December 4, 2013 | Feature
A Matter of Convenience
why we lie
I am a liar. I lie, and so do you, not to mention your best friend, your mother, and maybe your dog. You have lied to friends, teachers, partners (romantic or otherwise), and strangers. You have in all probability lied to yourself as well—I know I have. We give these lies labels such as “manners,” “kindness,” or “optimism,” and we indulge in them liberally: “This tastes great,” “That haircut looks all right,” or “I am going to concentrate in mathematics.” And by the way—there’s no reason to believe that the alternative is any healthier.
I lie, you lie, and apparently so does everyone else, on an average of three to six times per day. Vaguely substantiated research would tell you that men usually lie to protect themselves, whereas women lie to protect others. Hollywood would tell you that lies will fester in the wounds that used to be your dreams and eat you alive. Nietzsche would tell you that lying is a condition of life. Lenin would tell you that a lie will become the truth if you tell it often enough. And we tell them pretty often; three out of five of us do it at least once during every ten-minute conversation. So has this now become the new standard of truth that we live by?
If it has, its boundaries are tricky to find and trickier yet to navigate. “Sure, everyone lies,” a friend told me, “but I still wouldn’t make a point of starting by telling people that. People might think you’re a raging sociopath. Or something.”
“Yeah, honesty is generally a pretty solid policy,” said another, “but I’d lie if it made my life easier and no one got hurt.”
“So since we’re on the subject, how much do you lie anyway?” asked a third.
“All right, round table, I think this discussion’s done,” I said.
I can personally lie without internalizing the fact that I am emblematic of a set of behaviors that occur among people I know and trust almost reflexively. Talking on the phone while simultaneously cleaning my nails and feeding my online retail therapy habit, I somehow still manage to maintain the idea that the person on the other side of the line is sitting at rapt attention and waiting on my every word; when I lie to others, it never quite comes to the foreground of my conscious catalogue that others may lie to me in similar or even the same ways. I genuinely do believe that the kind adjectives that my friends assign to my haircut or character or taste in books are also truthful, and in my more reflective moments the realization that they might not be is deeply disturbing.
“Have you ever lied to me?” I asked an old friend of mine. “It’s for research.” He thought. “Well, sure,” he said. “Really? When? What about?” I tried not to be surprised. “I don’t know, man. I don’t make a habit of it, but if I have the choice to say something that’ll make you happier versus not happier, I’d pick happier, even if not happier meant being more truthful. If I could lie to you and it would protect the way you saw the world, saved your life, I’d do it,” he says. “Or I mean, I’d tell you that you looked great if it was a day where you looked like you needed me to tell you that you look great. Right?”
“Is nothing sacred?” I said.
Clearly not everyone lies about everything, because it’d hardly be worth it. Of course, people aren’t completely honest all the time either. Where does that leave us? Do we get to choose for our own pleasure what and whom to believe? We want to believe that, yes, what we build is beautiful; that no, things won’t be awkward between us now; and, of course, that we are and will be loved. No one I know would respond well if they discovered these were lies. But would they prefer not discovering the truth if it told them they were worthless and estranged?
The choice is, however, not between a cruel truth and benevolent deception. It is not between being able to deliver the truth whole and complete as if it had been passed down to you entire or creating your own version of the narrative either. There are other possibilities: that you will say a lie that will be recognized as bald and gleaming and pernicious; that a discovered lie will be infinitely worse than the truth; that you don’t know what the best outcome is, and you have no right to save someone from the world they live in. Or, possibly, that in order to save anybody you first have to tell them what you know to be true.
I have the phone wedged between my shoulder and ear, and pick at my cuticles as I listen. “… So, that’s my story. What do you think?” my friend asks. I take hold of the phone with my hand, and begin to save us both.