There are times when lying is the lubricant that keeps our society ticking over nicely
So, how many lies do you get through on an average day? Less than ten? More than 20? Around a 100? Well, if you’re hitting the three-figure mark, then it may be time to check in for some therapy. But if your individual score is less than 30, don’t worry: you come well within the normal range.
Because, truth be told, it is impossible to get through the day without lying to someone or the other about something or the other. No matter what you do, whom you meet, you will always come up against situations in which truth-telling is both cruel and needlessly hurtful. There will always be some situations in which honesty is demonstratively not the best policy.
And that’s when you will realise that lying is the lubricant that keeps our social contract in good working order.
Never mind all those moral science lessons that were drummed into you in school. Never mind what your religious texts tell you about how lying is a Very Bad Thing. Never mind the scolding you got whenever you lied to your parents as a kid. Now that you’re a grown-up you have to assess when telling the truth works; and when it is simply out of the question.
While each one of us will have to make our own individual assessments as we go along, I think we can agree that there are some areas where lying is always better than sticking to inconvenient truths.
First up is children. Other people’s children, that is. No matter how close you are to the parents, it is never a good idea to tell them the truth about how you feel about their kids (unless, of course, you adore them – in which case, go right ahead). But otherwise, discretion is always the better part of frankness.
Going to see a friend’s new-born baby? Remember to coo and sigh and say “How cute” and “How absolutely adorable” at appropriate intervals even if she/he resembles nothing more than a shrivelled-up prune which comes with its own surround sound.
Having dinner with friends with young children? Smile encouragingly when they are coaxed out of their bedrooms to regale you with the rhymes and songs they have learned at play school. Clap loudly when the ordeal ends even if you are bored to death. And nod along enthusiastically when the proud parents tell you how marvellously talented they are.
Nobody wants to know what you really think. Nobody wants the truth. They just want someone to validate their pride in their children. So be a pet and play along.
In fact, the only way to negotiate the social minefield is to spread a few lies around strategically so that you can step on them and avoid being blown up by a hidden landmine.
You may well think that your cousin’s new home is a monstrosity, a landmark to bad taste and too much money. But what’s the point in saying that (unless you want to pay him back for the time he locked you into a toilet for an entire day)? Admire his new sound system, exclaim over the Italian furniture, go into ecstasies over the Jacuzzi in the bathroom. There, it wasn’t that difficult, was it?
Your boss’s wife’s home-cooked dinner may be completely inedible but if you want a raise – and an invitation back next year – then act as if you’re enjoying every morsel. The sweater your grandmother knitted for you may be in execrable taste, but if you don’t want to break her heart you better wear it when you go to visit her (and tell her how much you love it while you’re at it). Your father-in-law may be driving you up the wall by regaling you the same stories over and over again. But don’t tell him that if you want your wife to be speaking to you at the end of the day.
A friend sends you his new novel and asks for your ‘honest’ opinion. Should you confess that you fell asleep over the first chapter? Of course not. He has an editor to tell him unpalatable truths. As his friend, you need to be supportive, even if that means offering up a few white lies at the altar of truth.
Your wife is getting ready to go out with the girls on their weekly night out. She pulls on her skinny jeans, pulls a face and turns to you with that old chestnut: “Does my bum look big in this?”
No, wait, what on earth are you doing? You are not supposed to actually look at the bum in question. That would imply that there was something to consider; a judgement to be made. No, trust me, you don’t want to go down that road. Just look at her straight in the eye and say: “No.”
If it makes you feel any better, rest assured she’s not going to wear that pair of jeans anyway. The reason she asked is because she’s already made up her mind that yes, her bum looks big in that. But it really isn’t for you to say.
Yes, sometimes people ask questions not because they want to know the truth. Sometimes they just ask them to find out if you care enough about them to lie. And sometimes a lie can tell the truth about a relationship much better than searing honesty.