RJ Matson

Is It OK to Lie?

Sometimes we stretch the truth to be polite. But where should we draw the line?

By Maggie Pierce
From the October 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: to identify and evaluate key points on both sides of a debate; to write an argument essay

Lexile: 940L
Other Key Skills: central ideas and details

Your best friend shows up at school with a new haircut. It is not a good haircut. In fact, it looks like he lost a wrestling match with a lawn mower.

“What do you think?” he asks, looking you straight in the eye.

Your heart races. Your mind swirls. It’s obvious your buddy feels insecure about his new look and is hoping for your approval. You don’t want to hurt his feelings. You should just tell him his hair looks great, right?

But wait. Wouldn’t that be lying?

And isn’t lying . . . wrong?

Living with Lies

Wrong or not, the fact is we all lie—a lot. Most Americans lie about twice a day.* In other words, we bend the truth about as often as we brush our teeth.

A lie is a statement that is deliberately meant to mislead. Some people feel that any lie—no matter how minor or well-intentioned—is morally wrong. We depend on each other to be honest, and deceiving those we care about can damage our relationships. Plus, if we can’t assume that others are telling the truth, how can we trust anything we hear or read?

What’s the Big Deal

You’ve probably told a few fibs that seemed harmless—but were they really? Telling tiny lies, experts say, makes us more likely to tell bigger, more harmful lies in the future.

“The problem with small lies is that they accumulate and we lose track of them,” says Howard Temple, who administers lie-detector tests.

Plus, once you tell a lie (say, claiming LeBron James is your cousin), you might have to tell more lies to keep up the charade (you’re going to Los Angeles to visit LeBron over winter break). Before you know it, you’ll be terrified of running into your friends over the holidays because you’re supposed to be in California hanging with LeBron.

Better to Be Polite

Still, lying may have its place—especially when it’s done to protect someone’s feelings. “Most of the time, being kind to someone is more important than telling the absolute truth,” says Jane Frank, a psychologist in New York City.

It turns out that lying might even be good for your social life. White lies can help you smooth out awkward situations and make others around you feel better, says Dr. Robert Feldman, a professor who researches lying. In this way, he says, lying could be seen as a valuable social skill.

Perhaps the key is to think about why you’re lying. There’s a difference between lying to spare yourself—like faking illness to miss a big test—and lying to spare someone else. Of course, even lying out of kindness can be complicated. It would be cruel to tell your sister she’s an awful cook. But if she plans to audition for Chopped Junior, being honest and telling her she needs to hone her skills first could save her from colossal disappointment.

So what do you tell your friend about his horrendous haircut? The truth or a lie?

Well, there is a third option: Don’t say anything. Instead, “accidentally” drop your books, have a sudden coughing fit, and change the subject.

Then go buy him a nice hat.

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue.

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