Why do we lie?
Americans are liars. Lying is socially acceptable, encouraged, and graded. The trend has become so commonplace that I discount others’ honesty until they have proven otherwise.
How did we get to the place where we accept lying as the norm? And lest you assume you are the exception to the rule, let’s consider everyday cultural norms. We don’t have to float a major whopper to qualify as a liar. Common, ordinary ‘white’ lies and exaggerations fit nicely into this discussion. These may be offered without malice or mal-intent, and once we give ourselves permission to peddle the small lie, we don’t necessarily progress to the Big Lie. But of course by then we are solidly in the lie comfort zone.
To be clear, I’m not interested in discussing The Big Lies.
They speak for themselves. I’m more concerned about our embrace of a culture wallowing in a bed of daily small lies, the damage they do to individuals, and the degradation of ethical norms.
Picture this: you bump into your good friend Fred at the local organic market. For many of us, this is the starting point of posturing, social positioning, or a practiced and reliable disguise. We may want to appease — not help— others. Some are eager to agree on political or social trends for the sake of expediency. Others want to avoid inconvenience. We may want to appear concerned or benevolent.
But it gets personal when the stakes are raised, and we are asked to commit to something inconvenient or impossible to honor. Let’s say Fred tells you of his frustration over high bills and his fear of financial hardship. He knows you have resources, and he’s comfortable asking for a favor. He asks for a short-term loan. Perhaps this is something you have done in the past that has worked out. Fred has no reason to believe you are unwilling or unable to agree again, but he doesn’t know about the recent remodel expenses you had, shelling out for repairs at the Monaco bungalow. So you tell him you are a bit tight but you can do it in a week or two.
When Fred starts blowing up your phone, you avoid him because you knew at the time you shined him on that your situation wasn’t going to change anytime soon, but you weren’t willing to expose your own frailties. This type of hypothetical situation is played out every day in offices, families, and friendships.
This is the ubiquitous lie embraced in our culture.
It is also practiced in other cultures. Years ago I lived in China. It was there that I heard about a business tactic labeled “The Japanese Yes.” Puzzled, I asked for an explanation. The ‘Japanese Yes’ is a tactic employed in negotiations, and more widely, in re-negotiation of agreements. It is when a party agrees to something they have zero intention of honoring, for the cause of appeasement and expediency. In fairness, the Japanese may or may not have popularized the move, as I have found it widely practiced in other Asian cultures and in America. Among Asian cultures, it is an accepted method in the process of negotiations, but in America, we view such as a breach of contract. I suggest the Asian viewpoint is more honest, because our culture insists on role-playing honesty in the absence of same. At least all the players in Asian deal-making accept it for what it is instead of selling turds as meatballs.
I don’t know whether our tendency to coddle such behavior is a symptom of a larger issue or a stand-alone problem. I suppose the answer depends on individual views.
What I know for certain is the damage this practice is inflicting.
I’ve seen hopes and friendships dashed against false promises.
I have a friend who is highly qualified as an engineer. He holds a master’s degree earned in the classrooms of a superior university. He has many years of verifiable and valuable experience over a wide spectrum of business endeavors. He’s currently seeking opportunities for employment. He’s networking, attending conferences, following leads, submitting resumes, and still, no acceptable opportunity has presented itself. He knows he will find fulfilling employment, but the issue of false hopes and promises has loomed large and ugly when friends promise to forward leads, contact information, and available opportunities, never be heard from again.
This is how we treat friends??
This is one example of the personal damage inflicted when we engage in the small lie. We mean no harm- but do we mean well? Do we intend to offer kind benevolence, or do we simply wish to avoid inconvenience? A small personal inconvenience might yield significant rewards to others. The failure imbedded in our dishonest communication hurts both of us.
My friend from Spain refers to this as an American defect.
I have traveled many parts of the world and I see things a bit differently, but he has a valid point. In his home country of Spain, people extend the hand of friendship readily; the stranger is welcomed, fed, and put up for the night. Honest and willing efforts are made to help others, devoid of the American obsession about personal space or inconvenience. In China, especially among the humble people whose fingernails are worn and filthy from farming and menial labor, I was often invited to share whatever meager offering was on the table. As a guest, I was given the best portion, and it would be impolite for me to refuse. I was humbled at the charitable hearts of these people, many of whom had recently risked life and limb to escape Mao’s vision of paradise. It was inconsistent for such people to make promises they had no intention of honoring.
Americans are not the only people to use the small lie, but we have become self-centered and complacent as we lower our standards in order to justify our dishonesty. Imagine the improvement possible as a society, individuals, and a species if we commit to policing our own dishonest practices. Imagine husbands and wives who practice more complete honesty and the benefit to their children. If we could depend on others’ honesty, would we be willing to better ourselves?
It may be a stretch to expect more honesty from our politicians.
But it shouldn’t be.
And that’s a shame.
By the way, can you loan me a few bucks?