Most of us have mixed feelings about honesty. On the one hand, we think it a very good thing. We raise our children to be honest and we look for honesty in our adult relationships. However, most of us also recognise that in some situations, honesty is not so desirable and, in fact, can sometimes cause great offence. It is for this reason that words and phrases for speaking the truth can often be used in different ways. The same word or phrase can sometimes be neutral (=not negative and not positive), sometimes disapproving and at other times, even admiring.
Let’s start with idioms for speaking honestly. There are a number of these and whether they are used admiringly or disapprovingly depends very much on the speaker’s feelings. One is to not mince words. If someone doesn’t mince words (or doesn’t mince their words), they express their opinions clearly and directly, even if it upsets people:
The presidential candidate did not mince words, describing his opponent’s actions as ‘disgraceful’.
In UK English the phrase not pull any/your punches is also used with the same meaning:
He says what he thinks and he doesn’t pull any punches.
Similarly, someone who calls a spade a spade (UK) or shoots from the hip says exactly what they think, even when it offends others:
You know what Laura’s like – she calls a spade a spade.
She has a reputation for shooting from the hip.
We also say that someone tells it like it is, meaning they speak the truth, even when it is unpleasant:
He’s not like other politicians. He tells it like it is.
There are also various adjectives that are used to describe people who often express their opinions directly, for example, forthright, outspoken and plain-spoken. Like the idioms above, these are sometimes used admiringly and sometimes negatively.
I rather admire her forthright way of dealing with people./She can be a little forthright and that sometimes upsets people.
He’s a plain-spoken guy but I quite like that about him./He’s perhaps a bit plain-spoken for some people’s tastes.
She was an outspoken critic of the former president.
Of course, not everyone speaks so directly and honestly. A person who wants someone else to speak more directly may tell them not to beat about/around the bush, meaning to say exactly what they think, even if it is difficult to say:
Don’t beat about the bush – if you’re not happy with the service they’re providing, you need to tell them!
Finally, people sometimes acknowledge that their honest opinion might seem rude by introducing that opinion with the phrase not to put too fine a point on it:
She was – not to put too fine a point on it – fairly incompetent at her job.