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When is it okay to tell a Lie?

As I’ve been asking this question, some interesting thoughts have crossed my mind about lying.  One is that we don’t have to be taught to lie.  We can certainly be taught to lie better, but pretty much, we’re born liars.  Anyone who has children – or who has met a child – understands this.  A two-year-old will lie to protect themselves, to get what they want, to manipulate a situation, or to avoid consequences.  They do this without cognitively understanding what a lie is; they lie for selfish reasons without necessarily deciding to Lie.  In the past, if I told my niece she couldn’t have soda (or anything else she wanted to have or do), her immediate retort was, “My mom says I can.”  I know this to be a lie, but I’m not entirely sure my niece was aware that she was lying.  You have to teach children that what they are saying is a lie and that lying is not a good thing.  

It’s also quite interesting that these same two-year-olds are not necessarily inclined to lie to protect other people.  Does not comprehending what a lie is preclude their ability to lie for other people?  A child will tell you “I didn’t do it,” even though they did do it, even though they know you just watched them do it.  Is lying a built-in tool for self-preservation and survival?  This same child will rat out someone else in a heartbeat.  Again, they don’t do that out of malice, necessarily.  But they certainly don’t have that same instinct to lie as a means of protecting another person.  So I wonder, why do children naturally lie to protect their own interests?  

Is lying a tool of self-preservation or a tool of selfishness?

The second thing I’ve been pondering is that we are more comfortable with lying to others than we are with others lying to us.  I guess that stands to reason, but still – it’s a double-standard.  We reach a point in childhood when we clearly understand the concept of lying:  we lie and we know that we lie.  We tell lies on purpose.  And still it comes as a shock to realize that our parents lie to us.  At least it was a shock for me.  I remember that moment and how devastating it was to understand that my parent would do that.  To me!  What was the world coming to, because mine was turned upside down.  Not only did I find out my parents were not perfect, but they could actually be bad.  On purpose.  Deceitful, even.  Never mind that I was also capable of this.  That’s…different.

Get over it, Michelle!  Little White Lies aren’t really harmful.  Right?

You might tell a “little white lie” to get out of something you don’t want to do.  After all, you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings; you don’t want to reject them outright.  So you make up an excuse for why you can’t go to that Tupperware party, something better than “I hate Tupperware parties”.  But we can be less forgiving when we realize someone has done that to us.  The thing is, we know what we’re thinking, but not so much the other guy.  Even if we know in our hearts that this person was just trying to spare our feelings, it feels like a betrayal.  And maybe we wonder what else they have lied to us about.  And maybe we wonder about a whole lot of other things, as well.  We know our intentions are not bad when we fib, but we question another’s intention’s because we don’t know what’s in their heads.


In any case, lying is a part of life.  We mostly feel that it’s not okay to lie, but we do it anyway.

Here is what some other people said:

Toni:  Ask Jeff about me.
—Jeff:  I think it’s okay to tell a lie when you’re protecting somebody else’s feelings.  But not your own.  If you tell a lie to keep yourself from getting in trouble…to keep you from…
Toni:  …accepting responsibility…

Jeff:  …accepting responsibility.  If you’re trying to keep somebody else from pain.  But there’s a line there, too.  Sometimes you have the responsibility to tell the truth, even if it’s going to hurt somebody.
Toni:  Yesterday he said to me, “why do you always feel the need to lie to your sister?”  We were coming home from the beach and he said, “Are you going to call and tell your sister?”

Jeff:  That shouldn’t be that big of a deal, though.
Toni:  Yeah, but I make up elaborate things that don’t need to be said.

Jeff:  Stephanie and Toni they don’t…it’s like, to me, from the outside looking in…it looks like they’re afraid to step on each other’s toes.  I’m not like that with my sisters.
Toni: No.

Jeff:  We’re brutal with each other.
Toni:  I’ve had only had one argument with my sister.

Michelle:  Rebecca and I won’t so much lie, but we hem and haw, “I’m not sure,” and “what do you want to do,” instead of just saying what we really want.  And we’re getting better about that…as we confront it, but…
Toni:  Like, “no, I don’t want to go anywhere with you,” instead of, like if someone says they’re having a party.  I say, “yeah, I’ll have to see if…”  And then I might say that my sister was going to watch Duncan but then she had something else to do.

Michelle:  You’re making what people call “fibs”.
Toni:  Yeah.  Yes.  And Jeff’s like, “why do you do that?”

Michelle:  Because you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings or you don’t want to reject them so you lie to them.
Toni:  Yeah.

Jeff:  And my family insulting one another is like second nature.
Toni:  It’s an art form.

Jeff:  It shows you care.

Nadia:  When…I guess when it will hurt the person more than it would help them.  Something like, “do I look fat in this dress?”  I wouldn’t tell them.  If they were looking absolutely disgusting, I would tell them, but if it was just “mmmm”, I wouldn’t tell them.

Janet:  I believe it’s okay to tell a fib when it is overwhelming to hear the truth….especially if it’s going to damage someone’s self-esteem.

