When Is Lying Good?

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Feb. 8 2013 5:56 PM

When Is Lying Good?

Is lying always bad?
Is lying always bad?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Dan Holliday:

The adage that, "Lying is always wrong" is horse-s**t. Here are some guides:

  • Any time lying delays pain or suffering. Some times, this may involve lying to a child. If a kid's mother was brutally murdered and tortured, seriously, I'd just lie to the kid and say she was hit by a car. The young brain has yet to develop the ability to digest horrors that in some cases, it's just better to gloss things over. You can tell the kid later, when he/she grows up.
  • Any time lying prevents harm. If (in the unlikely event) that a terrorist asks me if I'm American, I'm gonna start blabbering in Spanish and dig out my Argentinian passport. 
  • Any time national security is at stake. Sorry, I don't want my military or intelligence community telling the truth. I want them to be lying through their teeth (except to Congress and the President). 
  • To ease through certain social situations. I have a reputation amongst my friends and family as being brutally honest. When I get gifts (a friend gave me Darjeeling tea, and I said, "You are wonderful, but I won't lie. It's not for me," and thus, my friends know I won't pussy-foot around things and they come to me for honest answers) or when my opinion is solicited (my step mother invested time and energy painting the bathroom a horrible shade of yellow, she asked everybody, and they said, "Oh, it's wonderful," when she asked me, I said, "Pam. It's grotesque. Sponge some neutral gray over the paint; it'll tone it down." She appreciated my honesty and took the advice. My family thanked me after the bathroom stopped shouting at them while they were pissing). But, outside of my group of friends and family, I don't really care about my rep, per se, so I'll lie with impunity to just escape an uncomfortable situation or avoid conflict: "Oh, I have an appointment" or "Oh, that dress is wonderful." Sorry. I'll save my truth for when it matters.

I do not believe in fixed rules, I believe in guidelines that are there to serve as warning points and reminders. But I leave it up to human judgement to make the best call as circumstances arise.

I lie all the time. So do you. Unlike most people, I just admit to this fact and accept this reality. I came to this conclusion after trying to be a completely honest person. For years, I spent time obsessing about lying. I wanted to be a human lie detector. I went to a seminar. I bought books—

I bought a book and devoured it (I'm looking for it now) on why people lie, the nature of lying and all that. And the book finally woke me up to a glaring fact, and one that I was trying to ignore:

Lying is necessary to the good function of society. You don't want to hear the truth all the time. The truth sucks. You want to be lied to, and you don't want the painful burden of telling the truth all the time. Having to do so is horribly exhausting, it's painful for those around you, and you will, without a doubt, lose all your friendships.

This was the dose of truth that I didn't want to accept. That I snobbishly was trying to set myself apart from. "I'll be the truthful one. I'll always be honest." When people say, "I hate a liar!" They are lying. Otherwise they'd hate themselves. We all lie. Get over it.

Even me, Dan Holliday, who has a crazy rep amongst his circle of friends for always telling the unvarnished truth all the time, lies all the time to wiggle out of uncomfortable situations. While I do tell the truth most of the time, "Sorry, Bob, I'm not in a chatty mood. Can I hit you up later?" I will also just lie as well, "I'm expecting a client call. Can we talk again later?"

The question isn't whether we lie. WE ALL DO. Don't claim otherwise (or, you guessed it, you'll be lying). The question isn't even about the goodness of lying, (they are good). The question isn't about the necessity (yeah, believe me, I want you to lie to me sometimes). The question is about knowing the right times to tell the truth and come clean and how important it is to know that moment and establish a baseline of honesty when it matters to your audience or relationship. It means knowing the culture your'e dealing with.

But there's no fixed rule to this!

This knowledge — after a lot of studying and reading — makes me infinitely more forgiving of people when I catch them in lies. Because I'm honest enough with myself and with life to say: I lie. It's part of life. And who am I to judge? When cornered, the defense mechanisms kick in, and that's when people feel the most pressured to lie, so should I really be surprised when I figure out that someone has lied to me, considering how much everybody (including me) does it?

No. So, while I have guidelines as to when it's appropriate, sometimes the truth is: whenever it's more convenient than dealing with the truth in situations that just need a quick exit.

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