An Argument for Honesty

Whenever I was rejected—from a university, an audition, a job, a date, some other application, or really any other purpose—the rejection letter or statement was always sweetened up. A common theme in these rejection statements is that “we were humbled by your talents and achievements,” or that “you have our very best wishes.” Obviously, these statements are not entirely genuine. They exist to soothe the pain of rejection.

In the past, I have found myself in a position where I can only accept a proper subset of all applicants for a position. I have myself sent out some of these canned rejection letters to applicants. Not all of the statements contained within the letters were truthful. Certainly, I did not believe that every applicant was “exceptionally talented and qualified”, although the letters asserted that they were.

I did not hesitate in sending the rejection letters, even though their content was mostly false statements. I was literally lying to the rejected applicants. Because the statements were subjective, the lies were not incredibly misleading. Even so, they were made with the intention to conceal my true feelings.

Is it ethical to lie, if the goal is to make someone feel better? Not hurting someone’s feelings is certainly a good thing. But it inhibits others’ ability to act on accurate information. They may believe that the sole reason for rejection was bad luck, and not some other more fundamental issue, and therefore they may find it difficult to improve and increase their future chances. By deciding to hide the truth, I have also made an implicit judgement that they are unable to handle the truth, and that they would not have the self-control and maturity to handle raw criticism. In this sense, by lying, I am devaluing their status as rational, human minds and treating them almost as if they are children.

Perhaps a major reason for the desire to sugar-coat the rejection letters is my own selfishness. If I had been honest in sending the letters, then I would likely have made some people mad. My future relations with them may be sour and toxic. On the other hand, by sending out rejection letters carefully worded to minimize pain, I increase the recognition of my name and its association with helpfulness and kindness. This in turn increases the chance that I will have positive relations with those people.

The desire to have positive relationships is in turn self-serving, because I hope that I will get enjoyment or other benefits from these relationships. It causes a vicious cycle with positive repercussions for me: my reputation will improve, which will cause others to have higher opinions of me, which will further improve the depth and breadth of my relationships, and that will improve my reputation.

Perhaps, then, selfishness is a good explanation for why I lied in the rejection letters: it was a calculated move to shield me from anger and instead foster better relationships with others. I wish I could defend my actions as being true and honest, but frankly, my words were about as dishonest as possible.

Of course, I am not the one to blame for dishonesty in rejections. It has become a societal convention that all rejections must include statements of praise, allegedly for soothing the pain. I was, for the most part, merely following this convention. However, dishonesty is probably not the best policy. The rejection letters are sent to mature and rational human beings, and it is most respectful to treat them as mature beings capable of knowing the truth, because in the end that will help them more.

I should have instead included a reason for rejection—not coated with vitriol but not coated with sugar either—stating the facts about why the decision was made. A letter containing that information, such as “Your application was rejected because you have not achieved the required years of experience,” is more informative and more honest, and by and large more ethical.

I look forward to being rejected in the future. Perhaps, just perhaps, I won’t be lied to.