- Not disposed to cheat or defraud; not deceptive or fraudulent
- Without dissimulation; frank
- Worthy of being depended on
- Without pretensions
- Habitually speaking the truth
Before we get started on this discussion, let’s talk about what honesty is not, and that is truth. Sometimes we misuse language and don’t even realise it. For example, an honest man does not always tell the truth, and as we will discover later on, truth is something which must be discovered individually, it is not a character asset as in “he always tells the truth.” So with that out of the way, let us begin, with a question. How many of you tell lies?
- A statement that deviates from or perverts the truth
- Tell an untruth; pretend with intent to deceive
On a regular basis? Once every so often? When the situation demands it? Never? If you have selected never please go back to the top and reread the question!
We all tell lies from time to time, whether we set out to deliberately deceive others, or by just telling a “white lie” so we don’t hurt someone’s feelings.
“How did you like the dinner?”
“Mmmm,” you say, “it was really lovely,” as you crunch and chew your way through what could be described as concrete.
A white lie, as it is known, is thought to be an unimportant lie, normally used to be tactful or polite, and is thought as harmless. In fact if we didn’t have these so called “white lies,” we would all find it hard to get through our days without offending people. We use them to avoid potential conflict.
“Don’t you love me?”
“Of course, I do.”
White lies make our life easier, and in a strange way, make the life of the person being lied to easier. They allow us to seamlessly move through each day without noticeably offending people, and allow the recipient to carry on believing that everything they do and say is perfect.
Just imagine if everyone went round actually saying what they meant – the world would turn into a bloodbath! There’d be fighting in the offices, the restaurants, the homes and the shops. It would be a complete disaster. People would be getting upset all the time. There would be a lot more anger and violence.
“Hi! Do you want to come out for a drink with me tonight?”
“No, I think you’re the most stupid and arrogant man I have ever met, I wouldn’t go out with you if you were the last man on earth.”
How would you feel?
So this is about not hurting people’s feelings (emotional or moral sensitivity (especially in relation to personal principles or dignity)), isn’t it? In fact, we don’t care so much about their “feelings,” as much as we care about what they will think of us. We don’t want other people to think we think they are less than they think of themselves! Does that make sense to you? We are protecting our position in the relationship. But this forms the basis for a very shaky relationship, don’t you think?
Sometimes, we figure that it isn’t worth the hassle saying what we really think. We will only meet this person once, and we want to avoid any conflict with them, so we say what we don’t mean. We lie.
Let’s now look at the person on the receiving end of the lie. Do you think they want to be lied to? Do you think they want their “feelings” left intact?
Do you think they want to believe that everyone liked the food, which was obviously burnt? In my experience, I would say a resounding yes! Why? Because I would like it.
Even if I knew the food I cooked for my guests was terrible, and it was burnt, and I know they didn’t like it, I don’t want to hear it from them. You see, I already feel bad about the meal, and I don’t want to feel any worse. The little lie that says: “No alan, it was nice,” makes me feel a whole lot better. What do you think? Would you prefer that someone was honest with you and said: “Sorry I didn’t like the food, it was burnt,” or would you like a little white lie that doesn’t trample over your delicate “feelings.”
The thing is, I knew the food was burnt, I knew it wouldn’t taste good, but I served it anyway! Do I deserve to have my feelings hurt? Of course I don’t. You see, my guests don’t know if I’m (a) consciously aware that my food is burnt, or (b) just a terrible cook who has done their best, and thinks “burnt” is the way it should be served! That is why the little white lie is more of a “feelings protection device.” Do we need one of those? We shall see…
Do you think I’m pretty? Of course I do!
The gap between what we think, and what we say, varies tremendously, on a minute-by-minute basis during the day. All credit is due to our wonderful human brain that manages to take in input, process it, think one thing, and at the same time say something else. We have learnt complex behaviours to cope with any situations, and generally err on the side of caution when answering questions that may be sensitive. You might argue that lying is a natural human process that oils the wheels of society, and allows us all to interact without conflict, but. And there’s a big but.
Perhaps we are just deluding ourselves about true selves. Maybe it would be kinder in the long run to actually tell me “alan, thanks for cooking tonight, but I’m not sure if you are aware that the food was burnt; in fact every time you cook, the food is burnt. I would be happy to give you some cooking lessons if you would like.” How would I “feel,” when I heard that statement? Would I be upset? Probably. Would my feelings be hurt? Definitely. But if I accepted my friend’s offer of cooking lessons, wouldn’t it be better in the long run? Now my friends would really be able to complement me on my unburnt cooking, and I would have the confidence to cook food, knowing it would taste delicious! Problem solved. No protecting my feelings. No lies. It’s a win-win situation, or is it?
So why doesn’t everyone remove the white lie from their vocabulary and replace it with constructive honesty, after all, criticism is worthless. It helps no one and it is better to say nothing at all, if you have nothing nice to say.
