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. For example, you say “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°F
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 needs 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 tell are not whoppers. They’re fibs that help
grease the wheels of everyday social interactions.
Be your own lie detector
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