Friday, March 27, 2009

Liar, Liar

Lately, I've had lots of discussions with people about lying. It turns out that my definition of lying is a bit more stringent than most. Everyone seems to agree that saying one thing when you actually believe something else is lying. For example, telling your significant other that you were at work, when you were really at a baseball game, would be a lie. However, where I seem to lose everyone is when I include leaving things out as lying. In the same example, if I didn't mention the baseball game to my significant other and he or she didn't ask me about it, well, for most people, this wouldn't be a lie. It's sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to life.

The thing is, leaving things out can be just as significant as deliberately misleading someone. For example, if you were dating someone with an STD, but never asked them about it, would they be lying if they didn't tell you? If you climbed into a cab and the driver took you on a circuitous and more expensive route to get to your destination, would they be lying to you?

Now, these examples might be a bit extreme, but nonetheless, they indicate situations in which many of us would consider the omission of information to be a lie (or stealing or cheating or whatever). So, why are some omissions considered to be lies and others not? One theme I've heard repeatedly is this: "If it's important for the other person to know, and I don't tell them, then it's a lie; if it's not important for the other person to know, then it's not a lie."

Of course, this gives rise to the question, "who gets to decide whether or not it's important?" The funny thing is that everyone who's used the "important to know" argument, has also said that they would want the right to decide for themselves whether or not something were important. In fact, most of us seem to feel qualified to determine the importance of information for both ourselves and others, while we don't qualify others to do the same for us.

"But", you're thinking, "if I abdicated responsibility for determining what would be relevant and/or important to others, I'd walk around saying everything that popped into my head."

Good point!

On the one hand, it would be great for others to be allowed to determine for themselves what's important to them; on the other hand, it would be seriously impractical.

So, what to do? One answer that occurred to me is to check in with myself to see why I'm omitting information. If I recognize any kind of discomfort in myself (e.g. fear of what people would think, or concern about consequences of what I might say, or not wanting to deal with how people might respond), then I'm probably lying. If I don't experience any of these kinds of discomforts, then I'm probably not lying.

So, why does this matter? Well, first of all, from a universal perspective, it doesn't. Lying is just another action, neither good nor bad, that we do from time to time to take care of ourselves. We actually always have a good reason for lying.

Nonetheless, lying does affect the character of our relationships. Do we want relationships in which we find ourselves leaving things out to avoid conflict? Do we want relationships where others do the same with us?

It's not about fact versus fiction, or truth versus falsehood. It's simply about how we relate to others and how they relate to us. When we lie to someone (through omission or commission), what we're really doing is mistrusting them to handle the information. We're also building evidence for them not to trust us. The long term effect? Well...

On the flip side, I've found that telling people what I really think without omission (while sometimes uncomfortable), can serve to build trust while helping me to work through my discomforts. The result, in my experience, is much stronger relationships.

So, that's my apparently unorthodox opinion. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, I love these deep reflective introspections.

    Another possibility that I'm aware of, along with personal evaluation as to need, or importance of covering something, completely apart from trusting it seems to me, is whether, as I picked up along the way, the 'squeeze is worth the juice.' This evaluation I believe often goes on below, in how we decide to bother or not to bother with more noise or questions that may or may not lead away from the central issue of 'being quiet' just loving and being happy with. BW

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