Are We All Little Liars?: How Lying Has Become Socially Acceptable
Remember the Ricky Gervais movie, “The Invention of Lying”? It’s about a society where lying doesn’t exist. Each character only knows how to be honest. All truth, all the time. Can you imagine? One is not easily insulted when everyone tells the truth, right? “That dress makes you look fat…” “I hate your haircut!” “I’ve always hated you,” a man tells a colleague.
In the film, Gervais’s down-on-his-luck character discovers the act of lying and uses it for personal gain. Within days, he’s rich, famous, and courting the girl of his dreams. Because nobody knows what “lying” is, he goes on, happily living what has become a complete farce.
It’s meant to be funny, but also a more serious commentary on us all. How well do we really know each other? How honest are we with each other and, most importantly, with ourselves? Can we truly be happy if we are living a ‘complete farce’?
The brain’s task is inherently taught to create the greatest chance of winning. Liars get what they want, personally and professionally. They avoid punishment. They win others’ affection. Liars make themselves sound smart and savvy and attain power over those of us who believe them. Many liars don’t see the harm in doing it (unless caught), and many more take pride in getting away with it.
We have all been affected by lies; we’ve been the liar, and we've been lied to. Whether it’s a lie told to embellish one’s characteristics or social status, or a lie to cover up deception, or told for fear that the truth will cause more pain; the consequences are, more often than not, devastating.
We’ve been witness to cheating: in relationships, on exams, in sports. And almost always, if caught, the fallout can be damaging — betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, removed from school, kicked off the team, all stemming from the conscious decision to lie. In the end, the truth is always more powerful than the lie, while dishonesty inevitably leads to emotional injury and disappointment for all involved.
So why do we lie?
The Truth About Lying
We began lying almost as soon as we could speak. We would tell Dad that Mom said it’s okay to have the lollipop. It was almost instinctual. We did it to get what we wanted. And we were too young to understand the consequences.
In high school, I would frequently lie to my parents about my whereabouts so I could go to the party they had forbid me to go to. Unfortunately, I was never a very good liar and more often than not, ended up grounded. All I wanted to do was have a little fun! Sheesh, who was I hurting?
Lying is a learned behavior often developed from childhood experiences. Parental modeling contributes to the development of this trait. As our first role models, we are lead and bred by example. If you come from a home where you are taught it is better to portray a ‘perfect’ facade rather than acknowledge the truth, flaws and all, most likely, deception and dishonesty will follow you. Lying becomes a coping mechanism, a survival skill. Acknowledging the truth means confronting pain and accepting dysfunction.
Yet, as you’ve grown and matured, hopefully the morals and values you’ve acquired along the way weigh more than the desire to ‘go to the party’ or the ‘perfect’ facade.
Culture of Liars
“Every Violation of Truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but a stab at the health of human society” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
How many times have you said, “Sure, no problem, I don’t mind at all!” or “It was great meeting you, too. Let’s do it again soon,” as you roll your eyes after a horrible date. Habitual lies have become socially acceptable. When dishonesty is so firmly ingrained at the level of small talk and pleasantries, it is surprising to actually encounter total honesty.
And then, there’s our public figures...
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” said President Bill Clinton, 16 years ago.
Lance Armstrong, ten years ago said, “I have never had a single positive doping test, and I do not take performance-enhancing drugs.”
And lest we forget, “That photo doesn’t look familiar to me … it could have been taken out of context,” said Anthony Weiner.
Remember James Frey? The author who wrote his ‘autobiography,’ A Million Little Pieces said, “People cope with adversity in many different ways…My mistake…is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, not the person who went through the experience.”
These are just a few of the many public lies that have been told by politicians, celebrities, athletes, authors, and more. The consequence? None of these people were banished to oblivion.
In fact, they’ve gained more notoriety. We see Clinton go on to make $89 million in public-speaking fees over the years; Frey go on to publish several books and write for a television series, while others claim rehabilitation and ask forgiveness on Oprah Winfrey, or re-run for public office. With public role models as these, has lying become more socially acceptable and the only avenue to success?
We all recognize that some lies are considered worse than others and the intention behind the lie is just as important, if not more, than the lie itself. However, the more lies we tell, even the white lies, the more deceptive we become. But where do we draw the line? What separates the harmless liars from the Bernie Madoffs?
How well do I know you?
“Hurt me with the truth, but never comfort me with a lie.”
With current “role models,” social media and online dating overwhelming our society, it’s much more difficult to detect deception. Our public profiles are the images we create. They are the images we want to be associated with, factual or not. Appearing more appealing to a potential partner or friend can be accomplished more readily with deception. Maybe he claims to be more financially successful than he is. Maybe she takes several years off her age. What’s the harm in pretending to have the same interests, hobbies, politics or dreams? The invention of the ‘perfect self’ in face-to-face relationships, as well as online, has distorted and manipulated all of our truths.
You hear of stories of the wife who had no idea her husband had a gambling problem, or a sex addiction, or the father who had a second family no one knew about, or the decades-long mistress. And you think, how on earth did they not know? Sadly, there are even TV shows dedicated to such topics, namely, “Who the (Bleep) did I Marry?”
In my own life, I tend to see the best in everyone and value honesty above all else. I trust until I’m given reason not to. But how many of us have dated someone we trusted implicitly until that point came when you thought, 'Who is this person? Where is the person I fell in love with?' And then you feel you’ve been had. Manipulated. Deliberately betrayed.
Along the way, those initial ‘harmless’ lies grew larger. They told you everything you wanted to hear and everything they wanted to be. But as time went on, pretending to be something they were not proved impossible.
You realize you fell in love with a phony, the ‘perfect’ picture he or she painted of a person he or she will never amount to. The person he or she (and you) had hoped they’d be, never actually existed. You became emotionally invested in a stack of untruths, a victim of your own optimism.
Lies can wield the most power when we start to believe them, and deceiving oneself is the greatest lie of all.
A white lie, slight lie, polite lie, or spite lie…even an omission of truth shows the intent to deceive deliberately, without being asked to do so by the target of the lie…thus, a betrayal of trust.
Recovering from a betrayal can be painful and prove difficult. The action behind the intended lie is usually far less damaging than the lie itself. Our character shines through in the choices we make. The decision to tell the truth shows courage and strength in character, accepting the responsibility of whatever the consequences may be.
Arming someone with the truth affords them the knowledge, equipped with the facts and the right artillery, to make informed decisions. But most importantly, it affords them your respect.
We, as a society, are forgiving. We cheer on the underdog. We love to watch the rise and fall and the rise again. But on a personal level, are we able to forgive as easily?
To forgive takes great strength, as well. A lie can create an open wound that no suture can close, leaving a lasting scar. But ultimately, with forgiveness, the betrayer is the one to carry the burden, a permanent chink in one’s armor, a sad reflection of his or her own flawed character.
How people rationalize their dishonesty is what it comes down to. There are numerous reasons why we lie, but what makes one lie less damaging than another? The overall deception in our culture and day-to-day interactions yields a great loss to each of us, personally, and to our society, as a whole. Perhaps telling the truth should be viewed as a moral obligation, even when it's not the socially expected norm.
Integrity will never deceive you.
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