The Truth about Lying
For your birthday, your aunt knits you a sweater that is, well, downright hideous. You tell her, 1) I'd go out in an army blanket before wearing that; 2) It would look better on a peacock; or 3) It's beautiful, Aunt Sylvia! I really need a sweater.
If you chose the third response, well, you're a liar. Don't feel bad, however. If the truth be told, most of us lie to some degree, especially when faced with an alternative like hurting the feelings of poor, good-hearted Aunt Sylvia.
Some of us, however, lie so often that we don't realize it. That's when it becomes the sort of problem that may require professional help. So, what's the difference between being diplomatic and being deceptive?
The most common fibs are relatively harmless ones. They're minor evasions told to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to avoid conflict ("Of course, I'm not angry you were 40 minutes late"). Behavioral experts seem to agree that these "white lies" are acceptable in moderation to preserve social harmony.
The awful truth
Many of us don't want to hear the awful truth every time. Say someone asks you how she looks. She probably wants to hear that she looks great. If she doesn't look great, and we tell her the truth, we create a conflict and have to deal with the results.
Here, you have to ask yourself how much you have invested in the relationship. For example, if it's your wife and she's going to an important interview, you may want to give her constructive feedback and deal with her feelings. If it's someone in the office you don't know well, you may choose not to risk a confrontation.
The problem arises when people rationalize that "nonwhite" lies are acceptable and necessary. Getting caught in a lie often destroys relationships.
Lying has consequences. When someone finds out you have lied, it affects how that person deals with you forever. If your spouse lies, you may be able to work it out in therapy, but an employer is not likely to forgive.
Even if you convince yourself a lie is OK, it still violates the dictates of conscience. You're living a lie and waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is psychologically unhealthy. No one is saying you should tell your anxious mother that you have a 102° fever, or your coworker that you think her clothes are inappropriate. There are many considerations that come into play when deciding whether honesty is the best policy.
What to consider
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Would anyone be harmed if I withhold a bit of the truth?
Can someone change and grow from my honest feedback, or am I being unnecessarily blunt by giving an honest opinion that is hurtful?
How would it feel if someone withheld the truth from me under the same circumstances?
Is avoiding the truth in this situation an act of cowardice, or of compassion?
If you often find yourself being deceptive with family and friends to sidestep troubling issues, you may need to strengthen your interpersonal skills. The main reason people lie is low self-esteem. They want to impress, please, and tell someone what they think they want to hear.
For example, insecure teenagers often lie to gain social acceptance. Here, parents should emphasize to their children the consequences of lying. They should say that lying causes anger and hurt, and that people won't like them when they find out.
When is lying a problem that warrants professional help? If you have trouble controlling it. Pathological liars lie constantly and for no apparent reason. They need to discuss their problem with a therapist.
But for most of us, the untruths we utter are not whoppers. They're fibs that help grease the wheels of everyday social interactions.
Be your own lie detector
As the song says, you can't hide those lying eyes. All but the hardened liar has some anxiety when telling a lie. Lie detectors are based on the theory that our bodies react physically when we don't respond truthfully.
Experts recommend that you look for clusters of signals when trying to spot a liar. The signals include:
Avoiding eye contact or shifting eyes.
Stuttering, pausing, or clearing the throat.
Changing voice tone or volume.
Offering multiple excuses for a situation, instead of just one.
Standing in a defensive posture with arms crossed over the chest.
Reddening slightly on the face or neck.
Rubbing, stroking, or pulling on the nose.
Making a slip of the tongue while denying something.
Deflecting attention from the issue.
- newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
- Roux, S.L., ARNP