Lenny:  Never.
Carine:  What do you consider a lie?
Lenny:  The answer’s no.
Carine:  If I didn’t like your blouse, I would try not to insult you.  I would say, “it looks nice on you,” or “the color is good for you.”  If you asked me if I like your blouse, and I didn’t like your blouse.
Michelle:  I think we lie more than we think they do.  I find that I…
Lenny:  …whitewash too much stuff?
Michelle:  Yeah.  When I have to make schedule changes, I’m more likely to say, “we made a mistake,” rather than say, “somebody wants their shift back, so now you can’t have it.”  It’s so dumb.  I try to sugar-coat it.  But I don’t do that anymore, now that I’m paying attention.
Carine:  And sometimes when people ask you a question that you really know the answer to, but you don’t want to tell them because it involves somebody else, then you have to make something up.
Michelle:  We should be able to say, “I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”  But we feel weird and uncomfortable…
Carine:  …because what that does is brings up a question: there is something there, there might be something there.

Gloria:  Never.  There’s a better way of saying things, but not a lie.

Amanda:  Not to hurt someone’s feelings.  But I never lie.  I fib.
Michelle:  What’s the difference?
Donna:  A lie, I would say, is cold-hearted.
Amanda:  Yeah, a fib is just not telling the whole truth. 

Sharon:  I guess when you’re trying to protect somebody because you know that telling the truth would be more damaging than perpetuating the lie.
Donna:  When you want to protect somebody from being hurt.
Michelle:  It just occurred to me about Santa.  What about that?  That’s a lie.
Sharon:  You’re protecting their innocence in childhood.  Maybe we’re not lying long enough.
Donna:  I want my kids to stay a kid for as long as possible.

Julie:  Never, but we do it anyway.

Carine:  What about the SS?  I think it was okay to lie about that, like with Anne Frank.  What are you going to do when they come to the door, say, “oh, sure they’re right up those stairs.”?

Bridget:  When it spares somebody’s feelings.
Abena:  It’s okay to tell a lie to save someone’s life.  People do tell lies for all sorts of reasons, but I think it’s okay to tell a lie to save a life, if you have to.  I would tell a lie to save a life.
Bridget:  Think of it as noble reasons, to spare somebody’s feelings.

Abena:  To spare feelings?  I don’t think so.
Bridget:  Sometimes…that’s…(gives up) okay.  It’s not okay to tell a stupid lie for no reason, but it’s okay if it’s…for the right reasons.

Abena:  Well, to spare feelings…sometimes, but you have to be honest.  Like if you’re going out with your husband or your boyfriend, and he’s wearing something you think is absolutely…you have to say it, whether it hurts his feelings or not.
Michelle:  What if it’s your friend?

Abena:  It depends on how close you are…
Bridget:  Yes, I do have some friends I do not lie to at all – I don’t – because there’s no reason to.

Michelle:  Maybe it’s also friends and acquaintances – you’d be more inclined to fib to an acquaintance, “yeah, that’s a nice blouse.”  But you might tell your friend, “actually, no I don’t like it.”
Bridget:  I would tell my friends if they were wearing something ugly, and I would expect my friends to tell me the same.

Abena:  I would tell them.
Bridget:  Whenever you have people who walk out of the house in some hideous ensemble, I look at them and I think, “they have no friends!”

Abena:  Yeah, you know…I’d rather…I learned that.  Even though it would hurt my feelings a little bit, I’d prefer to know.  But we do tell lies all the time, whether it’s okay or not.


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bill Wood #

    I don’t know that it is ever OK to lie. By definition it is to provide a false statement intentionally. I understand that oft times a (white) lie is used for perceived good purposes but at the end of the day it’s still a lie. Don’t be confused, I’ve used lies in my lifetime but always felt bad afterwards for doing so.
    To lie is to intentionally beguile someone or to manipulate circumstances. Every time there are negative consequences. I think the safe bet is to tell the truth and if you cannot do that remain silent.

    August 15, 2011
    • I have to agree with you, I believe it’s never okay. I think we excuse ourselves when we do it in order to spare someone’s feelings, but that doesn’t make it necessarily right. It’s interesting that we would tell our friends that an outfit is not attractive on them, but not so much an acquaintance. We are more comfortable lying to people we don’t know very well than we are telling an awkward truth. Even though the truth sometimes hurts, I think we’d all rather hear it than buy a terrible outfit. And that’s just an easy example.

      Like you, I feel bad when I have lied. I feel guilty and ashamed. And I worry almost immediatly about getting caught. It’s not only wrong, but it’s not worth it.

      August 15, 2011
  2. I’m not sure… is it lying if you pretend to listen to your husband when you’re really not?

    August 21, 2011
    • No, I don’t think so. If he doesn’t know you do this by now, then it’s his own darn fault.

      August 21, 2011
  3. rebecca p #

    I don’t lie, but when I was younger I mastered the art of deceptive wording. Sometimes how you word things leads people in one direction without outright fibbing to them. That way I’m not a white liar and avoid hurting feelings. I don’t do that with important things though. I also am not really known for tact or my inability to shoot straight. I am pretty much straight forward about most things. It may be awkward at first, but then its all out in the open and everyone knows where I stand.

    September 16, 2011
    • I think that’s better in so many ways. You’re right, things can feel weird at first, but it’s so much better just to know the truth. It saves time and energy and emotion. You know where you stand and can go forward from there.

      Although, that careful wording thing can come in handy too. 🙂

      September 16, 2011

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