I sometimes get together with a group of guys whom I grew up with. One of the men always had a tendency to exaggerate, but now he tells outright lies. For example, if he introduces me to someone, he might say, "My mother and his mother go way back--they went to kindergarten together," when no such thing is true. Or if someone says he slept badly, he might say, "I've been up for three nights straight." It seems like a bad habit he's gotten into in order to impress people or make the conversation more interesting. But ethically, I feel he should be committed to telling the truth. Do you think I should just avoid being with him, let it slide, or confront him?
You suggest three possible responses to your increasingly hyperbolic friend. I want to analyze the benefits and disadvantages of each response, so that you will understand how I arrived at what I consider to be the most ethically appropriate choice.
- Avoid being with him. It sometimes happens that someone has done something that hurts or annoys us; if we avoid the person for a short period, we find we can resume the relationship with little if any residue of ill will. In such an instance, temporary avoidance might well be a wise response. However, in this case, since your friend's propensity to exaggerate and lie is well-established and growing worse, any time you resume the relationship this annoying trait will resurface and alienate you. Therefore, for you, avoiding your friend will simply turn into a euphemism for ending the relationship, one that has endured for many years and presumably has brought you much joy. To end so long-standing a relationship without making at least one effort to fix it seems unfair both to you and your friend.
If you choose the third option, tell him in private that when you hear him make a statement you know to be untrue, such as "My mother and his mother went to kindergarten together," it makes you uncomfortable. Add that comments like this make it hard for you to enjoy conversing with him; you simply don't know when he is being accurate and when he is exaggerating for effect.
Ask him to try and make a real effort for one day--or a week, if he's willing--to speak accurately (I wouldn't use the word "truthfully" because that will make him defensive). Also ask him if it would be all right with him if the next time you hear him telling tall tales you could interrupt with a prearranged code word such as "melodrama."
Make two things clear to your friend: You really like him, and it's important for his credibility that he make this change. Either he'll ignore your advice and your friendship likely will end, or he will change (maybe not as much as you'd like, but to an extent that makes it possible for you to enjoy his company) and one day he'll thank you.
Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.