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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why "White Lies" Aren't/Balancing Honesty & Protection Of Feelings

I used to be diplomatic, tactful, considerate. I would like to say I'm still those things, but it's become more important than ever before to me to be, above all else, honest. Now, don't get me wrong. Honesty has always been important to me - I just never before understood how damaging a 'white lie' could be.

Today I was asked if I considered a particular person a friend. Now, I don't know this person well. We do not have heart-to-heart conversations. I don't know what makes her tick any more than she knows what makes me tick. I do not know her favourite colour, what sort of food she likes to eat, or how she feels about ice cream. I do not know that when I am hurting, I can go to her and ask for comfort, or seek laughter or advice that is given knowing my situation and with my best interests at heart. She has never given me any indication to make me believe that she would consider me a friend.

In all honesty, I don't know her well enough to count her as a friend, and so I considered my options before replying. In the past, I would have immediately responded "of course you're my friend" so that I didn't hurt their feelings, and I'm sure there are people out there thinking that that is exactly what I should have said now, too. I didn't. I gave it thought and eventually I went with what amounted to "I don't know you well enough to consider you a friend, but you are someone I am interested in getting to know further".

I didn't feel that it was too horrible a thing to say, but it lead to an amount of uproar. I'm still confused. I recognise that there is a balance between being honest and being hurtful, but I cannot for the life of me seem to find it. Contrary to what seems to be public opinion of me these days, I have no desire to hurt anyone.

In fact, not wanting to hurt others is part of the reason honesty is so important to me at the moment. As I journey into my own recovery, I am beginning to recognise all the ways "white lies" have damaged my relationships and my self, and most specifically, my ability to trust -- not just you, but my ability to trust myself.

If I dress in a skirt that looks hideous on me and I ask you what you think, chances are that I suspect it may not be the most flattering piece of clothing I've ever tried. If you go on to tell me it looks fabulous, I learn to doubt my "intuition" that the skirt doesn't look good. Later, someone else may tell me how hideous it looks, and that opens the door to doubting your motives, your friendship, whether I should trust you in future. And even if I decide not to trust you in future, that initial seed of doubt in myself will still be there.

Trust is incredibly important to me. It's not something I've ever been able to have much control over in the past, but I'm learning. And one of the things I've learned about myself is that my ability to trust is tempered by the amount of times someone's lied to me.

White lies are damaging because they are lies and lies are an abuse of trust.

So, my purpose in writing this is twofold. One, to remind myself of why honesty is so important to me, and two, to ask how you balance honesty and protection of other peoples' feelings. Is there a line? I don't need you to agree with my P.O.V., but if you're going to offer criticism I do ask that you be constructive. "I think your way is hurtful. Next time you could try x" is helpful, "your way is mean" is not. I want very much to figure this out, for years I have prided myself on my interpersonal skills (despite my seeming inability to keep friends) and this struggle to find balance and keep people happy now that I'm actually expressing some apparently unpopular opinions is very upsetting to me.

Take care of yourselves until next time, and may we all find our own small fences along the way.


  1. This seems very black and white on the lying issue.

    For me, lies can be social lubricant, we can dress it up as 'selective truths' 'framing' 'not telling the whole truth' but ultimately,lying is essential to maintaining relationships.

    some lies are good, to tell someone dying that everything is going to be ok, when you know there is no hope. Telling a child that santa is coming tonight. That you like someone's cooking when you know they've put a lot of effort into it.

    There are times when telling the truth is downright cruel, you meet your friend already out with no chance to change, do you tell them that they look terrible and the dress they are wearing looks like a curtain from the 70s? or do you tell them they look great and go out and have a wonderful night?

    the clothing example from your post is not great. That could easily come down to opinion, someone could genuinely think that skirt looks great on you, just because someone else thinks it looks terrible doesn't make either of them liars (white or otherwise). To then doubt their every word seems a little harsh after that.

