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White lies, big fibs and horrible truthsayers

Truth hurts, they say. And yet most of us will at some point or another stare our children in the eyes and tell them to always tell the truth. In actual fact, we don’t want to hear the truth – at least not always. When a small child backs away from its elderly relative, clasps its hands firmly behind his back and says “I don’t want you to touch me, you’re hands are all wrinkly and yucky,” the parent dies a hundred deaths, alternating between apologising to the very hurt relative and castigating the child by hissing “you can’t say stuff like that!”
“But it’s true,” the child hisses back, looking very confused.

There are some truths that are so terrible disclosing them leads to anguish and despair. Like poor Oeidipus – he really didn’t need to know that the woman he loved was also his mother. In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck the truthsayer plays a central role, brutally disclosing one skeleton after the other in a relatively happy family home. This results in the death of a child and the shipwreck of a marriage – all in a good cause as per the truthsayer, as living a lie is wrong.

Huh; most of us build our existence on some lie or other. In some cases the lie in question is a ridiculous little thing, like inventing a previous exciting experience as a cirkus artist. Sometimes the lies have as their purpose to polish a grimy past into a happy childhood, along the lines of denying one parent was an abusive alcoholic. At times, the lie is of a fundamental nature, like not telling a child who their real father is. And you know what? In many cases these lies DON’T matter. In The Wild Duck, the purported father dotes on his beloved daughter – until the truthsayer decides to tell him he’s not the girl’s father. If it helps to tint a sad childhood in rosy pink, why not do it? The only time these lies cause actual damage is when they’re revealed as being gigantic fibs – often by an idealist who firmly belives in truth being king. Having said that, children should know their parentage, and this is probably the type of lie one should at all costs avoid, as the fallout of the truth being revealed can be spectacularily bad. Ultimately, however, a child’s true parent is the person who has cared for it and nurtured it, not the one who made it.)

Sometimes people try to shock you by revealing the big, big lies in their lives. I remember some years back when a colleague of mine inhaled, gave me a long look and said he had something to tell me. He looked sort of strained, and I was worried that he was about to divulge someone had stolen the petty cash – or even worse, that HE had stolen it.
“What is it?” I asked, trying to look relaxed.
“I …” he shook his head. “Well, I … “
“You’re …” I prompted, getting more worried by the minute.
“I’m gay,” he whispered. I swallowed back on a surprised gust of laughter (well done me!)
“That’s it?” I asked.
“You don’t mind?” he said.
“Mind? I couldn’t care less – and besides, it’s none of my business, is it?”
“Umm… no, I guess it isn’t.” But secretly I think he was rather disappointed at my lack of reaction.

Enough of the big, painful lies, the ones who’ve inspired playwrights and novelists since the dawn of time to our present age. Let me instead discuss the most common of fibs, the one all of us are guilty of on a daily basis; the white lie.
Already the name tells us this is a good lie. Human interaction would be a painful thing if we didn’t resort to white lies. After all, if someone asks you “Do I look good in this?” turning huge eyes your way as they twirl in the single black dress they own, saying “no, you look like an oversized sausage roll” is cruel – even if it’s true. Instead you smile and say “sure you do – and boy do I like those shoes.” You’re not lying for your sake, you’re lying for her sake, and maybe she’ll go to the formal dinner she dreads with a slight boost to her self-confidence because of you.

Most of us lie all the time.
“Do you have a minute?” No, not really, but seeing as you’re my boss and already seated at my desk I’ll just say yes.
“Are you okay with green walls?” I hate green walls, but you look so worried, and you’ve been working your butt of all night to redecorate my office as a surprise, so I nod and smile brightly. In some weeks I’ll drop that maybe green wasn’t the best of colours, hoping you’ll pick up on the hint.
“I ordered you a steak and a salad, you okay with that?” No actually; you know I prefer fries with my steak, so the salad thing is an oblique way of telling me I need to watch my waist line. But I don’t say that, I tell you I’m fine with it and spend most of the meal stealing your fries.
“Why didn’t you call me?” says X.
“I did,” I lie, “several times in fact. You’re one busy lady on the phone.” This is when it becomes very embarassing if X says she didn’t have one single call during the afternoon … Also, this is more of a grey than a white lie, as I’m lying to avoid recriminations.
“Did you like my book?” Y asks. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear … WHAT do I say, when I actually found the book badly written, full of factual errors and overloaded with blue eyes bright with tears?
“Emm …” I prevaricate, trying to find one single good thing to say. “I really liked the battle scene,” I say.
“You did?” Y shines up, but doesn’t ask for more feedback. I think my body language gave me away, and she prefers not to hear my honest opinion. Besides, most of us know when someone is lying to us, but we choose to ignore this if we like what they’re saying.

Some questions come with evident mendacious answers. When a woman stands before the mirror and sucks her belly in before turning to her husband to ask if he thinks she’s fat, there’s only one answer:
“No sweetheart, you look lovely!” alternatively “Fat? No way, honey!” (we’re talking survival tactics here)
To say “I like my women nice and plump,” is skating on thin ice, however sincere the statement.
To close the book, tilt your head and say “maybe a bit; you should probably give up on chocolate for a while,” is the equivalent of plunging the relationship into the Cold War.

A variant of the white lie is embellishment. You know, the wolf the hunter shot grows larger and more ferocious at each telling, the snake I found in the garage as a child was probably the size of a normal garden hose but has morphed into a gigantic boa constrictor, and the mouse that scared us senseless one night very long ago has evolved into an ugly, aggressive rat. We all do it – and our audience knows we do, but it doesn’t mind as it makes the story far more entertaining. After all, listening to a person describing his passion for angling as a battle between man and a gigantic pike is much more interesting than to hear him recount hours waiting for  miniscule perch to swallow the bait.

Life is at times something of a bummer. There are days that are long, grey walks through a difficult and confusing reality. Those are the days when we need someone to smile and say “wow, you look great today,” even if we know she’s lying through her teeth. It doesn’t matter, because by offering that white lie she is showing that she cares – at least a little bit.

So the next time someone asks for your honest opinion – and especially if the question is of a personal nature – why not take a minute to consider whether he really wants to hear the truth, or whether what he needs is  a mental pick-me-up.
“Do you think I can do this?” he asks, swallowing wildly as he stares at the high jump bar, now at 2.46 metres, one centimetre higher than Sotomayor’s world record.
“Of course you can!” (No chance in hell. Heck, if he runs under the bar with his hands extended over his head he’d not get close to touching it.)
“You think?” He beams, adjusts his ridiculous knee high stockings and licks at his lips.
You give him a cheerful smile and nod enthusiastically. “Go for it!”
So he does. And who knows, maybe he’ll surprise you, lifting like a bird to soar over the quivering bar!

6 thoughts on “White lies, big fibs and horrible truthsayers”

    1. Yes it does, doesn’t it? I think the important differentiator is the purpose of the lie. If you’re lying out of consideration for another person’s feelings that can never be really wrong.

  1. Great post!
    No, really.
    I enjoyed your musings on truth and lies – I think there were enough sub-topics for a whole mini-series of posts.
    With my children I am into truth, I think. Santa causes no end of difficulties for me.
    But… death and taxes are laid bare!

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