White Lies Seem Civilized—But They Drive Us Apart

white lies




I was raised to tell white lies. To tell White lies, the sort my people use to shelter one another from unpleasant truths. No raw honesty seeped into our proper world, just bland assurances and an endless trove of compliments. For some, the goal was simply the expectation: nicey-nice. For my mother, though, the point was to make other people feel as good as possible. For years I watched her reassure friends and strangers about whatever fretted them, praise even their flaws, shore up their frail egos. It worked. But it looked exhausting.

Research now shows that sustaining even a tiny white lie requires quite a bit of bandwidth, and people falter if they are tired or multitasking. Intuiting this, and lazy by nature, I vowed in my teens that I would find gentle ways to tell the truth.

For a while that, too, was exhausting. It required semantic creativity, a politician’s ability to not quite answer the question, and a constant panning for anything I could freely and honestly compliment. I began to have second thoughts. My mom made people feel better; what could be more noble? Walter Benjamin himself would have approved: “He who observes etiquette but objects to lying,” said the great essayist, “is like someone who dresses fashionably but wears no vest.” In Self-Made, Tara Isabella Burton writes that “lying—at least the delicately artful, little-white-lie kind—is integral to self-making. In order to become who we want to be, we first have to convince other people that we are what we are not.”

I would rather just…be. Fibbing does not sit well. I do not want anyone to fib to me. Nor do I want to set myself up for later recriminations: “But you said it looked good!” “I thought you loved this!” There are better ways to be noble. The people I envy are those with the—courage? audacity?—to blurt whatever they think.

The latest research suggests that those truthtellers have neither courage nor audacity, but rather, a laziness even larger than my own. Those we praise for their forthrightness often simply do not have the bandwidth to lie. Still, lucky them. They will not have to eat, for every holiday and special occasion, my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie (gummy lemon, flat and chewy meringue, soggy crust) because my mother assured her it was delicious.

Did my grandmother want to be lied to? Knowing Annie, maybe. Still, once the praise faded, she had to face the obligation of baking that sad pie several times a year. She was not a stupid or tasteless woman; she had to know it never quite worked.

On average, people tell one to two lies a day, most of them white. “The liar considers the truth to be harmful, unnecessary and inconvenient,” note researchers. The liar is a kindly spider swinging out into midair to weave a delicate safety net. But if the rescued party is not a spider, they might plunge through those silken strands. False reassurances can briefly soothe a flutter of angst, but I suspect that at a deeper level, we see through them. We also develop what psychologists call “deceiver’s distrust,” assuming, purely because of our own dishonesty, that others are lying to us.

Behavioral scientists Taya Cohen and Emma Levine asked people to spend three days being honest in every social interaction—sharing their true thoughts, feelings, and opinions no matter how difficult this was or what consequences it might bring. They were delighted to find that instead of alienating others, their honesty forged stronger connections. Other studies show that when we keep the truth secret or tell well-intentioned lies, we feel more lonely, more isolated, and less connected with others.

I think back to my mother, who loved connecting with people, hearing their problems, and making them feel good. She bewildered me by shying away from many a friendship, party, or interaction. Had it become too much work? Did she feel so separated and constrained by the need to always make nice that it became easier to just not bother?

What used to be hardest for me was declining invitations, especially when my reluctance was caused by a cascade of insignificant reasons. Taken together, they had enough weight to dissuade me. But if I rattled off every one of them, I just sounded desperate to wiggle out of the engagement, and if I broke them apart and used just one, it sounded lame. Finally I turned even more honest and began to say, “I’d love to come”—wait, was that even true? In some other universe. As a nod to my mother, I left it and continued—“but I’m zonked, just not up for a party.”

How freeing that felt. It grew easier and easier. The other day, a friend worried that I was just saying something nice to be nice. “You don’t have to say you like it,” he told me.

“Ah, but I wouldn’t,” I replied. “The joy of being this age is that I speak my mind freely.” The underlying joy is that this no longer feels like a forced choice: be honest or be kind. Once I stopped panicking about the distance between my instant reaction and what I figured the person wanted to hear, all sorts of honest responses opened up. Conversations lightened into genuine pleasure.

Speaking truth to each other is what binds us together. Little lies that seem easier and kinder? They can pry us apart.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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