    It might just be that basically I'm a dishonest person. Or that I'm more comfortable finding that mix of social etiquette. I think that constant truth telling is improbable, because we all choose how to retell events to spin it in a certain way, we omit details that make us look bad, or hurt others. Full honesty is no more desirable than full dishonesty. I reckon the mix is about 20% honesty (what time is the next bus...) 75% selective (this happened the other day...) 5% lies (If you're a good boy Santa will come...)

    We lie to ourselves constantly, one of the most common lies is that "Oh, I never lie"

  2. "I didn't feel that it was too horrible a thing to say, but it lead to an amount of uproar. I'm still confused. I recognise that there is a balance between being honest and being hurtful, but I cannot for the life of me seem to find it."

    I don't know if this was your thinking or not, but i'd like to point out that just because there was an uproar, doesn't mean you didn't find a balance, or weren't sensitive.

    i think it's entirely possible to be authentic without being cruel. in fallen's already-out-in-a-horrid-dress example, i wouldn't say "frankly, i think you look awful" but if asked i would go with something like "it's not my favorite of yours." to me, that is still honest while not being harsh or cruel.

    i think the culture(s) we live in expect a certain amount of dishonesty. while i'm not 100% authentic, that is my goal and i do think it's possible. and i do think that a lot of people are not prepared for it and would rather hear the untruths. but there's a lot of things others would prefer i do, that i'm not going to.

  3. I struggle with white lies sometimes too. I actually told one to my doctor on friday when she asked me promise to take my medication. I said I would, then I didn't. Oh, well that is just a lie I guess, not a white lie.

    I do think though being honest is the best policy. There was a lady standing in line at the atm machine the other day wearing a light coloured dress and she had blood stain on the back. I just couldn't get the guts to tell her but I think she would have been more embarrassed if I said something than finding out at home later. That is a tricky one too. Thinking of you :)

  4. An office supply store's sign once told me, "if you can't be nice, be vague." It sounds sort of awful, but I feel like it's a good policy. Like sonya said above, I too would say something like "it's not my favorite of yours" when asked if I liked an ugly dress, given that the person didn't have a chance to change it. If I wasn't asked, I probably wouldn't say anything about it at all.

    I think for me, the "balance" is really about finding something you believe enough to say (or not saying anything), rather than saying something you do not believe. I think "I don't know you well enough to consider you a friend, but you are someone I am interested in getting to know further" is an excellent response to the question of whether someone's your friend.

    If someone wants blind reassurance rather than the truth, I think it's a poor choice to ask a question that has a chance of something they don't want to hear as an answer.

  5. I think some others here have made valid points. For me, honesty is a vital part of my integrity, of the way I see myself. It's one of the most hurtful things someone can say to me, to tell me I did not tell them the truth. I still have to learn that just because it wasn't the truth for them, downs't mean it wasn't the truth for me. I struggle a lot with this because I do believe in absolute truth, ie, there is one real truth but there may be many perceptions of that truth. For instance, the other day my daughter and I were having a hard day. She tried to make a move towrads me emotionally and said, I would like to go out for coffee and just chat so I can understand you better. I said, Thank you, but I really don't feel like talking at the moment, and then hugged her. Later it emerged that she felt I had blown her off completely and rudely, where I felt I had put her off for another time quite kindly. This is still causing us problems because she is hurt and I am wary. However, I believe there is an absolute truth which encompasses both perspectives - imagine an omnipotent and omniscient being (for me this is God) watching and noting everything you say or do. To that being, there is only one version of what happened - the absolute truth.

    Anyway. I think your response to the person who asked you if you were a friend was both honest and tactful. Keep in mind that others' "stuff" colours what they hear, just as your "stuff" colours what you hear. Perhaps the uproar was because that person thought they were more of a friend to you than you percieve - which doesn't mean that you were insensitive, just that your reality didn't match up with hers.

    Love you.