Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I’ll Tell You No Lies

Day 7 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Do I look fat?

Don’t answer that – it’s a rhetorical question for demonstration purposes only.

“Oh, no, you don’t look fat” you’re supposed to reply… “Your clothes have just shrunk in the wash”…

Which brings us to the real question – is it OK to lie in superficial and inconsequential ways, such as mild flattery? Or is lying always wrong?

Yesterday, I mentioned falsifying your personal information when filling out online forms. The idea is to try and protect your identity. For example, I routinely put an incorrect date on non-official forms asking for my birthday, but doing so troubles me a little bit. You see, Wes Kelly, a NASA engineer and a friend of mine, enjoys positing conundrums like this: is falsifying information to protect yourself a sin? Aren’t you still lying?

Maybe in your circle of friends, ethics topics rarely come up in normal conversation, but among my friends, questions like this aren’t uncommon.

“Ah,” you say… “that explains a lot”.

Isn’t a White Lie OK?

Telling falsehoods is wrong, right? A falsehood is intentionally denying your audience the ability to evaluate a situation based on the same information you have. However, if you reply to a question about a subject for which you don’t have complete expertise, and you’re wrong, you wouldn’t be lying; you’d just be wrong. Wrong or incomplete answers aren’t lies unless you intentionally manipulate your answer for the benefit of something other than the truth as you know it to be.

Most of the time, we manage to avoid the blatant, flat-out lies that politicians are known for, but the issue of white lies – or the oxymoron, “half-truths” – is usually ignored in favor of politeness or downright apathy, isn’t it? But should it be?

If the wife of your best friend is trying to throw a surprise birthday party for him, what do you do if he catches on? If he asks you, “Hey, is my wife throwing me a surprise birthday party”? do you say “I have no idea” or “I don’t think so”? Or, do you blow the wife’s hard work and planning and spill the beans?

This is the type of question my friend Wes is asking. Is it a lie to deny that a party is in the works? If you lie, you spare your friend’s wife the agony of doing all the planning for nothing. If you tell the truth, you get the wife mad at you, plus everybody else who’s been lying all this time to keep things secret. It’s not telling a falsehood when you’re trying to spare an innocent party their feelings, right?

I’m not married, but I hear a lot of men get asked by their wife for responses to the way they look. Is this dress flattering? Do you like my new hairstyle? And the queen of all questions: do I look fat?

Now, while some women may actually want the literal truth, my male friends say that’s more myth than reality. So, suppose you don’t want to offend her. Suppose the easiest thing would be to just reply in the manner that she is expecting. That’s actually the polite thing to do, right?

Granted, politeness has become an under-rated virtue in our society. But these types of leading questions aren’t asking for a polite response. They are designed to solicit a form of flattery that is beguiling and self-centered.

Whether it’s women preening over their appearance or men seeking similar types of affirmation, isn’t it improper to set up your audience with a question that puts them on the spot? That’s more than impolite, and it’s more than being self-centered. You’re relying on the protocols of etiquette, practically inviting them to lie.

Half of the Truth Equals a Negative

How about if you respond to a question with only half of the answer? Can a person withhold part of the answer, even though they have possession of it, and still avoid telling a lie? What if the part of the answer that you withhold can add a shade of meaning or difference to the overall answer?

Well, if you give an answer that contains only part of the whole truth, and the part you’re leaving out changes the meaning of your answer, you’re denying your audience the ability to evaluate a situation, aren’t you? So that’s a sin, right?

Let’s say a corporation wants to sell one of their divisions. If they just provided one year’s worth of profit statements, but didn’t provide statements for all the years they lost money in that division, that would be a form of lying, correct?

But let’s bring it a little closer to home. Suppose you’re trying to sell your house, and you know of five problems that need to be fixed. A prospective buyer asks you point-blank what is wrong with the house, and you truthfully tell them about four of the five problems – didn’t you just lie? Yes, you did. You have conveyed the impression that there are only four problems, when in reality, there are five.

White Lies Aren’t Necessary

Let’s revisit the scenario where your friend’s wife is planning the surprise birthday party. To the extent that surprise parties can be enjoyable, there’s nothing wrong with keeping the party’s existence away from the honoree. However, if you have to engage in any deceit in order to pull off the party, since when do the ends justify the means? Is the fun of watching the look on your loved one’s face when you yell “surprise!” worth the deception?

But hey – the husband shouldn’t be such a boor about it; he obviously knows when his birthday is. And if his wife loves surprise parties, it shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that she’d want to throw a surprise party for her husband. So he shouldn’t set her up for needing to lie. Maybe she’s planning something, maybe she isn’t. Don’t ask questions, and don’t make other people lie on her behalf! Don’t be so concerned about looking goofy when everybody jumps out from the corners when you least expect it. If she loves you and respects you, she’ll plan something that you’ll enjoy. And if you absolutely despise surprise parties, a loving wife won’t be planning one for you anyway.

