Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Lying

I once hoped to convince my ex husband that the peeled and chopped broccoli stems I'd added to the spaghetti bolognese were actually green pepper but it was an unsuccessful mission because while they did not give a noticeably broccoli-ish flavour to the sauce, they lacked the appropriate pepperish flavour that one would expect from them.  My ex, a picky eater who had learned to be quite suspicious of what I was presenting him to eat, demanded to know if the green bits were indeed green pepper and having gotten this far in my attempted deception I was not fully prepared to abandon the scheme so I opened my mouth and out popped a lie.  "Yes," I said in a way that was absolutely not convincing at all.  I suspect the word even died a little as I spoke it.  I probably also looked quite guilty.  "No," I amended as he looked at me with dismay. 

Most of the time I am a ridiculously honest person.  I have difficulties using an online pseudonym, for instance, because I need to be my real self when interacting with people or I just can't do it.  My actions suggest to me that in general I value authenticity and fairness quite highly, and I also now I value facts, the closest we can get to truths about the nature of the universe and ourselves.   I will avoid hurting someone's feelings by telling the truth about my subjective opinion of their appearance or performance but I am less likely to avoid hurting someone's feelings by not providing information that contradicts or challenges a belief or opinion.  If I am typical at all of most human beings, it would seem that when and where we are willing or inclined to tell a lie is related to what we value.  I value the feelings of other people to some degree but I value finding truth and accuracy about the nature of the universe more.  I am not sure that this is the norm.  I suspect it's not. 


A Potential Scenario

Friend or acquaintance asks, 'What did you think of the slam poem I just performed?'

I, in the past, would reply, 'It was great.' And not mean it.

I now, having thought it sounded stupid but having better skills in obfuscation reply  'You did a great job; such powerful emotion.'

It may be obvious that I fudged that response a little, avoided directly answering the question, but if the person performed the poem in accordance with the general requirements of slam poetry and it was indeed emotional sounding, as slam poetry is by definition, then I haven't lied.

The question may be, Is this an improvement on the standard social lie?

I was in fact taught to tell social lies, with the belief that when saying nothing was unavoidable, it is better to tell a lie than to hurt someone's feelings.  This would result in lies about why I was not available to participate in a certain social event, lies about my true opinion of someone's new dress, lies about whether or not this bolognese sauce made from Grandma's special recipe really is delicious.   Most people tell these sorts of lies; most people I know believe them to be good or at least benign.  Generally I am invested in preventing hurt feelings unless there is some greater truth involved, I am interested in protecting my own privacy if asked too direct a question, and I am not guiltless when it comes to conveniently convincing myself that something which is not true in fact is true because it eases my conscience or moderates my opinion of myself.  Psychologists tell us these are all generally typical human behaviours and I have no reason to believe I am exempt from them.

The biggest lie I ever struggled with was a surprise to me.  Having had my own childhood experience believing in both Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny I was not prepared to discover that I felt very uncomfortable telling my son these conventional lies.  I could not justify them to myself even in the name of childhood magic and fun.  Why, I asked myself, could it not be just as fun to be told that these figures are stories and make-believe and that we play-act a belief in them for the fun of it?  After all it would still result in gifts and chocolates and surprises and anticipation.  I also had a child whom I knew was the type to be quite horrified about being lied to.  He was not as inclined towards skepticism as I had been as a young child, he accepted without question what his parents told him and this made me all the more horrified at lying to him.  I made the decision to tell him the truth when he was eight.  In my childhood it was not common to believe in Santa Claus beyond the age of eight and I genuinely feared that my child risked being teased by peers if I allowed him to believe long past this age.  It seems that things had changed, perhaps my peers longed for a longer lasting and more innocent childhood and so encouraged belief much later in their own children.  It seems to be the norm for my son's generation and those after him to believe in Santa Claus until age eleven.  Many parents never outright tell their children but assume it has been figured out.  Some I know even half-jokingly threaten that there will be no gifts if disbelief is declared.

Call me a spoil sport and accuse me of having no sense of magic and mystery.  It's probably true.  I am very uncomfortable with magical thinking although I enjoy fiction and fantasy when it is obviously such.  Knowing my son, I anticipated that if I left him to discover the truth on his own at a later age he would be horrified and perhaps angry.  I chose to risk the anger of why did you spoil the fun over why did you lie to me all these years.  Recently I asked my now 22 year old what he thinks of my decision and explained to him the thinking behind it.  Much to my relief he mainly agrees with me and what I did, and also with the possibility that the best strategy is not to tell the lie in the first place but to create a Santa Claus and Easter Bunny that are known not to be real but still figures of fun and play.  I have to say I am relieved, though I may never know if he is lying to me for the sake of sparing my feelings.

A Potential Scenario

Me to Son:  Did I make the right choice or did I completely fail as a parent and psychologically mess you up forever?

Son to Me:  You did a great job.   Such good intention.

4 comments:

  1. This has always been such a tricky area for me. I am programmed to tell the truth. But as you have, I have learnt to skirt the question if asked directly.
    My kids are also brutally honest even to telling me, unsolicited, they loved Dad more!
    Ah honesty, it has come back to bite me in the bum!! :-D xo Jazzy Jack

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  2. I find it a complex and interesting subject. Even amongst basically good people there is the drive to self-preserve, there is the need of the ego, there is social convention. If the subject interests you at all, a short book (or long essay) by Sam Harris called Lying is an interesting read. xo

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  3. It is a very interesting topic for sure...whether to tell the kid the truth or not about Christmas. A part of me likes those cheesy Christmas movies about the 'magic' and at the same time a part of me feels like we're turning kids into simpletons by trying to make them believe it is not us buying them the gifts... I can understand both points of view. In your case you proved that you knew your son well...and he agreed with you on that. Perhaps every parents should make his call based on that....knowing what is best for their kid.

    When it comes to honest criticism, it is a very challenging topic. I try to refrain from saying I like something if I don't...In fact, I think I'm physically unable to say I liked something if I didn't. I'm not a brutally honest person, I have tact but I can't say I will not say I loved something if I didn't....I do try do be as gentle with my criticism as I can... I only give criticism when I feel I know something about the subject.

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    Replies
    1. You make some good points and mention things I try to do as well. If I feel put on the spot to comment on something I may attempt to find the comfortable place between praising something I don't like but also finding something positive to say. We all have our own personal taste and that's valid. I can be critical if someone is offering advice or giving information and they are misinformed or poorly informed. Even then I need to check with myself and ask if I really do need to say something. I can't lie and say I agree if I don't though the option not to comment at all may exist. As for whether or not to tell a child that Santa is real, it could get a bit tricky when you have more than one child. I think the magical feeling of the season can still be encouraged without lying though. I would aim for that. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. xo

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