I know one reason I would keep lying, and that is because I don’t want to be seen as the bad guy. I want to be liked. Being honest with someone will probably put me in a state of conflict (however temporary) with them, and my human drive is to avoid conflict, which is why most british people – when presented with a tasteless meal in a restaurant – will answer, “oh, yes very nice, thank you,” when asked how the food is by the waiter, and then quietly complain about it in private! As long as I am not in conflict, everything will be fine.
So a white lie can also be seen as a “conflict avoidance device.” In the situation I described earlier, where my friend tells me my cooking was bad and offers me lessons, the result was a resounding success for honesty; but maybe it didn’t go that way. Maybe my friend was tactful, but I took it the wrong way. I took it as a criticism and an insult. I screamed at my friend he was an ungrateful bastard, threw him out of my house and never spoke to him again! What would be point of letting that happen when a little lie would save all that hassle? My feelings would be left intact, and so would my friendship. The food would still be burnt, but what’s a bit of burnt food compared with keeping my feelings and my friendship intact? This white lie is looking better all the time, and compared to a “real” lie, it’s almost the truth anyway.
A “real” lie is not like saying you like burnt food when you don’t, is it? A “real” lie might involve you telling a future girlfriend you are single when in fact you are married, still live with your wife and have three lovely children. Now that’s a real lie! Or, “sure this car’s reliable, I’m only selling it because I’m going abroad/getting a company car/going green and using my bike,” when you know it will probably break down half an hour after the unsuspecting person buys it. That’s a real lie. How about, “If you invest all your life savings with us, we will give you a guaranteed return rate of thirty percent per year, ” when in fact, you are just a conman, and will use these people’s hard earned cash to fund a life of luxury. That’s a real lie too, isn’t it?
Except they’re all lies, aren’t they? From not telling me about the burnt food, to ripping off some unsuspecting pensioner. It is how we judge the lie that is important. Its severity is only where we judge it to be on the “lie scale.” So losing all your life savings would generally be judged more severe than not telling me about burnt offerings! Would you agree?
With a lie, the intention is always to deceive. That is the definition.
I don’t know how many of you have travelled to different countries, but if you have, you may have noticed that some cultures are more “honest” than others. For example, the restaurant scenario described earlier would be dealt with differently by different cultures. The british try to avoid conflict at all times in public, but the americans would have instantly called the waiter over and told him that the food was terrible, and either he replaced it with something decent, or they wouldn’t be paying their bill! Any british national would have cringed to see that, and we would mutter something about them not having any sense of decorum.
In britain, we are horrified when people blatantly refuse to use the “conflict avoidance device” (c.a.v.)!
We cannot understand it, because it is hard wired into our brain. So, is this c.a.v. something we are born with, or is it something we learn from our parents, our teachers, our peers, and our culture? As with most things, I would say it is a mixture of all of them.
As humans we are hard wired to defend ourselves against aggressors, to survive at all costs, and the inclusion of specific skills to avoid conflict where physical injury or death may happen would seem logical. Culturally, there is a huge gulf between different nations, with some choosing to speak their minds, whether it offends or not, and others choosing to use their language skills so as not to offend at any cost. Whatever the case, we all feel hurt when anyone lies to us and we find out. It’s almost as if not knowing is better.
What wife wants to know that her husband has been having an affair with another woman for the past three years? You feel stupid when you have been lied to. Stupid for believing someone you thought would always be honest with you, or stupid for being cheated by a conman whom we believed. It is almost as if we blame ourselves for having been lied to. Whatever the excuse for lying to someone, there is no excuse, unless your life depends on it. That is when the “life preservation device” or l.p.d. kicks in!
People always make excuses about lying. “I lied to protect you.” “I lied to you because I was ashamed.” “I lied because I was afraid of what you’d say.” But in the end, people only lie to protect or help themselves. There is no real intention to protect other’s feelings. We lie to people because we can.
Just imagine for a moment that you couldn’t lie for the day. There have been several comedy films which use this theme to great effect, but just imagine! How would you feel? It would be awful. You would have to be honest with everyone you met. The person in the office you disliked, the customer you wanted to sell an overpriced product to, the waiter in the restaurant when the food isn’t up to scratch, your wife when she wears a dress you don’t like, your best friend who has a bad body odour problem…the list could be endless.
How would you deal with these situations? Some may require honesty with tact, some may require a complete change in what you believe is acceptable behaviour to others (as in cheating others out of money), and if you are a politician, you may have to just not say anything for the day for fear of incriminating yourself. Here’s a bold idea, why don’t we all try to be honest with each other, even for a day. We have all sorts of national days. National cancer awareness day, national mental health day, how about national honesty day? Can you imagine it? The sad thing is, neither can I.
There is no point in ending this topic by saying “don’t lie, unless your safety or life depends on it,” you will. All I ask, and I will follow this too, is to be aware any time you are lying, and for the split moment between the thought and the lie, ask yourself why you are lying, and how you would feel if you got caught out? Who does this lie benefit? Only you will know the answer.
One last thing. It’s a lot less stressful leading a life filled with honesty. Lies equal pain. Think about it. Give honesty a go today, try just one hour and see how long it takes you to build up to a whole day.
Lies hurt, but being honest may hurt even more!
by Alan Macmillan orr
“The natural mind – waking up”