There are three kinds of lies that people tell: social lies, lies about themselves, and lies about others. They start off harmless and get progressively more destructive.
First, there are the lies that form the grease for society: “That shirt looks terrific on you”; “Sorry, we can’t come to your BBQ, we have a prior engagement”; “No of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to Nickel Back”. So long as you keep your real feelings to yourself, no one will ever be hurt.
We grow up knowing about “white lies”, and accept them as generally harmless. They’re lies. And you should be slightly ashamed, but you’re not really hurting anyone. At the worst you’re trying to smooth over an awkward situation.1
Second, there are the lies that you tell about yourself: “I didn’t sleep with him”; “I didn’t spend the money we were saving for vacation”; “I got rid of all that stuff”. No matter how clever you are, sooner or later, the truth will come out.
Lies about yourself aren’t about smoothing over an awkward situation. They’re about getting yourself out of trouble or getting yourself something undeserved. When the lie is finally discovered, you’ll only wind up in more trouble.
Finally, there are the lies you tell about others: “She’s cheating on her husband” or “He’s stealing from his boss”. Lies told about others are insidious, because the people who hear them may never hear the truth. And believing the lie, they may tell others. There may literally be no way to undo the damage done by telling a lie about someone else.
It’s probably safe to say we all lie. I’m guilty of telling social lies and some lies about myself. When Molly was 5, I lied about her age in order to get her into a water park in Mexico. She was one month short of the cut off and it would have been a shame for her to miss out on the opportunity to ride the zip lines. But really, I didn’t want to miss out on the fun of taking my daughter to the water park.
Sometimes it’s a struggle to be honest and set a good example for my daughter. I’ve explained the three kinds of lies to her, but I’ve also suggested the right answer for her at this time is to just always tell the truth. It isn’t always the easiest answer, but it’s always the right answer.
But I can say with some pride, I have never told a lie about another person. Such behaviour is inexcusable.
Sometimes, it can be hard to know whether a lie qualifies as social grease or not. For example, when the police officer stops you for a broken tail light, which you’ve been meaning to fix for ages, is it only grease to say, “You’re kidding? I had no idea my tail light was out.” Probably greasy. Even the old “The Check Is In The Mail” chestnut is likely to qualify as social grease. Because while you’re no doubt hurting someone by delaying payment, it isn’t the lie that’s hurting them. ↩