Truth In Talking: Calling Things By the Right Name

I’m going to quote Confucius, something I’d never have done were it not for TAA friend Shaula Evans:

“A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”  [Via Wikipedia]

                         Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge

When “language is not in accordance with the truth of things,” music does not flourish. (Neither do presidential campaigns). It seems rather clear and direct; and hard to argue with. Shouldn’t we all strive to speak the truth?

Exaggeration is nothing new. But Confucius is talking about a good deal more than hyperbole here.  He’s talking about a moral perspective on the way we conduct our social lives.

What would Confucius say about a few aspects of modern life?

The Cops and the TSA

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) writes in Forbes that the TSA people who screen you in airports have gotten an upgrade in terms of uniform, badges, and title.  They look a lot more like Federal Law Enforcement officials.

However, says Rep. Blackburn, they’re still being recruited from pizza boxes, and are not being given federal law enforcement training. What you see is not what you get.

Rep. Blackburn didn’t cite Confucius, but she might well have: this is a case where “language is not in accordance with the truth of things.”

Does it matter? It does, Blackburn says, because the “language” of a Federal Law Enforcement uniform commands respect. But if a loosely-recruited TSA employee uses that uniform to get a woman to halt, and then sexually assaults her – well, there’s your harm. It matters greatly.

Confucius and Facebook Friends

At least twelve billion people have pointed out that Facebook “friends” are not quite the same as “real” friends. It’s obvious, right?

Well, when something becomes so “obvious” that we no longer comment on it, you might say it’s entered our subconscious. We still talk about real “friends,” and we still have Facebook friends.

The fact that it’s in-your-face obvious and mind-numbingly common doesn’t alter the Confucian fact that “the language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” It’s not. We are using one word to describe two very different realities.

In Confucian terms, when we speak in this double-speak manner, we are not behaving as “superior men.” If the shoe fits…

Confucius Meets Business Best Practices

Expectations.  One of the more common mundanities of management is the exhortation to “always exceed expectations.” This is – let’s be clear – considered a good thing according to the canons of management.

In other words, we should lead people to expect one thing – and then surprise ‘em by giving them something else. Again, this is considered a good thing.

Except by Confucius, who reminds us that this is a rather clear-cut case of “the language not being in accordance with the truth of things.” Indeed, the whole point of this ‘best practice’ is to intentionally do the opposite of what Confucius suggests.

Public Relations.  What would Confucius make of the public relations industry? According to the Encyclopedia of Business Dictionary:

“The point of public relations is to make the public think favorably about the company and its offerings.”

Perhaps the PRSA (the industry association) doesn’t care for language that so easily suggests manipulation.

The Arthur Page Society, “a select membership organization for senior public relations and corporate communications executives who seek to enrich and strengthen their profession” almost certainly doesn’t like it. Their first of seven principles of public relations is, “tell the truth.”

Well, which is it? Is the purpose of public relations to “tell the truth?” Or to “make the public think favorably about the company?”

Confucianism, like the Arthur Page Society, likes to emphasize the normative aspect of things. The truth of things, they both might say, should accord with the ideal meaning of “Public Relations.” And presumably the Page society strives mightily to bring that goal about.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the one in which the Encyclopedia of Business tries to make sense of common-language usage for the ordinary businessman, the ‘truth’ is “we want you to think of us this way.”

Let’s be honest about that: because that is the fact on the ground, and it’s known and understood by any man on the street. To deny that is to speak language not in accordance with the truth of things.

Confucius and Trust

I am no Confucian scholar. To be more in accord with the truth of things, I am ignorant of Confucian teachings. He may have written on trust, and I don’t know of it.

But any of us can plainly see the eloquence and truth of his words to us, written 2500 years ago. There is a place in life for exaggeration and hyperbole. That place encompasses art and literature, inspiration and motivation. In that context, it is good.

But if we fail to keep our social and commercial interactions grounded in fundamental notions of honesty and candor – if we let our language stray from the truth of things – the music does not flourish. Nor do we, along with it.

3 replies
  1. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    Sounds like Frank speaking in ‘Scent of a Woman’ in his ending speech. “There was the right path and the wrong path and I never took the right one. Why? Because it was too darn hard!” The right thingto do is always hard. It’s easy to give away status without asking that person to pass the exams and do the tests that others have done – the path that creates the respect for that job. It’s easy to write something up in ‘spin’ rather than actually do it. And its easy to trick gullible people into believing they have friends when they actually have contacts. Friends are hard work, you find contacts on the bus every day, you just have to say hi and stand next to the.

    Truth is hard work. Its the right path but its the hard path. When we feel a bit lazy we don’t chose it.

  2. John
    John says:


    When I initially saw the title of your post I was reminded
    of a book I read in High School called the Wizard of Earth Sea by Ursala  Le Guin It was about a young wizard who gained
    power as he learned the “real name” of things. Many traditions point out that
    names have power and when we name them correctly we are able to act with power.


    I think the same comes with truth telling; difficult though
    it may be. I can recall a very large opportunity a few years back. We were a
    finalist and the buyer asked, “How quickly can you go live?” Our VP of
    Operations said 60 days. (The buyer had said earlier he wanted to move fast).
    She went on to say, I don’t have 15 people sitting around waiting for your
    business, I have to hire, and train and design your team.


    We won the deal because Carol was the only seller who told the


    Telling the truth can be difficult particularly when the
    others in the room want to hear something different. Yet when we can speak our
    truth we win regardless of the outcome of this transaction.




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