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By Michael Fumai
1. The White Lie
A properly executed white lie can avoid an unintended insult or help get us out of a tight squeeze (“but Officer, I thought that light was yellow when I went through it”).
Sometimes the audience wants to hear an exaggeration of the truth. Consider the man who just got his hair cut asking his wife if his hair is thinning in the back. Her carefully crafted answer diminishes the fact of what he already knows to be true.
Other occasions when a white lie might be useful:
Your friend is struggling to find a job in his field and asks if you think they’ll find something soon. And you say, yes, of course they’ll find something soon, even though you’re not quite so sure, especially in this market.
Your girlfriend has tried on multiple outfits, some more than once, and your input really matters because you two are going to a work party that night. Her mounting anxiety and waning confidence have not escaped your notice, and finally you settle on the black dress with the yellow horizontal stripe: “that’s the one,” you say, “the best look, but now I have to finish changing myself.”
And perhaps the most notorious white lie of all is preceded by this question: how are you?
Ahem…no you’re not. You’re just getting on like the rest of us. You have just enough money to miss two-and-a-half weeks of work before total financial collapse, your SUV’s exhaust is making that unsatisfied grumble again, those gently used loafers you sold on eBay three weeks ago are still lost in transit somewhere, and despite your daughter’s protestations that she doesn’t smoke you keep finding lipstick-smeared Parliaments in the backyard. But, on the plus side, you’re really looking forward to getting home, kicking off your shoes and pouring yourself a glass of vino. Better make that two, you’re still making your way through Frasier the second time around.
Several years ago, I was dating this girl and we were in New York for her sister’s birthday weekend. That Saturday the plan was to meet her sister’s friends at a fancy restaurant in Tarrytown, and then out to mingle in the bar scene. All was well until her cousin, who lived in the city, bailed at the last minute. The plan had been in motion for months, reservations had been made. Considering their cousin was like the guest of honor, you can imagine how her absence had a souring effect on the night.
Flaking on commitments isn’t technically lying, unless of course you never planned on following through in the first place. But depending on our reasons for canceling plans they can be a breeding ground for fibs. We’ve all been there. You felt totally fine with the idea of going on a haunted hayride at the beginning of September when it was still somewhat warm out. But when the night finally arrives it’s thirty degrees colder, you have work the next day and, oh yeah, you’re 35.
Some of us tell the truth. We call our friend, and we say, “I know we’re on for tonight, but I’ve just had the worst day…can we get together some other time?” It has not been an easy decision, you’ve had to wrestle with guilt. Your friend, a horror aficionado, has been looking forward to the haunted hayride. Unfortunately, your ambitious co-worker got you nominated to stay extra late to work on a project, and you had a horrible night’s sleep. You’re a zombie. But you’re a zombie that rather not lie.
And then there’s the other variety. The type that doesn’t mind dishing out a lie at the last minute. The one that texts you: “sorry, not going to make it later, was in Connecticut for a wedding over the weekend and my car broke down.”
Although the lie (whatever it may be) is a convenient out for the flaker, it’s going to take a toll on your friendship. It’s only natural to be frustrated after having your time wasted. To make things worse you know they’re lying. How could they be in Connecticut when you saw them tagged in New Jersey on their Instagram post?
III. I’m Not in Denial, Reality Just Doesn’t Agree With Me
Usually when I think of a lie it’s occurring somewhere outside myself. It originates in other people. They use it to get out of commitments or to appear more valuable to others. On TV, villains lie so they can swindle people out of money. In novels, characters use deception to get ahead. But what about the lies we tell ourselves?
I used to be a buyer for a retail company. I researched products that would be profitable, and replenished inventory. After about a year there the company started to rapidly grow; new people were hired for new roles, especially in programming. Speed and accuracy had always been necessary for a buyer but with the addition of a new “scraper” software the former took on a new importance. I prided myself on not making mistakes, and since I was skeptical of the software (it definitely had some flaws) I was still double-checking my work. Most of the buyers took to the scraper and were putting together orders twice the size of mine.
It felt like I was on shaky ground.
I told myself the job wasn’t worth it and I didn’t care, and yet I was giving it all I had, at the expense of my well-being. I told myself my performance was just as good as the other buyers’, if not better, despite the weekly reports indicating otherwise.
And there were more changes, including managerial, and then I thought, well, I never really wanted to be a buyer anyway.
I understand now that I was just trying to maintain productivity in a worsening situation, but the fact remains I wasn’t being honest with myself about reality.
IV. Adjustable Foundations
In a world where so much is out of our control we bolster ourselves with untruths to decrease our anxieties. We lie to ourselves about our looks for an extra confidence boost for that first date. We lie about our intentions. We deceive ourselves about going back to the gym again and cutting down on screen time. We are in denial about how we feel about our job, so we don’t have to face the daunting task of looking for one we are more suited for.
I’m not trying to imply that we’re going around lying to ourselves all the time because then we’d be living in a seriously delusional society. But there are a multitude of reasons for self-deception, some employed for something as simple as squeezing in a trip to the grocery store.
Perhaps it is because we deceive ourselves with such frequency that we are so careful with the lies we tell others.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.