Posted tagged ‘university culture’

Should I be Frank?

December 2, 2008

In my last job, I had a colleague who was very keen on presenting himself as a ‘take-me-as-you-find-me’ character who never failed to be forthright in his opinions and who liked to say that everyone deserved to hear the ‘honest truth’ from him. Let us call him John. John’s view of the world was not a rosy one. The world was a bad place, and people were bad, and times were hard. This man’s glass was not so much half empty as entirely drained of even the last drop of liquid. And nobody who came into contact with him was spared a full account of his boundless and energetic pessimism. Nor were they spared his views of their faults and weaknesses, which he believed he had a duty to point out.

So one day John appeared in my office, and began: ‘Can I be frank?’

I replied, ‘Of course, Frank, absolutely. And by what surname would you like to be known?’

John (now Frank) stood there for a moment, uncharacteristically indecisive. He was weighing up whether I had been witty or unpleasant. He left the room without saying anything else, so I think unpleasant won out. But he never burdened me again with his frank views.

There is, I think, a particular streak in some university circles that makes people feel there is something honourable or even noble in ‘speaking the truth’ in circumstances where ‘the truth’ is largely designed to hurt or offend. I am neither suggesting that this is widespread nor arguing that deception or dishonesty is better, but I do sometimes wonder at the apparent indifference you see in some people as to the effect they have on others. We are used to robust intellectual argument, and it is perhaps easy to extend that to all interpersonal discussion.

I should emphasise that I am not saying that all academic discourse is personally mean; in fact, I am grateful for a spirit of community and solidarity which mostly characterises DCU. But it is worth saying that there is nothing intellectually or personally weak in showing concern and kindness, even (and maybe especially) where we disagree; and maybe it would be good every now and again to remind ourselves of that, and to behave accordingly.