Friday, November 02, 2007

Sweet Little Lies

Currently I'm reading a very interesting book about lies. Not just the lies of certain people (and yes, the word 'politician' automatically comes to mind), but lies in general.

In fact, just by looking at any society, it's obvious that society as a concept does not work without lies. That might be a hard hit for very religious people - and/or those who value honesty very high -, but it's the truth. Social intercourse only works when you're not always telling everything (and omitting something is a lie, too).

For example, if an acquaintance of mine asks me how I am, I'll answer "good", no matter if that really is true. I might feel good or mediocre or I might just have had a cold and still feel under the weather, but I'd never tell someone who's not really close to me something else than "good".

The same thing goes for many other things, like someone asking me if she looks good, like telling someone I knows wants to hear that he/she still looks young - even if they don't. Those are what people call white lies. They're not meant to harm people or said out of greed, they only exist to make sure people get along. The question "how are you", when not asked by a doctor or nurse, usually is asked out of politeness. And so answering "good", not matter how you really feel, is polite, too. I mean, would you really want an acquaintance whom you've just met once or twice to tell you at great length about the operation they just had or the terrible disease they've just gotten over? With minute detail?

But then, where's the line between a white lie and a normal lie - or even an outrageous one? That's more difficult. A lie that's meant to harm someone (by, for example, make him buy something that's not safe to own) definitely is a normal lie - it's more than that, but let's not venture into the realm of crime.

But how about a vendor telling a customer she looks good in a dress, although she doesn't? Is that still a white lie? The customer, looking for a fashionable outfit, will want to hear that fashionable dress suits her. The vendor, having to earn money for the shop, will want the customer to buy that expensive dress. But does that mean it's okay to tell the woman she looks good while she looks quite hideous because, for example, she doesn't have the right body shape to wear such a dress? Now, it will not bodily harm the customer to wear a dress that doesn't suit her. Neither will it harm her purse that much (let's assume she can afford to buy expensive clothes, okay?). But it might harm her if she, for example, goes to a job interview in that dress and is not chosen because she looked so hideous in the dress and people questioned her ability to assess a situation. ("How can she claim to be a rational thinking business woman, wearing a dress that doesn't really fit her at all?") Or if she wears it to a first date and the man doesn't want to see her ever again?

Tricky, isn't it? Fact is, a potentially harmless lie can become very harmful while a lie that supposedly should have harmed someone can be quite harmless in the end. We can only use the current situation to calculate a lie's outcome - but situations can change quickly.

Why do people lie? And is it possible to get through just one day without lying? Well, if you happen to be a hermit living in the dessert, that surely is possible. But if you have to interact with people every day, you'll be forced to lie sooner or later. Even "have a nice day" can be a lie - though it's a nice one. "Pleased to meet you" is a huge one, most of the time. And don't forget: omitting something is a lie, too. Now, could you get through a normal day without telling even the tiniest white lie?

We humans lie for various reasons, both consciously and unconsciously. Sometimes we lie because society expects us to. Even if you, for example, can't stand a colleague at work, you usually have to be polite towards him or her. That's not really honest.

Animals 'lie', too. They use camouflage or pretend to be more dangerous or poisonous than they really are. While that's no conscious lie, it nevertheless is dishonest.

Even plants, although they don't move much and can't speak, are able to lie, pretending their flower is something else than it is - like a fly - or by emitting smells that make insects think they're approaching a member of their species' fairer sex.

Nature lies, not just us humans. Nevertheless, being careful while lying is never wrong - especially when you're not completely sure what will become of your lie. Once released into the world, a lie is harder to catch then the truth.

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