Nothing but the truth?

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Generally, we profess to love the truth and to admire people who only speak the truth. We tend to parody or disparage those “congenital liars” we believe to be frequently engaged in falsification, calling them used car dealers, spin doctors, Madison Avenue types.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we should admit that much of the time we shade the truth, and that we like it when others do so, too. In fact, on some level, we often consider a person’s ability to fudge the truth to be a sign of their competence and normality.

Think about people you’ve encountered who seem not to know how to lie, or don’t understand the subtle falsehoods of polite conversation. 

Maybe they find it difficult to tell white lies, inadvertently insulting someone because that outfit really does make them look fat. Or they take you much too seriously when you ask “how are you?” and they proceed at great length to fill you in on all their current problems.

Let’s face it: we often feel uncomfortable around those who can’t, or won’t, play the game.

Research confirms the near universality of lying. Researchers find that we begin to lie around age 3, when we first realize other people don’t know what we’re thinking. By the age of 5, most of us are quite proficient at it.

We further develop these skills of deception through the experiences of our school years, often coached in them by our parents and teachers, though not always explicitly.

Bella DePaulo, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, taped volunteers’ conversations for a week and found students lied, on average, in every third conversation lasting at least 10 minutes. Adults lied in every fifth conversation. 

If it sounds like I’m being critical, or am judging people harshly, or as if I’m excluding myself, you misunderstand me. I truly think most of us believe this is the way of the world, and that we basically like it this way, for the most part.

All of us need some help from time to time marketing our personal brand, promoting our company, or sprucing up our resume. Sometimes we need a good PR person or attorney who will vigorously defend us.

Here, I’m not referring to intentional deception, but more to white lies that protect other people’s feelings, and presenting your case in the best possible light, which requires, at a minimum, certain sins of omission.

Furthermore, there are many important and well-regarded professions — law enforcement, diplomacy, military intelligence and others — where the ability to lie convincingly at times is absolutely essential, even a matter of life and death. Where would we be if our military leaders, ambassadors, undercover spooks, treaty negotiators and the like were congenital truth-tellers? We’d all be at risk.

Closer to home, let’s talk about our dearest friends and family. We want them to be truthful with us, most of the time. But if we’ve shared intimate things about ourselves with them, we’d be horrified to find they didn’t keep our confidence because someone asked them about us and they couldn’t tell a lie.

So you see, our entire social fabric requires that we know how and when to lie or withhold the truth.

The same observations apply to the realm of politics. On the one hand, Americans say they hate lying politicians, and criticize Washington and its influence peddlers for promoting a culture of falsehood and corruption. 

On the other hand, we tend not to elect candidates who play nice, avoid attack ads, and only make promises they know they can deliver. We expect politics to be a somewhat dirty business, and want our guy to know how to get things done as well as the other fellow/lady, even if the fact checkers may find their arguments involve misrepresentations or quotes taken out of context.

Similarly, if we have an interest in a certain law for personal or political reasons, we rush to contribute to special interest groups that will lobby the dickens out of Congress, and we may even lobby our representatives ourselves. Our end goal is seldom objective truth, but what we perceive to be the best result for us and those like us. 

And yet, despite all of this, I think it’s also true that people can sense when they or someone else crosses a line. At a certain point — either due to the number of falsehoods or their degree — we may start to wonder if we really understand another person or can trust them at all. And at that point, we have to either call them on it or end the relationship. 

While there are many occasions on which we really don’t want to speak or hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we ought to still retain a way to recognize when the conversation has gone too far in the other direction. 

Reasonable people can differ on where the line is, and it may be a moving target as our public discourse evolves. But I think we have to agree that one exists, and that it should affect how we respond.

If you have any thoughts on this subject you would like to share, I would like to hear them. Please email or write to me here at the Beacon. I really mean it!