Wednesday, April 27, 2005

On Lying

Lying is such an interesting behavior, because we all do it even though it is perhaps one of the first habits that our parents teach us is wrong. When you are young, you just know that lying is wrong and that if you lie to your parents you will be in double trouble: first for the transgression and then for the lie. I learned early and definitively that it was best to be in only one kind of trouble with my parental units, especially as I sensed their disappointment in me for being untruthful. I could live with the guilt of smacking my sister in the face and getting busted; I could not live with the disappointment in my parents voices when they found out I was lying to their faces (and doing a convincing job of it to boot) about having started the melee to begin with.

As we get older, we realize that there are nuances to lying. There is the Social Nicety lying, such as “I love your dress!” or “Have you lost weight!?” as well as “Oh I can’t make it tonight; I”ve got to shampoo my hair.” There is the Saving of Feelings lying, “It’s not you; it’s me.” These are socially acceptable in many circumstances and in fact contribute to civil human relations in our society.

In the other corner, there are the lies that are never okay, but that sometimes masquerade as the benign lies outlined above. There is the good old outright A**-Saving lying such as, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman--Miss Lewinsky” or “I did not smack my sister in the face for no reason.” There is the Actively Evil Narcissistic lying such as, “I would never sleep with your sister/friend/a random woman on my vacation and then come home and sleep with you! I love you!” There is the Avoidance lying such as, "I was out with friends last night {one of whom is a woman I plan to dump you for as soon as she gives the signal}" or finding ways to not mention that you have a girlfriend, even if it means leaving out entire sections of anecdotes and details about your life in conversations with others.

I’m sure I’m missing a whole slew of categories, like Diplomatic lying which countries do every minute, and Insecure lying, which people tend to do on internet dating sites as if the person will never find out that you don’t actually own a dog or have an athletic build. Any others I'm missing?

By the time we reach adulthood, I think we have all found ourselves in situations where someone in our life just can’t help him or herself, and simply lies all the time about matters great and small. On one level, it is unfortunate for them, because it shows that they don’t possess the confidence in themselves or the faith in you to hear the truth and be okay with it. Even if they are telling you something really terrible, in my case at least, I’d always just prefer to know the truth and work toward a solution from there. On another level, having a friend lie to you constantly can only make you feel disrespected and expendable. After all, if a friend can’t trust you enough to be honest with you and know that you will still love them, if perhaps a bit angry at them, what kind of friendship do you really actually have, right?

In any case, lies are so unfortunate because they strip away the foundation of any friendship, which is trust. A good friend of mine just ended a friendship with someone she has known for many years for that precise reason. It became impossible to know whether anything the friend said was truthful. No one is arguing for complete honesty in human relations, but she realized that the “benign untruths” her friend was telling her were not benign at all. The difference being that benign untruths are designed to spare your friend’s feelings. “A**-Saving Lies” are designed to spare YOURSELF some hassle, agro or natural consequences for your actions. It can become easy to convince yourself that your a**-saving lies are benign untruths in service of a friends’ feelings, simply because it is often easier to pretend that the absence of conflict with a friend is a favor to the friend rather than a favor to yourself.

Whenever I am tempted to tell an a**-saving lie, I remind myself that I will then have to come up with—and remember—ten more lies to cover this one lie, and if I’m discovered, I’ll never be able to convince my loved one that my intentions were good. After all, one lie can be forgiven on the basis of erring is human. Ten lies indicate a commitment to the lies, a need for the lies, and a shocking ability to tell a host of them without blinking…all of which will dismantle your relationship (and your friend’s trust) piece by piece. C.E Montague said it best:

A lie will easily get you out of a scrape, and yet, strangely and beautifully, rapture possesses you when you have taken the scrape and left out the lie.

So where does this leave my friend? I had no real advice for her other than to know that she did the right thing for herself—and perhaps for her friend too. Because sometimes we can only learn the value of honesty by losing the very things that we thought our lies were preserving.


Anonymous said...

Why is it easier to know when a romantic relationship has soured than when it's time to break up with a friend?

Because we're designed to stick with friends through greater amplitude of those ups and downs, but not when the bond is continually tested by 1/2 and non-truths.

Because sometimes you can't *give* a friend the balance they need, fully demonstrate that honesty (no matter how ugly) is desirable, or can you continue to overlook and even enable their efforts to sabotage the friendship.

Because it's bittersweet...but ultimately not a difficult decision at all. This "friend" didn't ultimately share your values, understand your needs, and wasn't the person you thought s/he was all along.

By voting with her feet, one person definitely indicated her needs, and that's what matters.

E said...

So true...and well said. I went to college with a woman who quite regularly "broke up" with friends, which I always found appalling on the theory that the definition of "friend" includes hanging in there through good and bad. But you are right. At some point, staying in the friendship means being an enabler in the worst way, not to mention decimating your own sense of self-worth, and dealing with constant dishonesty, none of which are in the definition of friendship.

Anonymous said...

Pretty interesting article. Bit I feel that you left out one reason that a person might not be inclined to always tell the truth.

It is what I consider the art of telling tall tales. Some of us, have over active imaginations, and make up some stories, just for entertainment. The trick, is to use half truths which I feel makes the tall tale, more believeable.

I love to tell tall tales, however I always use guidelines. And some of these guidelines, are that it is not done to get me out of trouble, doesn't get someone else into trouble, and it is not done to make myself appear better than I am. In fact, most of my tall tales, end up using myself as the butt of some joke, since I prefer my tall tales to be at least somewhat humorous.

So I think it is important to attempt to understand why a person might have an inclination to not always tell the truth, before you kick them to the curb. Of course if their lies have deterimental consequences, then perhaps it would be best to restrict the amount of time you spend in their company.

Raine said...

The truth and lying is a fine, double-edged knife to walk.

My favorite is the excuse that people "changed their minds," thus saving them from having to answer for something they said earlier. First time, okay, that's cool. The ten times after that... not cool.

The fact that parents make their children believe that by not lying about their transgressions, they'll be more easily forgiven is a perfect example of manipulation... and lying. When I was caught doing something I wasn't supposed to, whether I lied about it or didn't, I still got a beating.

Tell me, where's the rapture in that?

To me, being honest is a personal trait. Some people are, some people aren't. It can't very well be learned by those who have no conscience, neither can it be forgotten by those with an overbearing system of fairness.

All of us would rather hear the truth from everyone's mouth, but as such, some people like to suck up, and lie through their teeth. I can usually tell too, which is the really annoying part. Nothing sucks more than a liar who denies lying.

I can't say I've ever cut off any friends for lying, but a relationship did end based on stress caused by manic "mind-changing" and hypocracy.

'Ere, how about that E? You going to write one up on hypocracy, or should I?

E said...

Raine, it's all YOURS. I can't wait to read it!