Ben Franklin’s definition of sincerity:
Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Sincerity is a virtue we don’t hear much about these days. We’re more likely to hear about strategy. But with strategic communication being lobbed at us from all directions, sincerity has a definite appeal. Most of us crave sincere communication, in both the voice and the ear of another. We want someone to listen with an open mind, hear us with sympathy, and tell us something helpful (or nothing at all). Ben Franklin reminds us that being sincere is a virtue, or a character trait to strive for. A genuine sincerity moves us in the direction of the golden rule, or treating others the way we’d like to be treated.
Getting clarity on sincerity
To understand what something is, it can help to say what it isn’t. That’s what Franklin does when he tells us sincerity isn’t “hurtful deceit.” Sincerity is not misleading. Sincerity isn’t mean. Sincerity is gentle and genial, and involves genuine goodwill. When we are sincere, we are responsive to the circumstances people are facing right now.
Franklin says that being sincere means thinking innocently and justly. Innocent thinking might be characterized by the Zen notion of a beginner’s mind. The innocent are curious, enthusiastic, and without preconceptions. The innocent are ready and willing to think the best of us, even in the worst of times.
To think justly is to be fair in the most generous sense. This is not fairness as equality, but fairness that is responsive to the situation. Thinking justly does not mean responding in the same way, but responding in the best way. For example, to be fair to a child with a disability would not be to treat the child identically to other children. Fairness would involve making accommodations that allow the child to flourish in their own way. This sort of individualized attentiveness, kind assessment, and goodwill are the features that make sincerity a virtue.
With innocence and justice as our guiding ideals, we can toss out the idea that sincerity is saying whatever we like. That does not mean that sincerity will always by attended by good news and a cheery outlook. Sometimes even the most well-meaning honesty can be unpleasant to hear. But a sincere person strives to help, and tries not to hurt.
Sincerity is not just about what we do say, but also what we do not. Sincerity can mean silence. Franklin says, if you speak, which clearly suggests that sometimes you shouldn’t. We can be sincere with kind listening, a genuine hearing, and perhaps a total suspension of judgment.
These reflections on sincerity caused me to think about the common closing of correspondence, sincerely yours. What a lovely thing it is to have some write to you intending no hurtful deceit, and with innocence and justice. I’ll no longer gloss over these words, but appreciate the virtue they convey. I’m so grateful to the Sedona Ben Franklin Circle, who took the time to explore the virtue of sincerity last week, and whose members shared many of the ideas above. If you are interested in joining our circle, we are welcoming new members. Our topic for April is justice.