Experiments have found that ordinary people tell about two lies every ten minutes. I don’t see how that’s possible, as I’ve been alone the last hour writing this piece (oh dear, am I making it up as I go along?). However, the half-hour before that, I averaged about fifteen per minute.
“What are you eating, Mom?” (I’m shoving chocolate-dipped macaroons into my mouth at an ugly pace)
“Carrots, want some?”
Robert Feldman, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts found that liars tend to be more popular than honest people (think politics). Because social skills involve telling people what they want to hear (things that aren’t, um, true). The more social grace a person possesses, experiments say, the more willingness and ability he has to deceive.
But some lies are meant as acts of love. Truly. Parents lie to protect their kids from distressing or harmful facts (your uncle crosses his eyes because of a vision impairment…not because he’s a sloppy drunk; daddy went on a business trip…not down the road to a hotel because we can’t figure out whether or not to divorce).
Ever since I got summoned to jury duty awhile ago, I’ve been paying attention to lies. More than a few people said to me, “Just say something racist. You’ll get out of it.”
Um. Yeah. I could do that. But I have something inside me called a Catholic conscience. My conscience makes a dinging sound every time I approach the danger zone: where my depression is hovering like a hawk to feast on all the guilt (and I’ve given up trying to feel less guilty).
So, these are the lies my Catholic conscience condones:
Perpetuating myths of Santa, the Easter Bunny, and all kinds of fairies (Tooth, Diaper, Binky); fibbing to the kids for reasons of discipline (“Your teeth will rot if you don’t brush”), nutrition (“Mommy’s eating carrots, not frozen Kit-Kats”), health (“The shots won’t hurt”), or recreation (“Barney will make you stupid and unpopular”); deceiving for the purpose of surprise birthday parties or similar ocassions (my aunt Kay can’t even do that, God love her); “forgetting” certain details of my mental health record (when dealing with bureaucratic crap like renewing my driver’s license or background checks for a part-time job); and telling falsehoods for convenience matters (“Yes, this luggage has been with me the whole time,”…except for when the stranger next to me watched it so I could change my babies’ diapers with two hands.)
Of course there are also those forced compliments (the ugly baby dilemma): including reactions to artistic expressions by people who shouldn’t hold a paint brush or a microphone but really like to (“I love it!” I say to the novice artist who shows me a portrait of moi that resembles Michael Jackson with Hillary Swank cheek bones; “You sounded great,” I say to my sister who sings the national anthem when she gets drunk); feedback on attire (“Yes, the pants are flattering,” I say to a friend who has just bought a ridiculously expensive pair of pants which add at least ten pounds to her butt); and weight matters (“No, you don’t look heavier,” I say to a sister who has gone up at least one size).
Then there are the deceptions that set off my depression alarm: lying for a co-worker who is having an affair (can’t do it, get someone else); hiding something from Eric that he deserves to know; ignoring a pretty serious breach of trust in a friendship; denying that a friend’s statement hurt my feelings when it did; pretending I’m okay with a neighbor whom I’ve very pissed off at because he stole my babysitter.
But what do you do when the truth hurts? When “honesty bumps up against other values”? asks Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who once conducted a study in which she asked people to recall the worst lie told them, and the worst lie they ever told. Many young people said that the worst lie was told by a parent, but DePaulo found that the parent thought that lying was the right thing to do, that they weren’t deceptions but acts of love.