa: Yeah, yeah…I get it. You’ve got other plans. But I can’t help thinking. What if you get famous? Wouldn’t it be great to be in the movies?

Example of Teaching Students to be Honest

Vanessa warns Aida she is going to say something that Aida might not like. Because of their relationship as good friends, we can assume it will be something honest and something Vanessa thinks Aida needs to know.

What damage could Vanessa’s opinion do? Well, Aida might get angry.

Vanessa tries to mitigate this by 1) asking her not to get upset and 2) focusing on the positive-what if Aida becomes really famous?

It’s interesting to note that Aida is immediately defensive and she signals this by saying, “I don’t know.” She doesn’t say, for example, “of course you can tell me anything!” In thee same vein, at the end of the page, we see that Aida has not been totally convinced by Vanessa. She calls Vanessa’s speech crazy and is trying to persuade Vanessa that she won’t be a good actress.

Once students have analyzed this scene, they could imagine a similar scene where someone is trying to convince someone else they have talent or ability:

  • a teacher is trying to get a student to enter a science competition
  • a parent wants their child to play a sport
  • one student wants another to write for the school newspaper

They could also rewrite this scene so that:

  • Aida is persuaded by Vanessa
  • Aida gets angry and Vanessa has to calm her down
  • Vanessa tells Aida she’s not a good actress and Aida gets upset

So, if you weren’t planning to celebrate National Honesty Day in class, I hope I’ve changed your mind and given you an idea for an activity teaching students to be honest, and strategies to employ to tell a direct truth, then mitigate the damage. Leave a comment if you try this activity in class, or any other activity to teach the pragmatics of honesty!

Looking for more drama and pragmatics lessons?

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