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The Truth about Lying

For your birthday, your aunt knits you a sweater that is, well, downright hideous. You tell her: 1) I'd go out in an army blanket before wearing that; 2) It would look better on a peacock in heat; or 3) It's beautiful, Aunt Sylvia! I really need a sweater.

If you chose the third response, well, you're a liar. Don't feel bad, however. If the truth be told, most of us lie to some degree, especially when faced with an alternative like hurting the feelings of poor, good-hearted Aunt Sylvia.

Some of us, however, lie so often that we stop realizing it. That's when it becomes the sort of problem that must be dealt with, perhaps with professional help. Experts have some useful advice for helping you to determine the difference between being diplomatic and being deceptive.

The most common fibs are relatively harmless ones. They're minor evasions told to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to avoid conflict ("Of course, I'm not angry you were 40 minutes late."). Behavioral experts seem to agree that these "white lies" are acceptable in moderation to preserve social harmony.

The awful truth

Indeed, many of us don't want to hear the awful truth every time. Say someone asks you how she looks. She probably wants to hear that she looks great. If she doesn't, and we don't tell a lie, we create a conflict and have to deal with the results.

Here, you have to ask yourself how much you have invested in the relationship. For example, if it's your wife and she's going to an important interview, you may want to expend the effort for constructive feedback and dealing with her feelings. If it's someone in the office you don't know well, you may choose not to risk a confrontation.

The problem arises when people rationalize that "non-white lies" are acceptable and necessary, too. People who do this are trying to achieve goals and not thinking of the consequences, experts say. Getting caught in a lie often destroys relationships.

Remember, experts say, lying is not a benign activity. For most people, saying you're sorry never does it. When someone finds out you have lied, it affects how that person deals with you forever. If your spouse lies, you may be able to work it out in therapy, but an employer is not likely to forgive.

And even though you might convince yourself a lie is OK, it still violates the dictates of conscience. You're living a lie and waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is psychologically unhealthy, experts say.

Mind you, no one is saying you should tell your anxious mother that you have a 102-degree fever, or your co-worker that you think her clothes are inappropriate or ill-fitting. There are many considerations that come into play when deciding whether honesty is the best policy.

What to consider

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Would anyone be harmed if I withhold a bit of the truth?

  • Can someone change and grow from my honest feedback, or am I being unnecessarily blunt by giving an honest opinion that is hurtful?

  • How would it feel if someone withheld the truth from me under the same circumstances?

  • Is avoiding the truth in this situation an act of cowardice, or of compassion?

If you often find yourself being deceptive with family and friends to sidestep troubling issues, you may need to strengthen your interpersonal skills. The main reason people lie is low self-esteem. They want to impress, please, and tell someone what they think they want to hear.

For example, insecure teenagers often lie to gain social acceptance. Here, parents should emphasize to their children the consequences of lying. They should say that lying causes anger and hurt, and that people won't like them when they find out.

When is lying a problem that warrants professional help? If you have trouble controlling it. Pathological liars are defined as those who lie constantly and for no apparent reason. They need to discuss their problem with a therapist.

But for most of us, the untruths we utter are not whoppers. They're fibs that help grease the wheels of everyday social interactions. If you feel guilty or uncomfortable about not telling it like it is, however, consider seeking help from a mental health professional or signing up for an assertiveness training course. Sometimes, telling the truth takes a little practice.

Be your own lie detector

Like the song says, you can't hide those lying eyes. Indeed, all but the hardened liar experience symptoms of nervous system arousal when telling a lie. Lie detectors are based on the theory that our bodies react physically when we don't respond truthfully.

Experts recommend that you look for clusters of signals from the list below when trying to spot a liar:

  • Avoids eye contact or shifts eyes.

  • May stutter, pause or clear the throat.

  • Changes voice tone or volume.

  • Offers multiple excuses for a situation, instead of just one.

  • Stands in a defensive posture with arms crossed over the chest.

  • Reddens slightly on the face or neck.

  • Rubs, strokes or pulls on the nose.

  • Makes a slip of the tongue while denying something.

  • Deflects attention from the issue.

  • Appears uncomfortable.