Updated: Feb 20, 2021
The Meaning of Lying
Before we get conceptual, I feel it’s important to get literal.
Merriam-Webster defines a lie as: 1: to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive
2: to create a false or misleading impression
To take it a step further, we can break this definition into two categories:
Acts of Omission - Purposely leaving information out
Acts of Commission - Providing false information
For the purpose of this article, I’ll be focusing on the latter. Intuitively, we all understand what a lie is. And because of that, many ignore or do not understand the harm that can come from misrepresenting the truth. By thinking of lying in the abstract, I believe we can better conceptualize its impact on the world -- and thus, shine a light on the importance of honesty.
Controlling the River of Information
Everybody’s reality is different. This is both a scary and liberating thought -- more often than not, what you are worrying about probably exists in your head alone. With that being said, we are all under the same constraints of the physical universe. To purposefully miscommunicate information to another person is to shape their island of knowledge with a river of lies. To restrict access to information (the truth) in an attempt to calm feelings is akin to stating, "You can't handle reality, and I deserve to mold your viewpoint as I see fit." If this seems psychopathic, it’s because it is: pathological lying, also known as pseudologia fantastica, is the chronic behavior of compulsive or habitual lying. It is a common behavioral trait of those diagnosed with psychopathy.
Interestingly, we seem to reserve severe judgement for a lie only if it’s impact is large or consequential.
Why would we not view white lies in the same way?
Let’s take a look at a few common examples of white lies that are seemingly harmless, to which I’d argue the contrary: I want to preface the next paragraph with a disclaimer: note that the recipient of unpleasant information invited the topic to be discussed. This is (often) a prerequisite to these conversations taking place.
“Do these jeans make me look fat?”
In this case, context is important. If you answer untruthfully by saying “no,” when the answer is “yes,” then you are obstructing that person’s ability to live a happier life. If weight is an insecurity of theirs, then perhaps tactful truth a la, “I know that a goal of yours has been to live a healthier life. In truth, I believe you would be both physically and mentally happier if you lost 10 pounds” could go a long way. The only other option is momentary delusion, which serves neither party. We all deserve to know the truth, and in many cases, it can serve as fuel to be better.
“I’m too busy to answer the phone right now.”
Here, you are momentarily reprieved from the call -- but, wouldn’t it be better if you relayed the truth? If you are too stressed to take a call, or just don’t want to, then the need for personal space should be relayed along with a better time to take a call. This would improve trust, grant you more personal space, and relinquish guilt -- all by doing away with a seemingly harmless lie.
“I was late to work because of the traffic.”
You get the point -- maybe you need a different start time or are struggling with sleep. By engaging in these conversations, you are opening the door to a healthy dialogue. In most cases, the benefits of truthfulness outweigh the costs of telling a lie. Telling the truth fosters the growth of both the teller and the recipient.
Using Truth to Establish Accountability
The difficulty of building trust is contrasted by just how easily it can be stripped away. As we observed above, it’s best to offer your full scope of reality when applicable. But it need not be in the context of white lies: if you are an artist looking for feedback on a project that you have been working on, receiving actionable advice is more beneficial than being told that your art is spectacular. Acts of critical feedback build accountability. If, in the future, this same person does say that your art is spectacular, you can be assured that they are not lying, as they have built their reputation on a platform of truth. Accountability makes genuine compliments more gratifying because it has gone through a critical filter.
Conversely, tarnishing trust is exceptionally easy. Imagine you are socializing with someone when, all of the sudden, they receive a phone call. On the call, you notice that they lied about where they were. Perhaps it was just a way for them to speed the conversation along. However, this one sentence is all it takes to sow the seed of doubt in your mind. How can you be sure that they tell you the truth when you call? This scenario perfectly highlights the trope that we are all too familiar with: Speak the truth, and you will never have to worry about what you say.
Sacrificing integrity in exchange for a lie is simply not worth it.
The Spectrum of Violence
You may be wondering if there are instances where a lie is necessary.
I do believe so -- it is an exercisable option in situations that require de-escalation, but it should be wielded and treated as a weapon. Just as force must be used with considerable discretion, lying need not be utilized unless there are no other options.
I will leave you with two thought experiments, neither of which I have the answer to. Bear in mind, there are no easy answers here. That’s why this topic is so fun to discuss.
Thought Experiment One: “Lying is NEVER necessary”
The most common argument against the idea that lying is never necessary reads something like this:
A child knocks on your door, pleading to be hidden as a murderer is chasing him. After abiding, another person knocks on your door and asks if you are hiding a child. Do you lie to protect the child, or attempt to tactfully work your way through the situation with honesty? Disclaimer: Every single person that I have run this by opts for lying. Fair enough. Let’s look at another, more disputable case.
Thought Experiment Two: Your Spouse on Their Deathbed
In this example, your spouse has two weeks to live. On their deathbed, they ask you, “Have you ever cheated on me?”
You recall an instance of foul play from thirty years ago. Do you relay the truth and unravel decades of trust that will inevitably cause immense suffering during their remaining days? Or… lie?
This thought experiment has sparked lively discussion within my friend group. I would implore you to run this by your friends as well -- the results might just surprise you.
All in All
Tell the truth. With the dawn of the information age, the world has become more conceptual and complex. As such, it is growing increasingly important for us as a society to be grounded in the same reality. Collective honesty is how a society thrives: from an individual level, all the way through government. Take inventory of the white lies that you tell and make a concerted effort to be better. The next time a friend or colleague asks how you are doing, give them a real response.