Yes, we are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We do not want to be unkind, rude, or unnecessarily offensive. However, neither should we be so subtle that the point is missed. The LORD told Habakkuk, “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it” (Habakkuk 2:2). Peter’s words cut to the heart, prompting the response, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Paul was plain enough that he asked, “Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16). There is a time to be plain in our speech.
In the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, there is a chapter entitled, “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” Some cultures are very subtle in their speech. They use mitigating speech, especially when an authority figure is being addressed. Gladwell explains, “Mitigated speech… refers to any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said. We mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or when we’re being deferential to authority” (Gladwell, Outliers, p. 194). In some cases, this can be dangerous. Gladwell writes, “Mitigation explains one of the greatest anomalies of plane crashes. In commercial airlines, captains and first officers split the flying duties equally. But historically, crashes have been far more likely to happen when the captain is in the ‘flying seat.’ At first, that seems to make no sense, since the captain is almost always the pilot with the most experience… Planes are safer when the least experienced pilot is flying, because it means the second pilot isn’t going to be afraid to speak up. Combating mitigation has become one of the greatest crusades in commercial aviation in the past fifteen years. Every major airlines now has what is called ‘Crew Resource Management training,’ which is designed to teach junior crew members how to communicate clearly and assertively” (Gladwell, p. 197).
Malcolm Gladwell gives a few examples. Let us consider one: Aviana Flight 052, January 25, 1990. The Columbian Airlines was flying from Bogata to New York’s Kennedy Airport via Medellin. The weather in New York was poor, causing delays. The 707 ran out of fuel while circling and crashed on a hill side on Long Island, killing 73 of the 158 people on board. The N.T.S.B. determined that the crash occurred due to the flight crew’s failure to properly declare a fuel emergency (Wikipedia). When asked if the fuel was Ok for another pass, the first officer told Air Traffic Control, “I guess so. Thank you very much.” Yet they knew better. One flight attendant asked how serious the situation was. The flight engineer pointed to the empty fuel gage and made a throat-cutting gesture with his fingers. Yet, one Air Traffic Controller said they talked with Air Traffic Control “in a very nonchalant manner… There was no urgency in their voice.” They seem to have been intimidated by Air Traffic Control. One pilot commented after the fact, “The thing you have to understand about that crash is that New York air traffic controllers are famous for being rude, aggressive, and bullying. They are also very good… All the guys had to do was tell the controller, ‘We don’t have the fuel to comply with what you are trying to do. We can’t do that.’ …Look, no American pilot would put up with that… They would say, ‘Listen, buddy. I have to land.’” They did, a half hour earlier, tell Air Traffic Control, “We’re running out of fuel.” But what did they mean? Did they mean that they were critically low? If so, this was not understood by Air Traffic Control. There seemed to be no panic or worry in their voice. Nothing more was said. (Story told in Outliers, chapter 7).
Application for us. Sin, salvation, and eternity are serious matters. There should be enough concern to speak plainly on these matters. Let us not be so subtle that the point is missed or dismissed as not urgent.