How Do We Keep Honesty? (part III)
What’s been written before is all fine and good, but these examples are also pretty clear-cut. Let’s try a slightly more ambiguous real-life situation. What do you say when someone asks you the dreaded question: “Does this make me look fat?”
A personal belief I feel needs saying:
anyone who is foolish enough to ask this question of any but the closest and dearest of friends is either just asking for hurt — or making unreasonable demands on your friendship!
The easiest answer to this question is not to answer, and hope they accept that as sufficient reply… but unfortunately that silence would fall squarely under the previous definition of lying. It would seem, therefore, some answer is required. However, absolute brutal truth (assuming the garment in question does indeed make them look fat, and they’re looking only for reassurance it does not) probably won’t serve you any better in this circumstance. What works for both a kind and a truthful answer?
I tend to live in blue jeans, and so my reply is usually along the lines of “Oh, I couldn’t possibly answer that — I’m no good at that clothes-horse stuff.” It’s true (alas! ;-), and it’s not unkind. Also, anyone can come up with variants on that particular theme (i.e. why you personally couldn’t possibly answer) which will work just as well.
So what do you do if the person insists on an answer? Replies may be required — but there’s nothing which forces you to actually answer their question. A polite smile or laugh, coupled with a question of your own, followed by changing the subject (“Why are you so insistent about this? Have you tried on this shirt here yet?”) can work well to defuse the situation and still remain polite. Someone who insists on an answer after that is just looking for trouble.
How does this keep from falling under the category of lying? To use our previous definition, a lie is deliberately promoting falsehood. Using the above suggestions may steer close to it, but I think they do successfully avoid it, due to your stating clearly your intention to not answer the question. It may not be the answer they want — but it is in fact a courteous reply. No one can reasonably demand more of you, unless the relationship between you is deeper than that postulated here.
The other kind of (apparently deceptive) behavior I’ve observed is simpler to lay out than our previous examples. Unfortunately, I think it’s also far more complex to actually explain — as is to be expected with human behavior, I suppose. I refer to the situation of someone telling you something they believe is true — but due to self-deception, they are asserting something which is actually not true.
So far I can easily identify (from personal experience) four instances of this sort of behavior, and I’m sure there are more. Curiously, a majority of them are middle-aged or older males. In every case, they were either an “only child,” spoiled and indulged during their childhoods, or both. Also, all of these cases have an astonishing capacity for believing themselves the center of the universe — no one matters as much as they. They seem to truly believe their desires and feelings are the most important thing in the world. It’s as if they somehow never learned empathy, and so as a consequence they’ve deceived themselves in this fashion.
If one is operating under such an incorrect mental constraint, it would follow naturally any statements asserted about this condition would be false. No one is truly the center of the universe, and you’d have to be delusional to believe that of yourself. However, if we apply our definition of lying to this situation, we find it actually does not qualify as lying — the mistaken individual is promoting falsehood, but not deliberately.
In such situations I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the person telling what they believe is truth. However, as numerous friends have pointed out to me, I also tend to a rather idealistic view of the basic rationality of humankind — and these individuals are not truly rational. Barring genetic malfunction, one doesn’t get into such a fallacious situation by accident. Somewhere deep inside, these people know they are lying about their own importance.
This can easily be demonstrated by attempting to reason with them about their beliefs. At any hint they aren’t always perfectly in the right, or they don’t truly have an eidetic memory, or they might not actually have all their facts straight, and they respond with classic psychological avoidance techniques. They’ll try humor to change the subject, flattery to distract you, tears and passive aggression so you feel guilty about ‘making’ them feel so bad, or even anger and violence to intimidate you. If that doesn’t work they’ll hastily bring up countless other issues in order to confuse the original, true issue; or they’ll attempt to convince all those present of your wrongness and meanness, in order to isolate you and make themselves feel more self-righteous.