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October 22, 2009

Inconvenient Truths

I have been thinking a lot about lying. It's surprising, how uncomfortable just thinking about lying makes me. Faced with the conventional wisdom that everyone tells lies, my instinctive reaction was to sputter to myself, "But... but... I'm an honest person - I don't lie!"

My second reaction was, "Liar, liar pants on fire!" That's the good thing about being able to laugh at yourself: one never lacks for comedic material. The source of this latest voyage into the unexplored depths of my belly button was an article in the Wall Street Journal:

... even in the best marriages and romantic relationships, we sometimes fail to tell the truth. After all, we have plenty of reasons not to.

We fib to avoid conflict. To gain approval. To save face. Or just to be kind. (Show me a man who tells his wife she looks fat, and I'll show you a man headed for a night on the couch.)

Speaking of men, they didn't exactly line up to be interviewed for this column. I asked hundreds of them about the little fibs they tell their wives or significant others. And here's what I got: radio silence.

The women I queried yammered on and on. They giggled as they told of lying to—or withholding the truth from—their partners about their dress sizes, the cost of their hair highlights, whether they got Botox injections or how much reality TV they watch.

... Many women I spoke with seemed almost proud of the cleverness of their shams. So why wouldn't any men cop to stretching the truth from time to time? Intrigued, I asked them.

The womens' reactions surprised me. After carefully thinking it over, I don't remember lying to my husband about having spent money or anything as silly as my weight or dress size. For one thing he likes to order pretty things for me to wear, so he has always known my sizes. But even during the stay at home Mom years when he was the sole breadwinner, I didn't feel the need to hide what I was spending. I may not have volunteered that information, but neither did I try to hide it. Misrepresenting how I spent money we both owned would have seemed too much like stealing.

But there's another reason I didn't feel the need to lie about money: I can't imagine my husband getting seriously angry with me about a purchase. Annoyed, perhaps, though frankly I can't remember a time when he got even that upset. I can't recall ever being angry with him for spending money either. That's just not a conflict area for us, so there's little reason to conceal the truth.

While thinking about what makes me more likely to lie (or situations where others have lied to me), I arrived at some conclusions that surprised me a bit.

Before this goes any further, let me emphasize that in most cases I believe it's better to tell the truth. For one thing, being honest is just easier. Each time we lie, we create a fiction that is likely to conflict with true statements we've made or with reality. Sustaining that fiction (and avoiding being caught out) then requires more lies.

But more importantly, lies erode the trust and goodwill between two people. If those two people happen to be married to each other, trust and goodwill become more important than ever. Few things would make me consider divorce, but repeated lying is at the top of the list. There are significant disadvantages associated with marriage, not the least of which are the constant effort required to maintain harmony and the curtailment of selfish - or merely self centered - endeavors. The greatest advantages (in my view) are enduring affection/respect and the priceless assurance of being known and accepted for who we really are, not the face we present to the outside world. We let down our guard with those we care for in so many ways. This is a bit paradoxical because the more we care, the more criticism, disapproval, or anger can hurt us. It's not hard to understand why the realization that a spouse doesn't trust you enough to let down their guard in return could easily make one feel vulnerable or betrayed. But it's also interesting to contemplate the idea that we sometimes lie precisely because we fear losing the affection or regard of those we love.

That seems an important point for two reasons. When I began to think about the common element behind most lies, it seemed to be the avoidance of some unpleasant outcome. That avoidance could be something as innocuous as sparing someone's feelings. People lie to avoid criticism or anger, to maintain boundaries or a sense of independence, to preserve self-respect or the regard of others. Sometimes they lie simply to get what they want. But if you remove the unpleasant outcome, you remove most of the incentives for lying.

The second reason is that in a healthy relationship, trust has an element of reciprocity associated with it. If we're granted trust, we are more likely to extend it in return. Most of us, if we're burned enough times, become acutely sensitive to the possibility of further damage (not to mention wary of the person who burned us). So it's not only our own behavior that creates or erodes trust but the expectations and reactions of others and the extent to which their reactions bother or inconvenience us.

The Japanese have an interesting view of the truth; two views, in fact. Ironically, a recent post about politics and the Nobel Prize reminded me of this:

Bush is unwilling to alter his political communication for different audiences. He is no good at Tatemae. Paying Clintonian lip service to Europe gives the impression of "listening" as all these Guardependent editorials...require. I'm willing to consider this may be a weakness.... It may take a better (and less sincere) communicator than Bush to be tough for the core audience yet make potential coalition partners feel sufficiently mollycoddled.

