The ambiguous art of socially acceptable lying

Does this morsel of social psychology make you laugh?  One of my facebook friends, a chef, posted recently that 7% of Americans have passed off a storebought pie as homemade.   That news tickled me.

Lying is tricky business.  Most of us on this side of sociopathy tell small lies, but place value on truth telling in important parts of life.   A vast category of human experiences call for the plain truth, and we expect that falling short will eventually result in suffering.   Lies about being faithful to a lover, or the owner of the car we are driving, are understood to be serious and consequential.   Loss of trust is a heavy burden.

Some lies feel innocent, even virtuous.  The term “white lie” refers to the things we hear ourselves say that are not true, and we don’t mind.   You haven’t aged a day.  The casserole was delicious.  Guess I never received your irate message/invoice/request for a favor.   We see this lying as gracious, or face saving, or relationship saving, or harmless flattery.   Why not?  Bloggers on Asperger’s Syndrome, the mildest form of autism, comment that they are handicapped by the lack of skill in telling these small socially acceptable lies, and seek those skills in their therapy.

Question: how do we reconcile this socially helpful, comfortable lying with our quest for authenticity?  Barnes and Noble sells a lot of books about learning to interpret facial expression and body language; I take this to mean that while we accept some deliberate misdirection, at the same time we want to know how each other really feels.  Living with this ambiguity can be challenging.

This ambiguity is hinted at in the September issue of Psychology Today, in a piece called “What kind of liar are you?”  Truth telling can be less than it seems, when it uses humor in a way that distracts from something difficult to hear, or invites a misleading interpretation, or leaves out something important.   Vague communication can seem like avoidance, and this can lead to anxiety.   Is the boss telling us the business is solvent or not?   Does this relationship, with all its quirks, have a future?

Ambiguity can be hard to bear.   Do we want to know about possible, but very far from certain, medical diagnoses of our health concern?  How much is enough truth about the mixed feelings of a waning love?  How much do you want to know about what your facebook friends think of your posts?   How much is it appropriate for you to share?  Authenticity and mercy are engaged in a strange dance.

We lie with the wish to avoid hurting others, and the wish to appear in a good light.  But there is some risk of drifting into small convenient lies that, from the point of view of the hearer, compromise relationships, conceal  mistakes , protect us from consequences, or deny people information they need.  We sometimes lie kindly or defensively or lethargically, when truth is called for.

Lying is normal, and yet we resent it when we are on the receiving end.   Navigating the foggy gray area of massaged truth requires reflection.  How much awkward truth does a relationship require, and how much can it bear?  No instant answers.  A few possible questions:

Who benefits from a comfortable lie?  Is anybody’s autonomy compromised, by  not knowing the truth?

Is your lying a creative, witty experience, or an easy out?

What  opportunity for getting to know you would be missed, if you lied instead of telling it as it is?

Do you really want to lie to your therapist?


About Lynn Schlossberger

I am a mental health counselor, writer and photographer living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
This entry was posted in Craziness in the world, Relationships and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The ambiguous art of socially acceptable lying

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