At the end of last year, I wrote a column about lying. In it, I touched upon “white lies.” Here’s what I wrote:
“We’ve all told white lies because brutal honesty might inflict pain or distress on another. For instance, Mary told Tim she couldn’t go out with him on Saturday night because she and her family were going out of town. You are Mary’s best friend and know it is because she doesn’t find Tim attractive and doesn’t want to date him.
“When Tim asks you if the reason is genuine, what do you say? Do you want to be brutally honest and tell Tim the truth or tell him you don’t know if it is genuine or not to spare Tim’s feelings? Perhaps in this instance it is better to be economical with the truth and just say you think Mary has other plans. This isn’t the complete truth, but you are sparing Tim’s feelings on something that won’t have a real impact on his future.
“However, this is one of those instances where you need to clearly think it through. Some would advise you to very gently let Tim know that Mary isn’t really interested in him rather than saying something that will make matters worse. While you never want to hurt someone, there may be a diplomatic solution in which you tell Tim the truth and let Mary know about the conversation. She will probably be grateful that you ended her white lie, and both parties can move on with their lives.”
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What I wrote may be well and good, but it’s been nagging at me since the beginning of the year. It’s not a complete answer. I may not have the answer in this column, but let’s look at some real-life situations in which telling white lies may be the kind thing to do.
» A relative bakes her chocolate chip cookies and brings them to every family special occasion. The cookies are terrible. But, the relative is so proud of her cookies that no one has the heart or the guts to tell her the truth. In this case, sparing the relative’s feelings is more important than telling the truth.
» A friend gets a terrible haircut. When you are asked what you think, rather than making your friend feel embarrassed or horrible about himself, you can say, “It’s a change! What do you think?” Or, you can simply say “I like really short hair.” Brutal honesty can be toxic. Never feel obligated to tell the whole truth when you know it will make someone ashamed of the way he or she looks.
» If you have done a huge favor for a friend or family member, and they thank you, rather than go into detail about the difficulties you had implementing the favor, simple say, “Oh, it was no trouble at all.” Telling the person how much they put you out will only worry and upset them. Why do that? It’s over and done with.
» When a child excitedly talks about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, feel free to protect the child’s innocence and creative imagination by not fessing up that they don’t exist!
» It’s also OK to over-exaggerate when complimenting someone. For instance, I always told my mother that her macaroni and cheese was “the best in the world!” It was exceptional, but best in the world might have been only in my eyes. This is a mild false truth that makes it easier for people to get along and is basically harmless in most cases.
The major difference between a white lie and a hard lie is that a hard lie is said to protect oneself, whereas a little white lie is said to protect someone else.
Relationships can be complex and tricky at times. Sometimes a harmless, thoughtful pleasantry is just what the doctor ordered, especially when it saves others from minor hurt, shame or embarrassment.
Often times, some of us tell a white lie to protect ourselves or others from punishment or disapproval for a minor failing or blunder that hurts nobody. This is borderline but OK as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
When White Are Lies Unacceptable White lies cross over into the dark side when we tell them to make us appear better than we really are or to protect some gain acquired previously for which we really aren’t entitled.
This happens at work often and falls under the category of taking credit for someone else’s hard work, getting a promotion because of it, and then making sure the originator of the work is either suppressed or eventually fired to cover up the lie. This is no longer a white lie but rather a big, black one.
Lies that hurt someone else so that you can gain or that make others do something that would benefit you while harming themselves or causing themselves a loss never fall under the “white lie” scenario. Here we are into deceit, willful malice and sociopathic behavior!
It is not my purpose to give anyone a green light for telling lies. However, always weigh the harm that being brutally honest with someone will do to others. And avoid anything that can seriously damage another.
— John Daly is the founder and president of The Key Class, the go-to guide for good manners and job search success. He is the author of The Key Class - the Keys to Job Search Success. Click to learn more about The Key Class, or to buy the book. Follow John on Facebook and Twitter @johnjdalyjr. Do you have an etiquette question? ASK John at johnKeyClass@gmail.com.