Lately, I have been devoting an extraordinary amount of time thinking on the act of lying. I have asked people on multiple occasions, “Why do you think people lie?” To date, I have found no truly satisfying answer. The question tends to cause some angst on the part of the person to whom I ask. While the issue is one that I have been thinking on for quite some time now, I feel certain that it is always unexpected when I ask my question. I have collected answers like, “Why do you ask?” Then there is “I dunno. Maybe to make someone feel better?” There are others such as self-protection, manipulation, to avoid shame. There are few people who I have asked that seem to ponder deeply on the matter for seconds and even minutes. The general response given after giving the question reasonable consideration tends to be something to the effect of, “I don’t know.”
I told a friend once that I value honesty above all else. I was, after all, in my twenties at the time and reveling in my own perfection. Without hesitation, my friend promptly told me that everyone lies. I was shocked, appalled, and genuinely insulted until I realized that I could recall times when I lied others. I will say in my defense that they were rather innocuous, meaningless, and minor to me. What if, however, I went to confess these lies? Would the person to whom I lied feel that my white lie was a minor infraction? Would I lose a friendship? a high school boyfriend?
I value honesty above most values. It’s true – promise. I also can say with some certainty that over the last fifteen years (perhaps much longer) that I can recall no lie that I know of. I not only take pride in my honesty, but demand it from others as well. It is very disconcerting when someone close to me tells a lie for whatever reason. During my self examination and based on my inquiries, I have found the following three types of lies from the least damaging to the most potentially damaging.
#1: A White Lie
I have the most difficulty with this lie since those who use it claim to be doing so to make someone feel good or to avoid making someone feel bad. “Do I look fat in this outfit?” Let’s be honest, a man should never say, “Why yes, honey, you look overwhelmingly fat in that outfit.” No way- he’ll be going out alone and might possibly see himself in divorce court sooner than originally expected. Simply because he can’t say exactly what he is thinking at the time, is a it a lie? I would offer that it all depends on the circumstances. Since I am the lie police during the writing of this article, I must be right, right? Surely, one can tell the truth in a tactful manner and still maintain integrity while fostering trust. Perhaps a man’s response might be, “I really like the black dress quite a bit. You look downright sexy in it.” You get the idea. So, the white lie is eliminated by re-framing it and telling a pretty good version of the truth.
I absolutely detest when someone says that omission is not a lie. It is, it is, it is! Hold on a sec. I have to go stomp around the floor a bit to drive this thought home. Omission is a lie. Now, I believe that there are certain times when we naturally omit information. For instance, when I come home and my husband asks what I did during the day at school, I do not give every last detail down to my bathroom breaks. That is because I have known my husband long enough to ascertain the extent of description that he desires. He basically is asking how my day went and if anything interesting happened. When I ask what he did, I mean much more. I’m asking to literally give me a play-by-play. That means that perhaps leaving out a tiny detail like going to lunch with his ex-wife might be interpreted as a lie or perhaps more than a lie. Just to be clear, he only went to dinner with his ex, her new husband, and his mother while he was traveling in another state. In that case, he wisely did not omit information (that I know of). Despite the general fondness that people have in the idea that omission is harmless, I would offer that it all depends. Depending on what was omitted, this type of lie can be a deal breaker in any relationship.
#3: Just Plain Lying
This is the worst type of lying. Premeditated or on the spot, it is the one thing that I detest. While there may certainly be times when a person must lie for safety such as a woman planning to leave an abusive relationship, it is also true that most lies that fall into this category have nothing to do with safety. A cheating boyfriend says he’s been at work when he’s really out with another gal. A woman says she has stopped taking birth control to start a family and is secretly sneaking pills. A man is watching pornography while his wife’s at work and denies any accusations. These are real-life experiences, some of which I have had a front row seat to. This type of lying seems the worst possible way to disseminate lies. It is what divorces are made of and what breaks friendships and relationships apart.
Here’s the so what of this article. While we may have indeed all lied at some time in our lives and while there still may be an exceptional situation that requires that we lie for safety purposes, lies suck. They feel bad to the teller of the lie (if the person has a conscience) and they damage the relationship. I would offer that lying in a friendship, a relationship, and even in social relationships causes damage, sometimes irreparable damage. This damage may also apply even when the lie was not discovered. Lies have a way of lingering and catching up with the liar.
Here’s what I say to those of you reading this and considering your own lies: Don’t lie. Simply don’t do it. It’s that simple.