“Honesty is the best policy.” We’ve all heard this before. It’s something our mothers said all the time. Nobody likes a flatter, or at least an obvious one. If you look at the traits people want in a partner, honesty is one of the biggest ones. Everyone wants to hear the truth … at least in theory.
In practice, we often face the exact opposite situation. The truth can hurt people. If someone asks, “Do you like my new haircut?” and you think it’s hideous, what do you say? If you tell the truth, you can wound that person, potentially even ruining a friendship. Is a little white lie that much of a problem? Does it really matter? Is the truth more important than a person’s sense of self-worth?
I find these questions interesting, partly because lying is so foreign to me. You see, I almost never lie because I’m a terrible liar.
I learned this quite early on. As a kid, I was generally well behaved, but I did some silly things. Making a mess and not cleaning up was probably the big one. That and inadvertently breaking things. I’d be playing around with a ball, bouncing it and having a great time … and then it would knock over a cup or a picture frame and shatter into a million pieces. I tried to hide these, but it never worked.
“Jonathan, did you break my cup?”
“No.” And no one believed this. I said it too quickly, with too high a pitch. My mom would glare at me, hands on hips, and I would start wilting. Sometimes I would crack and confess right away, but more often I tried to hold firm. Breaking things is bad, but I’m not a bad kid. I’m a good kid. If I admit I broke it, then I’m … a bad kid! Oh no, I must not admit it!
It’s interesting to look at my thought process here. I didn’t want to admit I did something wrong. Doing something wrong was bad, but somehow admitting to it made it worse. If no one knew, then I was fine. Life went on. If I could just keep it a secret, everything would be great. This was the very skill, though, that I did not have.
If you question me point blank, I turned into a completely different person. My face would go red, I got flustered, I couldn’t make eye contact, I breath very shallow or stop altogether. My music teacher told me I also have a physical cue: a vein on my head becomes very pronounced when I try to lie. Basically, I have every tell in the book. I couldn’t lie to save my life.
Once I told the truth, which usually meant confessing, a heavy burden lifted from my shoulders. I could breath again. I instantly felt better, both mentally and physically. Even though I would get in trouble and have to do some sort of penance, I felt better. Lying never sat well with me.
Because I was terrible at it, and 99% of my lies were caught immediately, I rarely lied, but one time I got one by. I was about ten, and, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was about. Probably something inconsequential, like most lies. Somehow, my mom believed me, and I felt a rush of relief. Yes, I won’t get in trouble! For that day, at least. Some time later, it was a few weeks or maybe even months, the truth suddenly came out. My mom found evidence that directly implicated me.
Honestly, the thing I felt was stupidity. Why did I not dispose of that evidence (whatever it was)? Stupid, stupid. After that, though, I just felt shame. My mom looked so disappointed, that I would lie over something so small. That crushed me. I wanted to impress my mom more than anyone as a kid, and her disapproval absolutely floored me. I ended up getting in double trouble, one for doing what I did and then again for lying about it.
As mom dished out her justice, she said, “I’m more disappointed that you lied about it. Don’t lie to me, your mother. Never lie to me again.” And I haven’t. Not to her or to anyone else.
Now, when I say that, I don’t mean I’m 100% honest about everything, all the time. I’m close, but not quite. Someone says, “How are you doing today?” I will instinctively say good or fine or okay, even if I’m not. Some people might not even think this counts as a lie. Maybe it doesn’t.
The most obvious place, though, would be when I’m asked my opinion. Do I like X, Y or Z? At my core, I don’t want to hurt anyone. Sorry, but I don’t like your cooking, or your singing, or your new dress. I might not dislike it, either. I might simply have no opinion. “It’s a dress. I have no thoughts about it one way or the other.”
If I say that, though, people might take it the wrong way. They often do, in fact. They get hurt, thinking I don’t care about them. That’s not true. I do care about you, but I don’t care deeply about everything you do. When I say I don’t care about your dress, I’m not trying to slight you. I just have, literally, no opinion on fashion.
In my efforts to be diplomatic, I’ll end up saying a lie, and this bothers me, because it brings up the other reason I’m a bad liar: I can’t remember them. I have a fantastic memory for facts and figures, but for some reason I can’t keep track of even my simplest fibs. It always comes out, somehow. I slip up. Even if I were to write everything down and study it before every conversation, I’d still find a way to mess it up.
That’s why the only lies I do are the little white lies. “Yes, your dress does look nice.” For bigger things, almost never. In fact, I can’t recall the last big thing I lied about. I guess that proves my above paragraph. More to the point, lying is unnatural, and it’s something I almost always avoid.
This gives me a unique perspective sometimes. People interact with me differently. They value my input, knowing I won’t pander or flatter them. Nor am I brutally honest. “Your idea sucks; it will never work.” That’s not my style. Again, I never want to hurt someone. “I think you need to heavily rework your idea; it doesn’t appear viable right now.” It’s the same thing, but it’s nicer. I’m a nice guy, that’s what I do.
At the same time, I find this colours my interactions, typically conversations. Most lies happen between and about people. You tend to lie if you did (or did not do) something. It’s much rarer to lie about ideas. You can fight and argue and denounce ideas, but you don’t lie about them. You lie about actions and people. I suppose you might lie about supporting an idea, but that’s still an action. As such, when I talk with people, it tends to be about ideas rather than people and actions. Easier to not lie that way.
All that said, I can do one dishonest thing, and that’s omit information. I’m actually really good at this. I can say I did something but leave out a crucial, usually incriminatory, detail. This doesn’t set off any of my tells. If someone begins to investigate and asks questions, I will then admit whatever happened, but if that doesn’t happen then I get away so to speak. I’m an honest person, very honest, but I shouldn’t pretend to be a saint.
Lastly, this shows why I’m much better at chess than poker. With chess, I don’t need to bluff. You can see all my pieces. With poker, you can tell I’m bluffing within a fraction of a second. You would completely clean me up. If you ever need money, challenging me to a poker game is one of the surest ways to do it.