If all lying were eliminated, it would a mixed blessing. This is because there are a variety of lies that serve different purposes.
I think that lying comes in at least four varieties: 1) The deceit necessary for committing a misdeed; 2) Lying to protect someone who is in danger; 3) Imagination and 4) Lying to protect someone’s feelings.
The first case is bad lying and if it stopped, the world would be a better place. We would know when someone is up to no good. There would be less confusion and a more accurate accounting of what has taken place.
For example, my father was a pathological liar and believed his own lies. He would tell me that my account of how things went down was wrong. This had the effect of gaslighting me. I grew up with an insecurity about my perception of reality. Once I finally caught him in a huge lie, everything fell into place and I began to trust myself.
The second case is like lying to the Nazis to save the life of a Jew, a Slav, a homosexual or a disabled person. This kind of lying is noble. However, I’ve met dogmatic truth tellers wouldn’t lie to save a life. Priorities, huh?
Just think of the art, literature and science made possible by imagination and you will see that the third case is a kind of lying worth living with.
Up to this point, each lie is clearly either good or bad. However the fourth case is the most interesting to me, because where you draw the line is not so clear. Does this dress make me look fat? What do you think of my drawing? I think whenever possible, being tactfully truthful is the best policy. Talk about the positives first, then bring up the criticism.
I had a recent experience where I was the most truthful with a person than I have ever been before. I wasn’t drunk either. Things seemed to go really well. The other person was more direct with me as a result. We laughed at ourselves and at each other’s foibles. I think it went well, although I am waiting to see if there is any negative fallout. It was very freeing and I hope that it brought us closer.
However, how you say it is of utmost importance. You have to be in a position to accept what they may say in return. If you can laugh at yourself, it is more easy for them to laugh at themselves.
However, you don’t want to always be truthful, because you can become a nag about the things you don’t like about the other person and you can come across as obsequious about the things you like. Some lying by omission is necessary to prevent a running commentary which is just plain obnoxious.
For example, early in my career as an engineer, when I made a mistake, I would make a comment about it. I finally asked a colleague if I was the only one making making mistakes. He said, “No, but you are the only one making it public knowledge.” As Falstaff said in Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fourth, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
If you know that the other person is too fragile to handle the truth and you care about them, then I think the “little white lie” is best. Yes, you look great in that dress.
My sister on the other hand is a tough cookie and can accept the unpleasant truths about her clothing choices. Years ago, she was showing off the clothes she bought and asked me what I thought of her necklace. I said it looked like a traffic light. She asked what I thought of her jacket and I said it looked like something Michael Jackson would wear. She was put out by me, but also knew that I would give my honest opinion.
When she got home and showed her boyfriend her necklace, he said it looked like a stop light. When she showed him the jacket, he said, Michael Jackson. She sold those items later that week. Had we told little white lies, she would have felt better, but would have looked like Michael Jackson with a traffic light around her neck. I think we did the right thing.
©2017 Stephen L. Martin
Painting: Leonor Fini–Portrait of Adriana