One of my most frequent white lies is my response to the reflexive greeting “Hey, how’s it going?” or “How are you?” Some might point out that the query in itself is a falsehood, because, really, how often do people care? But pretending for a moment that we are all equally and totally interested in each other’s well-being at all times, I don’t believe that I have ever answered that question with full honesty in my life. I usually answer, “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?” But, clearly, I am rarely just “fine,” as we all generally exist in a state of being that is somewhat more complicated than a single adjective, especially such a lukewarm one, can convey.
Yet we persist in smiling and lying our little faces off every day as we move through life, lest we inconvenience anyone with the full truth. This inconsequential fib, I argue, is the cornerstone of our civilized society. And there are more like it.
Lies and the Liars Who Tell Them
So what lies do we tell, and why? There are some really obvious ones up front. First off, it’s safe to say that everyone lies about how much money he or she makes, but not necessarily in the same way all the time. Depending on whom you’re talking to and the nature of the conversation, your salary can fluctuate by quite a lot. You might not go so far as to add or subtract entire zeros, but I’ve bet you’ve fudged it by five or six grand here or there to make whatever point you intended to at the moment.
People also lie about their weight all the time. Women tend to round down; men tend to round up. Obviously, this discrepancy is proof that despite forty years of feminism and the progressive attitudes of the twenty-first century, we are still firmly entrenched in the gender stereotypes that dictate that women must be waiflike and men must be large. But this is also the age of various eating disorders, so someone who is accused of being too large or too thin will fix the numbers to dissuade nosy and/or concerned parties from further prying.
Another common lie that wafts from the lips of very nearly all living souls is about how many sexual partners they’ve had. In an online survey of 2,065 heterosexuals of a mean age of about forty, conducted by psychologists at the University of Michigan, women claimed 8.1 sexual partners over the course of their sexual lifetime. The men, on the other hand, claimed 31.1. It’s mathematically impossible that both gender groups are telling the truth.
This is all to say nothing of our interactions with the various professionals we hire to service our cars, our plumbing, our bodies, our teeth, et cetera. When was the last time you told your dentist the truth about how often you floss? Probably not even once, right? And you tell your doctor that you have only two or three alcoholic drinks per week, but you really mean seven. You also tell your mechanic that it’s been only six months since your last oil change, when it’s likely been closer to a year; you tell the plumber you have no idea how those tighty-whities ended up in the toilet. You tell your landlord that you cannot, for the life of you, remember exactly how that hole in your wall got so big. All of these seemingly minor fibs—and our reasons for telling them—keep us feeling rosy in the presence of those who we fear would judge us or call into question our judgment and the decisions we make. Being the narcissistic creatures that we are, we are constantly managing other people’s perceptions of us.
Why Do We Lie?
The better question, perhaps, is, why shouldn’t we lie? Can you imagine what the world would be like if we walked around telling everyone the honest truth all the time? Can you imagine the conflation of complexities that would happen around the smallest, most pragmatic interactions? You just want to get your venti skinny latte and be on your way, but instead you’re fully immersed in a philosophical dialogue with the barista because you asked, “How are you?” and she said she was feeling especially existential, and went on to explain her Kierkegaard-esque interpretations of the matter. Imagine that scene multiplying itself across Starbucks nationwide—society as we know it would come to a complete standstill before 10 a.m.
Some people lie about the same thing all the time. Some people scatter their fibs around like seasoning. I asked two dozen people what their most oft-uttered untruth is, and I got at least twenty different answers. People lied about why they don’t answer their phone, why they can’t keep a date, about their finances, about how much weight they need to lose since they’ve had babies, about how much they spent on those boots, about what they had for lunch, about what they did the night before, about what their plans are for the weekend. Basically, about everything, all for the basic reason of making a conversation a little simpler and/or discouraging further curiosity on whatever topic they were choosing to lie about.
We Just Can’t Help Ourselves
The twist is, low-grade lying is practically reflexive. We are constantly in the process of supervising other people’s impressions of us. Humans want to be agreeable—to ourselves and to each other—and as a result, lying becomes a sort of a survival skill. An article on LiveScience.com called “Why We Lie” quoted a study by Dr. Robert Feldman, of the University of Massachusetts, in which two strangers were left in a room together and then videotaped as they conversed. When asked directly after their conversation if they had said anything that “wasn’t entirely accurate,” both subjects maintained they had been entirely truthful throughout their conversation. However, when the researchers played back the tape of their interaction to them, they admitted to a number of fallacies—from professing to like something or someone that they really didn’t to claiming to be in a rock band. The rub is, the subjects themselves were “genuinely surprised,” upon viewing the tape, to hear and see themselves lie so prodigiously.
There you go—you practically have permission to lie your pants off. In our society, because we all go to great lengths to avoid ruffling feathers or creating discomfort among our friends, colleagues, and family members, lying has become one of the most inherently human traits—right up there with opposable thumbs. However, this is not to say that you should go forth and lie boldly; on the contrary, it’s always a good thing to know yourself well enough that you have the confidence to at least keep your day-to-day falsehoods to a minimum.