The lies we remember most are those that go with a complete betrayal, or that result in a feeling we’ve been conned. Those lies can destroy relationships. But the most frequent lies are those white lies we hear on a daily basis, the ones that are almost automatic and seem socially acceptable as long as they aren’t revealed.
People will say you look wonderful when you don’t, that they had a great time when they didn’t and that they would never have guessed you’ve gained weight when you are twenty pounds heavier.
In “The Liar in Your Life,” Heldman says there is probably no one in our lives who is strictly, exclusively honest with us – who always tells the truth. He believes that everyone lies, including you and me. And we lie to ourselves as well. He suggests that the issue really is how we deal with deception.
Every lie, no matter how small, means some degree of harm, victimization and manipulation of the opinions or intentions of another person. But being completely honest all the time has its own difficulties. If lying is hurtful, sometimes telling the truth is hurtful as well. As Heldman points out, a world in which your every flaw is pointed out would not be pleasant. For the emotionally sensitive, this would be particularly difficult.
But so would learning that others have not been honest, even to protect another person’s feelings.
Even White Lies Have a Cost
Sometimes lying seems more convenient than the truth, like in the middle of a conversation and you nod to imply you know the restaurant the speaker refers to when in fact you don’t. The truth would interrupt the flow of the conversation.
Telling a friend who asks for your opinion that she looks much older than she did the last time you saw her is probably not a kindness. But even small lies to keep the conversation going or lies to spare others’ feelings have a cost. Bella DePaulo identified the “twinge of distress.” When people lie, they feel at least somewhat guilty and a little more distant from the person they deceived.
Even well-intentioned lies also have a cost for the person who receives them and is fooled by them. While the person may be less hurt by the lie than being told the truth, at some point they may want or need to know the true perspective of the rest of the world. They may want to know that their choice of paint clashes with their furniture or that their singing voice is best reserved for the shower. Knowing that their dancing skills are limited might prevent them from embarrassing themselves at a public event.
Most of us have a truth bias. This means that we tend to assume people are telling the truth and we don’t judge the information we receive objectively. The benefit is that we don’t spend a lot of energy evaluating new information.
The problem is that the truth bias doesn’t fit reality. Given that most people lie quite frequently, we are often hurt and disappointed when we find their true opinion is not what we were told. Our expectation of truth is betrayed. We lose trust and we don’t feel as close, even though we also tell lies that are meant to protect the feelings of others. It seems we all lie, but we expect truth from others. Thus, when we learn about lies, we are shocked and judge the other person as untrustworthy.
Coping with Minor Deceptions
Part of the issue is we don’t like feeling fooled, and we are not good at judging when someone is lying. Even trained professionals are only about 50% accurate. Looking down, avoiding eye contact, acting nervous are not necessarily signs of lying.
Heldman suggests that we work to develop a falsehood bias. This means that you keep in mind that everything you are told could be a lie. That sounds like a negative way to view the world but Heldman believes it has advantages. So if a particular piece of information is important to you, verify it. If it’s not that important, then accept that what you’ve been told could be true or not and the truth is you don’t really know.
Accepting that you often don’t know when someone is telling the truth means learning to live with uncertainty. The advantage is that you will be less susceptible to the false compliment or acting on information that isn’t true. This way you may be less disappointed when you learn someone has lied and judge the other person less harshly. Relationships may be better served by the expectation that even friends will tell white lies.
Accepting that everything you are told could be a lie means a loss of reassuring falsehoods. Heldman suggests that the best course may be to find the support we all need at times in more honest ways. This would require actively seeking support. He suggests that while we can’t control whether someone lies to us or not, we can make it clear that we truly desire to hear the truth.
Acknowledging that people will often not tell us the truth may seem like a pessimistic stance. Heldman would say it is more realistic. Perhaps by taking such a stance you won’t be as hurt when you learn someone has lied to you. This choice may not be right for everyone.
Accepting that people may be lying, learning that people have lied and hearing the absolute truth all the time can all be difficult for the emotionally sensitive. Letting people know that you desire to hear the truth, when that is the case, may work for some. Perhaps for others, hearing reassuring falsehoods may be easier than hearing the absolute truth. Maybe socially convenient white lies help ease the harshness of life for you. Making a conscious choice based on what is best for your personality may be the answer.
Note to Readers: I am grateful for your participation in the survey about being emotionally sensitive. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the questions on our new survey. Results will be given in a future post
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Last reviewed: 31 May 2012