Lying, despite whatever moral instructions we received when growing up, is something we consistently do everyday. Even our parents who try valiantly to guide us are also complicit in the act of lying. Does “you are the smartest” or “grandmother is in a better place” sound familiar? It should. Because they are lies. Regardless of the language used or the ‘kind’ intent behind it, a lie is straight up just a lie. In a 2002 study, an estimated 60% of adults can’t have a 10 minutes conversation without lying at least once, and even then, that may well be an underestimation. That’s highly disconcerting. It doesn’t just mean that we are repeatedly being lied to but we are also blatantly lying to others.
On average, we lie to our parents the most (86%). And though we lie the least to our spouses, it still stands at a shocking 69%. The numbers aren’t terribly surprising, and while we shouldn’t read too deeply in a single study, most of us familiar with self-deception and white lies can understand why the incidences of lying are so high. The lies we tell border on the extremes of consciousness and unconsciousness. And despite what we have been told otherwise, some form of lying is of course necessary, especially when lying to ourselves.
In a single lifetime, a spider spins many different types of silk. The silk that makes up the eggs cocoon is different from the strands that line the outer edges of the web. So too do we tailor our lies according to the situation, sometimes being only dimly aware that we are lying. We weave a complex network of lies – a web of deceit that any spider would be deeply envious of. We may not intend to harm, but we certainly do not tell the truth. When asked about our day at school, we don’t tell our parents the full details of our misdemeanors, who we developed inexplicable feelings of attraction for, or those we violently disliked. And of course as adults, we lie on our resumes, during interviews and on dates. Lying is par for the course.
The first type of lie we tell is already known to most people. Often called white lies, we rationalise the need for them so that we can ‘protect someone’s feelings’ or until ‘they are ready to hear the truth’. The husband who reassures his wife that the pair of jeans doesn’t make her look overweight is but one example; or an atheist who finds religious prayer ceremonies very disturbing but instead mumbles a few kind words; and perhaps the classic example of receiving a sales call and lying about how you don’t have time right now just so you can hang up as soon as possible. And the Japanese may well be right up the notoriety scale. Predisposed to be polite in almost every situation, a Japanese will praise you even if you are repeatedly (and clearly) incompetent. Depending on context, these lies can result in grievous injuries since like all lies, they are a deliberate departure from reality.
And then there are the much more sinister lies we tell. Though the intent is still to minimise hurt, it’s mostly told to make ourselves feel better. When in bed with our spouse, sometimes we end up dreaming or thinking about someone else – perhaps the very first person we fell in love with – and when asked about it, we will lie not only to spare feelings but also to reassure ourselves that we weren’t being unfaithful. Or in the case of religious conversions, plenty is confidently preached about the validity of the one true faith. Yet, many religious folks have never fully read their holy texts, nor do they usually live up to the moral standards they insist others must follow. So when they confidently lie about their certainty in the faith and rattle off quotes and verses, their primary motive is a psychological reassurance for themselves.
Finally, the last set of lies we tell is well-documented. Consider the following questions:
(1) “I love you” – a lie told when a quick affair instead of a long term relationship is wanted.
(2) “Yes, I read most of the materials” – a lie told when asked by your teacher to explain why you failed the test.
(3) “I am aware of most of the issues” – a lie told when asked if you read or watched the nation’s speech / rally.
(4) “Yes, I am not too bad in teams and I am pretty honest.” – a lie told in an interview when asked if you are good at teamwork and owning up to mistakes.
In many, many situations, ours answers given are almost always distorted. Even in surveys with full anonymity promised, participants continue to exaggerate (still lying). These lies are intended to meticulously present a favourable image: You don’t want to be misjudged as callous so you lie about loving another person, and in order to sound more hardworking and knowledgeable, you pretend to know more than you should by using hedging words like “somewhat” or “kind of”. We want to be seen as the good and cool people.
And this brings me to a final contentious bone of irony about lying and truthfulness. Honesty is probably an overrated virtue. In every situation above, if you applied a standard of total honesty, not only would you lose all your friends, you would probably find it difficult to live with yourself. And those who make a career in acting are more likely to unconsciously lie repeatedly – especially since their choice of words and carefully pruned expressions are going to be extremely convincing. After all, they know the right things to say and do to elicit a desired response from a date or a manager.
Like it or not, lying, at least in a way that’s elegant and difficult to detect, is what keeps the clockwork gears of social interaction meshing smoothly. But I think there’s something deeply uncomfortable about being aware that many parts of a conversation are likely to be lies. And yes, that includes the motivational speaker, the teacher and prime minister.
So have you thought about (HYTA) what the types of lies you tell?