The first thing to remember in this day of mass media saturation is that there are no great lies – if something is repeated often enough it becomes the truth. That being said, the ultimate great lie is that it is always better to tell the truth. There are needful lies; lies of omission, white lies and lies of social exigency.
The truth can set you free – free to make an unpardonable social gaffe, and become a social pariah. The only lies that are supposedly taboo are the malicious lies: lying to hurt someone or something, and even these are regularly countenanced in politics, public relations and marketing. We are social beings and social lying allows us to interact with one another without offending or embarassing the other person; it is the social lubricant that eases many rites of passage.
Let us counter the not-so-egregious offence of lying with some unpardonable truths; situations where the truth is not only unnecessary, but positively harmful.
- “Is it bad?” – this from your compadre on the battlefield who has been mortally wounded. What is definitely not required here is the response: “ Bob, buddy I haven’t seen a hole that big since I visited the Grand Canyon as a kid – you are probably going to linger in agony for days before you finally buy it.” A simple “Hang on buddy, you’re going to make it” is the absolutely necessary lie, here.
- “How do you like my new car?” Please avoid a truthful response like, “Buddy, it’s great for a pimp or a drug dealer, and matches the vulgar, too-youthful clothes, trendy hipster haircut, and inappropriate girlfriend that comprise the triumphant triumvirate of your mid-life crisis – What the hell are you playing at here?” Something like “It looks great” or even better, side-stepping the question with another question like “What kind of mileage you getting with that puppy” are possible friend-saving solutions in this instance.
- “Honey, do these pants make me look fat?” Response: “Dear, it’s not the pants that make you look fat, its the fat that makes you look fat!” This truthful response is guaranteed to render its profferer persona non grata relationship-wise and offers a speedy trip to the doghouse. And, just for the record, what possible motivation can there be that prompts questions that you are not going to want to hear an honest answer to? And . . . if you do not hear an immediate response to a fatuous question, please consider simple grace and social responsibility, and do not pursue the matter with the diligence of a brand new crown prosecutor out to make a reputation. Lack of a response, or a discreet ‘no’, are the needful social fictions here.
- “What about this expense here, how do you justify it?” A put-the-rue-in-true response might be something like “What justification – I am cheating on my patently unfair taxes just like everyone else in this country who isn’t brain dead or a large multinational corporation that is getting a free pass by the same government that those taxes pay for.” This is not a response that is calculated to bring about a happy ending. A simple “Oh, am I not allowed that expense?” might avoid the thorough scrutinizing and inevitable bankruptcy court that the first response might engender.
- “How are you?” The most salient point here is to consider who is asking. If it happens to be the person interviewing you for that great new communications job you’re applying for, a response like, “My God, I am incredibly nervous; the best, most creative short fiction I’ve ever written is my resume; I’ve actually managed to stay sober for this meeting, and I’m pretty sure that my references still hate me” will not lead to a positive conclusion. A simple response, even if untruthful, like “Fine. How are you?” is needed here. Even if the person is close to you, a response like “Not great. My stress levels are redlining so often that I can only hope that my inevitable meltdown and postal response is not directed at you” falls under the category of too much information – “So-so. How are you?” might preserve the relationship and your own tenuous sanity.
Consider the question. Consider the source. Consider the circumstance. Consider your response . . .
The truth can set you free – of annoying encumbrances like jobs, relationships, money, social opportunities – even, if responding to the wrong question at the most inopportune time, liberty and/or life. In these enlightened, overpopulated, oversharing times, lying is not a taboo – it is a necessity, and should your conscience ever trouble you remember, as Pontius Pilate so famously asked, “What is truth?” One person’s fiction is another person’s fact, and remember to speak the truth carefully, if at all.
Dana Wilson is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and poet.