What Does “TBH” Mean, and How Do You Use It?

The letters

You’ve probably seen people throwing around the phrase “TBH,” but what does it mean? This expression has been around for quite a while, but its meaning has changed somewhat over time.

“To Be Honest” or “To Be Heard”

In most situations, TBH is used as a direct abbreviation for “to be honest.” It’s an initialism that gained traction in the late 90s or early 2000s, and its origins are closely associated with internet forums, internet relay chat (IRC), and text-message culture.

TBH is usually placed at the beginning or the end of a sentence to convey a feeling of frankness. If someone wants to be candid about an opinion, they could say “TBH, I hate video games.” Of course, TBH can also be used as a tool for bluntness, flattery, or insult. You could lift somebody up with a comment like “TBH, you’re a strong and genuine person” or bring them down with “TBH, I hate your taste in movies.”

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, TBH lives a secret life among teenagers. Some kids understand TBH as an abbreviation for “to be heard”—a catchall term for social interactions that are confessional in nature.

There’s even a genre of social media posts called “TBH posts” where kids ask for their blunt opinions of each other. Teenagers might say “like this post for a TBH,” or “TBH for TBH” with the intention of handing out (or receiving) blunt opinions. These opinions are usually meant to be complimentary or humorous, but they can also be intentionally hurtful or abusive (these are teenagers we’re talking about, after all).

From TBH and Back Again

As we mentioned earlier, TBH (to be honest) became a common phrase during the late 90s or early 2000s. It was probably used in IRC or SMS conversations to convey a sense of honesty or candor before spreading onto message boards and websites. The first Urban Dictionary entry for TBH was added in 2003, and (according to Google Trends) the word didn’t hit the big time until 2011.

The teenage definition of TBH (to be heard) has a similarly vague history. It’s safe to assume the phrase (along with phrases like “TBH for TBH”) began cropping up on websites like Facebook and Tumblr around 2010. At least, that’s when question-answer sites like ask.fm were trendy.

A woman holds up a flip phone and an iPhone. She looks toward the flip phone---toward a long departed era...

Anyway, the alternative definition of TBH flew under the radar until 2015 or 2016, when morning news shows and publications like Business Insider reported on it as a potential form of bullying. Facebook must have noticed the trend, as the company purchased a question-answer app called TBH in 2017. The app, which failed, was targeted toward teenagers and followed a weird kind of quiz format.

Sadly, the teenage definition of TBH is currently on the way out. It has lost traction on Google Trends, it hasn’t appeared in any Business magazines, and Instagram’s Story Stickers have effectively streamlined the process of asking your friends for a TBH.

In a way, I’m personally bummed we’re ditching “to be heard.” I think it’s an interesting phrase that points out how things that are “real” or “candid” are often used as a currency for attention online. Oh well, at least “to be honest” actually makes sense.

How to Use TBH

TBH is a direct abbreviation for the phrase “to be honest.” In most situations, you can just use the word “TBH” wherever you might actually say “to be honest” in a sentence.

Just keep in mind that most people use TBH at the beginning or end of a sentence. It’s occasionally used in the middle of a sentence, but only as a preposition for an independent clause. You won’t see someone saying “I’m trying TBH with you!” That’s just an eyesore and a crime against the internet.

A man stares at his computer and tries his best to be honest.

Here are a few quick examples of how to use TBH properly:

  • TBH, I could never get behind the whole Iron Man thing.
  • TBH, you’re my best friend. I love to text you, bro.
  • It’s not a big deal, TBH.
  • I know I’m always talking about my muscles, but I’m actually pretty weak, TBH.
  • I’m pretty hungry, but TBH, I’m always pretty hungry.

As for the “to be heard” definition, it’s probably not worth committing to memory. The trend is on its way out, and it’s mostly used by teenagers.

Speaking of trends that are on their way out, now’s a great time to catch up on some other interesting pieces of timely internet culture, like leetspeak, Finstagrams, and the word YEET. TBH, it’s nice to know where these pieces of culture came from, even if you don’t plan to use them in your everyday life.

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