Sunday, September 09, 2007


(News-Herald, September 2003) You can tell a lot about a person from his lies. Not the question of if he lies—I’m not sure anyone can lay claim to a lie-free life—but the question of when he lies. It’s the line we all cross, even though it’s the line we almost all agree shouldn’t be crossed. When we’ll lie says something about what we value more than staying on the right side of that line.

Some folks lie to avoid trouble, the basic traditional Cover Your Butt lie. “Why no, I didn’t eat the last plum. It must have been stolen by fairies.” “I have no idea how that baseball came through the window. The boys and I were all in back discussing international monetary theory and French cuisine.” This kind of lie is easy to understand; there are times when avoiding a big hassle seems more valuable than a small truth.

Its first cousin is the Lie To Save Someone’s Feelings. 99 times out of a hundred this is just the Cover Your Butt lie dressed up in a rented tux to make it look nobler. Yes, there are people who really do want to spare other people’s feelings. But usually the purpose of this lie is to keep you from being upset—because I don’t want to have to deal with you when you’re agitated.

People who will tell these kinds of lies are dangerous. These are the folk who will say, “Sure, I dropped off that rent check just like you asked” without batting an eye. They may not even try to remember if they dropped off the check or not, because they know which answer will keep them from getting in trouble. These are the same people who won’t tell you that they’ve left you for someone new, so that you spend months publicly humiliating yourself by staying in a dead relationship when you could be humiliating yourself by trying to search for a new relationship instead.

Then there’s the Lookin’ Smart lie. Sometimes these lies are tiny; sometimes they’re enormous. But the purpose is simple—I would rather pull a statistic out of the troposphere than say that dreaded phrase, “I don’t know.” And if for some reason you actually know that the Ecuadorian annual rainfall figures that I just spouted are wrong, I’ll make up a source to go with my made-up number.

This type of liar is particularly annoying to work with because he would rather be right than solve the problem. He would rather watch the widget vat blow up so he can say, “I knew that would happen” than avert a disaster by taking someone else’s advice. His own sense of importance is more valuable than the truth.

Also appearing regularly at your place of business is the Manipulating Liar. This is the guy who tells you, “Yeah, bring that up at the next meeting. I’ll back you up.” Then he sits in the meeting and blows holes in your presentation.

This type of liar is particularly problematic because he’s usually your boss, and he’s lying to maintain control. He values power more than the truth. When someone doesn’t have the ability to manage by competence or the integrity to lead by principle, he can always keep people off balance and in line by saying whatever will smooth the waters right now—even if he plans to say or do the opposite an hour from now.

Special note to lying bosses: You aren’t fooling anyone. Your employees know you’re a liar. They don’t say anything to you because you’re the boss, but everything you say to them is filtered through the knowledge that you can’t be trusted. The irony is that you lie to gain power, but by lying you lose it.

Perhaps the most entertaining liar is the No Good Reason liar. This person tells lies that are so transparent or pointless that people are simply dumbfounded. His fiancé throws his ring at him in front of thirty witnesses and he tells everyone that he had to dump her because she was too possessive. She interrupts a conversation to announce that her recovery time from the operation under discussion was the longest on record, despite the fact that the operation in question is a vasectomy.

And in many ways this type is the saddest, because No Good Reason liars often turn out to be Look At Me Please liars, but their constant lying leads people to ignore them. They may change settings (school, workplace, neighborhood) many times, but their behavior always catches up with them.

We give up the truth when we think we can trade it for something more valuable, but we almost always underestimate the real price. We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking in the mirror and asking what it is that we think is worth that enormous price. But we rarely ask the question, either because we value the truth so little, or because we know we wouldn’t like the answer.

1 comment:

Mrs.C said...

Dear God, I know and work with most of these liars. You hit my boss right on the head in this article. She is EXACTLY as you described in the Manipulating Liar section. She has a bachelor's degree in PSYCH. and tries to use it on all of us. Drives me bonkers. But you are right EVERYONE knows she's a liar, so we ignore her as best we can and work around her. Ain't life grand?!

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