Date: 11/07/2020
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Telling a Few Little White Lies Keeps Us All Sane and Happy

GERMAN philosopher Immanuel Kant thought it was wrong to tell a lie under any circumstance.

Even if a murderer asked you the way to his victim he said you should tell him the truth.

He allowed no exception.

Thank goodness this is not what most people believe let alone how they act.

Recent research has shown that most people in Britain lie 10 times a week.

I think they must have been lying to the researchers: it must be more like ten times a day or even an hour.

The most common lies the researchers found were about what things cost.

Wives lie to their husbands about the cost of clothes and husbands about the cost of their little toys.

When I buy second-hand books I make sure the seller rubs out the price before I leave the shop.

The sellers tell me they do this for many of their customers, who are mostly men.

Of course there are different kinds of lies and some of them can be very destructive.

But if we and everyone else told the truth all the time, the whole truth and nothing but the truth what an intolerable life we should have.

We should end up killing each other.

It would be kill or be killed.

We lie by our actions and omissions almost as much by words, especially in these times of perpetual electronic contact.

When we don’t answer the phone knowing exactly who it is who is calling we are already preparing an untruthful excuse in our minds for future such as that the phone was switched off or that we were in a meeting and couldn’t answer.

Nothing is worse than someone who, when you ask him how he is, gives you a detailed report about his health.

We ask not for information, for example on the state of his bowel movements, but to be polite.

Always to tell the truth is to be intolerably literal-minded.

Can I come to dinner this evening?

Yes I can in the sense that there is nothing to stop me but I don’t feel like it.

I would find it a bore or it is too far to go or I don’t care for the other guests or the person who invited me is an abominably bad cook but I don’t want to say any of these things so I invent what Oscar Wilde called “a subsequent engagement”.

To tell the truth would be hurtful for the person who has invited us and means us well – sometimes, that is.

Only a brute tells (or someone as naïve as Kant) the truth all the time.

The British used to be very good, perhaps the world champions, at the socially adept lie.

In the 1950s there was a little French book titled English Life that explained to French people who thought they understood English that expressions like, “We much meet again soon” really meant, “I hope never under any circumstances to clap eyes on you again.” Likewise, “Lovely to see you again” meant, “Oh God, not you. What a bore!”

Lies were to English social life what oil is to machines.

When someone is very proud of something, for example a hat or other piece of clothing, only the very closest of friends can say how awful it really looks, how the colours clash, the fit is wrong and so forth.

When someone gives you something to eat and asks if it suits you, you do not reply as a food critic might saying that the meat is overdone, dry as the Sahara and tough as leather, or that there is far too much salt and it is virtually inedible.

In my time I have eaten some terrible meals at the table of hospitable people and I have always disguised my displeasure.

The possibility of telling lies is what gives social life its consuming interest.

If everybody said exactly what he meant and what he meant corresponded perfectly to what he believed to be the truth such life would be dull indeed.

The truth should often be approached crabwise – sideways rather than head-on.

As TS Eliot said, human kind cannot stand very much reality.

Without lies there could be no gossip and then where would be? Bored stiff.

This is not to say that the truth ought never to be told in a straightforward way.

Sometimes beating about the bush or telling an untruth that the listener wants to hear is harmful.

You can fail to tell the truth not out of kindness but out of malice or cowardice because you want them to take the wrong decision or you do not want to be the bearer of bad news.

And we have no infallible guide as to when it is right to tell untruths.

For example doctors are enjoined always to tell the truth to patients and of course they should have a bias in favour of telling the truth.

But people are not all the same and some react very badly to the truth. To insist upon the truth will sometimes do no good: truth telling then becomes a kind of sadism.

It is the doctor’s job to make a judgment and where there is judgment there is the possibility of error but infallible rules also lead to error, probably of a worse kind.

Perhaps the lies that are most destructive are those that we tell ourselves.

We tell ourselves lies even as we are lying to others.

I remember my fury as a child when my lies were not believed.

I persuaded myself that an injustice was being done me but at the same time a little voice in my head annoyingly whispered that this was nonsense that I was telling lies not only to others but to myself.

If you tell yourself lies often enough you come to believe them.

The important thing is not always to tell the truth but to be able to recognise it in yourself and others. 

First published in the Sunday Express.