When asked for honest feedback, like, “How do I look?” or “What do you think of this?”, why is it so easy to lie? We soften the blow by not being honest, and instead give a thoughtless, typical answer to avoid a potential awkward situation. We often do this because we personally feel that we know what’s best for the other person by judging past experiences, but how foolish we humans can be. And there’s the catch: What masquerades as helpful is actually hurtful.
Sam Harris, author of Lying, provides a thoughtful definition of lying and what it accomplishes [emphasis mine]:
“To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook, while illuminating a psychological and social landscape whose general shape is very easy to recognize. People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.
“To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior.
“Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship. By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to. And by lying to one person, we potentially spread falsehoods to many others—even to whole societies. We also force ourselves subsequent choices—to maintain the deception or not—that can complicate our lives. In this way, every lie haunts our future. There is no telling when or how it might collide with reality, requiring further maintenance. The truth never needs to be tended in this way. It can simply be reiterated. The lies of the powerful lead us to distrust governments and corporations. The lies of the weak make us callous toward the suffering of others. The lies of conspiracy theorists raise doubts about the honesty of whistleblowers, even when they are telling the truth. Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste—everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.” ”
When it comes to our relationships with friends, a multitude of factors come into play: your level of friendship, your personality, past experiences, memories, and more. But let’s not delude ourselves—we all lie. It takes a serious level of self-awareness to know your motives to obscure the truth from someone you care about. It also takes an understanding, like the definition above, to grasp the consequences of lying and how that molds your character and potentially others.
But what if a newfound acquaintance or your friend’s friend asks for an honest opinion? Do we hold a little back just to be safe? Do we show the virtue of honesty right away?
What, exactly, is the difference between truth and truthfulness? Harris says [emphasis mine]:
“As the philosopher Sissela Bok observed, however, we cannot get far on this topic without first distinguishing between truth and truthfulness—for a person may be impeccably truthful while being mistaken. To speak truthfully is to accurately represent one’s beliefs. But candor offers no assurance that one’s beliefs about the world are true. Nor does truthfulness require that one speak the whole truth, because communicating every fact on a given topic is almost never useful or even possible. Leaving these ambiguities aside, communicating what one believes to be both true and useful is surely different from concealing or distorting those beliefs. The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most people do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.
People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to our friends and family members to spare their feelings. Whatever our purpose in telling them, lies can be gross or subtle. Some entail elaborate ruses or forged documents. Others consist merely of euphemisms or tactical silences. But it is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.”
This transitions beautifully into what Harris calls false encouragement [emphasis mine]:
“False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose. This is not to say that we are always correct in our judgments of other people. And honesty demands that we communicate any uncertainty we may feel about the relevance of our own opinions. But if we are convinced that a friend has taken a wrong turn in life, it is no sign of friendship to simply smile and wave him onward. If the truth itself is painful to tell, there are often background truths that are not—and these can be communicated as well, deepening the friendship. In the two examples above, the more basic truth is that you love your friends and want them to be happy, and both of them could make changes in their lives that might lead to greater fulfillment. In lying to them, you are not only declining to help them—you are denying them useful information and setting them up for future disappointment. Yet the temptation to lie in these circumstances can be overwhelming. When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives—about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?”
First, a deep appreciation and understanding on lying helps us reflect and recognize the times where we did more harm than good. Once our values and mindset are focused on realizing that friendships are strengthened with vulnerability, honesty, and a focus on helping one another lead greater lives, the desire to lie may be reduced. It’s a bond that gets strengthened with time, ups-and-downs, and an understanding of one another.
However, our honesty may not be rewarded because of the other person. Without a shared understanding on why one person or the other is giving truly honest feedback—not to criticize or shame, but to help or figure out an alternative—it can often backfire and lead to problem ultimately fueled by ego. Which is why it’s important to understand how to give good feedback. A good place to start is not to judge the person, but rather the event. “You are not a failure, but this event or project was. You’re still a smart person, but this failure shows that there’s much to be learned.”
But when we do lie to a friend, when we puff ourselves up and alter the story to seem a bit more heroic and dramatic, we’re probably doing it to improve our self-esteem. Lying about the tiniest things is how it starts, and then if it continues, it becomes a habit because it’s the perfect scapegoat and seems harmless. The reality of the situation may seem boring, so adding some drama and emphasis makes it more stimulating, and in turn, alters how people see you. But over time this can become a fruitless habit, and if you get caught, that’s the light people begin to see you in—a charlatan.
The pursuit of honesty is a practice, one that requires a growing understanding of how to give feedback, how to express yourself properly, how to empathize, and ultimately to realize that the advice you give isn’t a prescription to life—just a perspective. But the willingness to explore a truth, to figure out a solution for that friend, is a willingness that is rare but should be honored and cherished.
After all, honesty is a gift worth sharing, a mindset worth embracing, a behavior worth strengthening. As Harris says:
“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves. In committing to be honest with everyone, we commit to avoiding a wide range of long-term problems, but at the cost of occasional, short-term discomfort. However, the discomfort should not be exaggerated: You can be honest and kind, because your purpose in telling the truth is not to offend people: You simply want them to have the information you have, and would want to have if you were in their position.”
Easy to believe that people should be this way. Alas, we are not born with these gifts and attitudes—we learn them and they mold who we become.
Lying will always be part of human nature and societies. Sam Harris’s book is an enlightening, philosophical deep read on this subject, further providing greater examples and stories. To endeavor in becoming an honest person, we must first understand ourselves and the times we feel compelled to be dishonest. Second, we must understand the consequences of lying and what that does to ourselves and others—that indeed every decision matters. We can puff ourselves up when speaking to a stranger at a bar, but must realize that we have to maintain that facade if that conversation turns into a future relationship.
Honesty is a muscle, meaning it takes practice to develop and grow that trait. Some people naturally do it better than others because of the way they were raised, the values instilled in them early on. Others are quick to lie for the same reasons. Whether a lie is small or large, white or not, a lie is a lie—an obfuscation of the truth, an obstruction to helpful knowledge, an opportunity gone sour. Reading about this subject in depth can help change our mind, to become aware of ourselves, and to empower more fruitful behavior.
So much of our happiness rests in the relationships built with one another. Let’s not spoil that opportunity with lies that are essentially nothing but self-serving and harmful.