A friend related the scenario about the time a terminally-ill relative, floating in and out of lucidity, asked him if she was about to die. Already grieving because he knew her time was short, he tried to calm her with a comforting “no”. Was that a lie?

We’re taught, aren’t we, that gentle answers calm the soul, even if they’re another one of those “white” lies. Wouldn’t it be so easy to soothe an anxious relative with hollow words of encouragement? Are there times when we can abdicate the responsibility to speak the truth in love and just tell people what they want to hear? Can’t we evaluate the merits of telling the truth or a lie based on the circumstances of the case?

Maybe instead of a lie, we can rephrase our answer with truth. For example, in the deathbed scenario, a better response might have been to recite a favorite Bible passage or remind the loved one of God’s sovereignty. Obviously, I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t asked that question. But I’d like to think that is how I’d have responded if I had been.

Why This Is Important

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? A lot of times, we don’t plan out the lies we’re going to tell. We don’t plot fiendish pursuits of overt deception and cruel hoaxes. Unless you’re a particularly selfish and corrupt person, lies don’t usually stalk our every ambition and motive. In reality, lies sneak up on most of us, even when we’re trying to be helpful, encouraging, and loving.

But lies are still lies, aren’t they? Black or white. We forget the power of words, and that what we speak often belies the temperament of the soul. And truly, what is any lie except an exercise in self-centeredness. To the extent that lies can lay the groundwork for skepticism and cynicism, seeds of discord have a more fertile soil from which to spring, either now or later.

Community happens best when participants can rely on an atmosphere of transparency and honesty. Even if you’re a party animal and your birthday is rolling around. But even when you’re online, and you put down the wrong birth date to try and protect your identity? Shouldn’t you trust God to honor your truthfulness, even on a form only a computer will evaluate?

If I was perfect, I could say no, put down all of the information correctly and if your ID gets hacked, have faith that God will help work it all out. I also think we have some level of personal responsibility for how we protect ourselves.

You know those supermarket shopper-reward cards? You fill out your information and get a card that entitles you to discounts. I have friends that refuse to participate in those, because they don’t want to give out their personal information to obtain one. They would rather give up the money they would save and maintain their integrity than go ahead and pocket the savings even though they lied on the application to get a card...

I think I’ve just answered my own question.


  1. First and foremost, we can't please everyone with our answers (see the "Is this dress flattering?" type of scenarios). So, as a responder to a question, we must know that we may or may not say what the questioner wants to know or hear.

    So once we get over THAT and someone else's expectations (unrealistic or not), then I completely agree with you in your statement that "maybe instead of a lie, we can rephrase our answer with truth."

    I think we have more control over the way we answer people than we know. Instead of lying about a surprise party, perhaps the answer could be bounced back in the form of a question: "Why do you ask that?" Or "What led you to believe that?" Sometimes that kind of volley works and allows you not to have to answer a sensitive question at all. But then other times, there's no getting around it and the questioner is dogging you like nobody's business. So maybe an "I can't answer that ... next topic!" is all you can give them (besides yelling "fire!" and running or excusing yourself to "take care of some unexpected but urgent business" in the water closet). I think that that is all you can do. You're trying to honor the wishes of the party planner by keeping the birthday soiree a secret, while you are trying to honor your personal convictions (and biblical commands) not to lie. However it shakes down, someone will always get their boxers in a bunch in situations like this. But I guess you (the responder) must focus on who you are ultimately aiming to please with your thoughts, words and actions.

    Back to women ...

    If I were to ask an image question to a male romantic interest, I would want him to be "gentle" in his honest answer to me. "Honey, you know I think you look smokin' hot 'n' great all of the time. But I'll be honest with you. I really prefer you in [this type of dress] or with [this type of hairstyle or cut]." And then add in some humor for good measure ... "But I certainly wouldn't turn you away if you showed up sporting a monk's bowl cut and wearing a burlap sack. You're just too cute!"

    Now that would certainly work for me and has worked for me in the past. A little truth, a little sensitivity and a little humor. I could definitely handle that kind of a combo. ;-) Ultimately, women are just wanting affirmation however they can get it. Just tell us we look good in SOMETHING or with SOME kind of haircut, and we should be happy. Yeah. SHOULD be.

    So, best wishes with that ...

  2. LOL - points taken. Of course, Laura, you're the exception, not the rule... and I mean that in the best possible way.

    I have acutally taken the round-the-barn approach to point-blank questions, and you're right - sometimes you can get away without answering the question.

    And a point I could have clarified is that if relationships are healthy from the beginning, you can probably avoid a lot of the pitfalls that create scenarios for lying.


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