By far, the most pervasive lie we tell generally falls into the category of mere social convention. “How are you?” / “I’m fine”. Person 1 isn’t genuinely soliciting information on Person 2’s health and Person 2 isn’t genuinely attempting to convey factual information either. Both are attempting to be polite. Provided each person is aware of the mere adherence to social convention, they can lie to each other with impunity and indefinitely. Why would we engage in such a meaningless exercise? Because that’s the rule and it is vigorously enforced. Your ability to excel in our society is predicated on your mastery of the social conventions. Flout too many for too long and you may find yourself ostracized. Is that fair, justified, or even utilitarian? I have no idea and it’s beside the point. These rules are. They exist independently of mine or anyone’s wishes.
Still in the area of lies pertaining to social conventions, equal to saying things is not saying things. “Grandma’s house smells funny”. We quickly hush Timmy if this little gem should tumble from his lips. But why? Why not say so? is it not the truth? As a matter of fact, it is the truth but we wish to convey the fantasy that there is nothing uncomfortable about fulfilling a guilt-ridden familial obligation. By the way, you’re not supposed to accurately call it that either. It’s all about obeying social conventions. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Social conventions form the foundation of human relationships. If you never get past the superficial interaction mandated by social conventions, you’ll never develop the more meaningful connections which is the whole point of going to Grandma’s house in the first place. <Grandma, if you should ever happen to find this post, keep in mind this is just a metaphor. I’m not sure if you can believe anything in a post called “the lies we tell” but I really do like visiting and I’m trying to come out to California as soon as I can>. Either way, by following a carefully scripted protocol for shallow and uninteresting interaction or by avoiding unpleasant truths, we are attempting to convey a version of reality we know to be false. That, in my opinion, is a lie. This isn’t a Nixon-lie, or a Clinton-lie, this is a social convention-lie.
“You suck” vs “your performance so far has failed to meet specific policy objectives”. This is the tactful-lie. The example is inspired from an HR departmental meeting; however, the tactful-lie is more generally broad. It’s any truth designed to be concealed with an abundance of prettier verbiage. The upside to this sort of deception is it tends to work well if its legally mandated. “No no no…” supervisors everywhere are saying. “We need to be specific. ‘You suck’ is too vague”. I can appreciate that there times when telling someone exactly and specifically why they suck is important. But what your really doing, especially outside a professional setting, is trying to cover an unpalatable truth. No matter how much potpourri you bring, you’ll never cover up the stench of a fresh turd. With a tactful-lie, the liar might say at some point, “I don’t want to hurt his feelings”. Why would someone’s feelings be hurt? Because confronting an ugly truth is typically what is motivating the tactful lie. We think if we try to place the truth in some kind of context, that it won’t hurt. But you know, and I know, that it will anyway. We know this to the core of our being but we tell this lie anyway. It’s not surprising. At the heart of all lies is self-deception. (Now there’s a difficult truth for you.) And I promise, if you are the employee getting yelled at, pretty versus brusk won’t change the underlying emotional value of the communication.
Then there’s “I’m fine”. This is not your “I’m fine” social convention-lie (because “I’m fine” really covers so very much territory), this is the “I’m mad at you, you loathsome scum and if I have to really tell you how I feel, your best case scenario has you dying quickly and painlessly and this is not likely.” To be honest, I’m pretty comfortable with this lie. Intense emotion has an extraordinarily deleterious effect on the intellect. Being sane, I’m not about to pressure someone to talk to me if they’re “fine”. Whether it’s your boss, your spouse, children, friends, whatever, what people really need is emotional space. Call it the emotional space lie. Sometimes lying is the best way to accomplish this. This is healthy.
“I will help you”. This lie is my least favorite. I sincerely believe that you may put forth a modicum of effort if I badger you to do so (maybe), but I don’t for a second really believe you mean it. I believe you’re saying this as part of the friendship-lie. You know, it’s ok if we’re not really friends. We can hang out occasionally, trade facebook memes, and work together without being friends. I know it’s hard to imagine not being friends with someone but aside from (max) 4-5 people in your life, you just won’t have that many friends. I understand this. I do. We don’t have to pretend otherwise.
The “good/bad person lie.” The good person lie goes to one’s self-image. I see this a lot. We define ourselves and others through a dichotomous lens. I fault christianity for this one for its imposition of a false dichotomy on the world. Truth: You are not a good person. Nor are others bad people (or vice versa if you’re really screwed up). You are just a person. Good in some ways, needs improvement in others. I’m sorry let me be honest. You’re tolerable some ways and in other you suck. This even applies to real jackasses. It is a defining narrative that colors so much of our interaction with the world and we know, we KNOW, that it’s not true. We know that the guy who just cut us off on the freeway is probably a nice guy most of the time, that his rudeness does not define his existence. That it may not even have been intentional and in fact, probably wasn’t. Doesn’t keep us from hating him until we find new umbrage in our lives. Our heroes are not saints and our antagonists are not villains. However, if it makes the day go a little better than, by all means, indulge in the good person lie.