To those who trusted Bush, his refusal to equivocate was refreshing. To those who disliked and distrusted him though, his honesty seemed more like disregard for their feelings. The obverse could be said of Barack Obama: those inclined to trust him see his lip service as evidence that he is sensitive and caring; that he respects those who disagree with him. Those who don't trust him see the same rhetoric as an insincere attempt to gloss over or dismiss intrinsically adversarial interests.

Perception is inextricably bound up with trust. The Japanese understand the private vs. the public face. They have explicit words for each: Honne (one's inner or 'real' thoughts) and Tatamae, (a carefully constructed, artificial face presented to those we don't know well or don't trust). We tend to recoil at the thought that there might be any difference between the two but each time we censor ourselves: each time we decline to say what we really think or tone down our behavior to suit the context and company, we are employing Tatamae. We prefer to put a positive construction on this. We call it tact, situational awareness, or consideration.

But in the presence of trust, we can sometimes speak our minds freely even when what we have to say may not make for pleasant hearing:

Consider a bank employee from France, who works at a bank in Japan for 15 years. Every morning he is greeted by his Japanese co-workers with the same enthusiasm and warmth as he bestows on them. He grows to like this job very much, comforted by the belief that he is thought highly of by his fellows.

Yet, somewhere in his 13th year on the job, during a private moment with a co-worker, during a quasi-philosophical talk about heaven and how to get there, this Japanese colleague says: 'Well at least I don't think you will ever get to heaven. You don't seem to be a nice person at all.'

This undistorted display of how the co-worker really thinks about him arrives after 13 years of working closely together. For Japanese, this is not strange. The fact that honne is spoken out is a sign that one feels the other can be trusted with this personal truth. It may be the start of an entirely different mode of relating, but something the Japanese value enormously. Instead of being honored because he is finally entrusted with this personal reality though, the Frenchman is deeply offended. After all, he says, he has been lied to for so long!

What an enormous difference interpretation makes. And how often have men and women played out this same scenario? I think a large part of the problem lies in the erosion of trust so often occasioned by not understanding our intrinsic differences. Men, more used to dealing with an outside world where conflict and competition are assumed, can be reluctant to let down their guard or even, at times, evasive. Women, driven to seek intimacy and exquisitely attuned to anything that threatens it, can find this behavior so alarming that they overreact or fail to respect boundaries.

It interested me to realize that there is more than one possible construction that can attach to minor lies. The very act of avoiding disapproval or discord implies a desire for approval and harmony. I don't think lying is the best way to resolve our differences, but I understand why it occurs. Trust operates much like a set of rose colored glasses: it helps us extend the benefit of the doubt when understanding fails. But even in an atmosphere of trust, there are some things we may never feel comfortable sharing.

I've always loved Kahlil Gibran's portrayal of marriage:

... let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

...And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

I can't honestly say I've never shaded the truth slightly, never avoided a sore subject, never put the best possible construction on an unpleasant circumstance. I'm sure I've probably lied a few times too, though oddly my conscience makes me shy away from facing up to that. But that says something too: that I find it difficult to reconcile lying with the person I want to be. And also that I don't ever want to lose the trust of those I love.

Perhaps some lies happen because we've internalized some things too well. I'd like to think that. I'd also like to believe that most of the time I prefer even unpleasant truths to comforting fiction. Even if that truth happens to be that the new dress I just bought really does make my butt look big.

Thanks to spd for the WSJ article, and for making me overthink yet another potentially inflammatory topic :p

Posted by Cassandra at October 22, 2009 05:00 AM

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Posted by: keyboard Jockey at October 22, 2009 11:04 AM

Part of that harmony also involves not asking questions if you do not want to hear a certain answer. Ladies, I cannot stress this enough. If you will be unhappy with, or angry at, your spouse if he responds one particular way to a question, do not ask it.

Seriously. If you might get angry at him if you ask him if he thinks a particular woman is attractive, no good can come of it. In fact, there are exactly four possible outcomes:

1) He thinks she's attractive, and tells you he thinks she's attractive.
2) He thinks she's attractive, but lies to you knowing the truth would upset you.
3) He doesn't think she is attractive, but thinks you want him to say she is, so he lies to you.
4) He doesn't think she's attractive, and tells you so.

The problem is, whereas a man will see only four options, I have since learned that there are others that a woman could foresee. For example, the man might have picked option 4 as being the one that fit his situation. But then his wife thinks that he really does think she's attractive but lying to spare her feelings. And that can, in turn, get her upset that he lied. And nothing he can say or do could really convince her otherwise. So at that point, he's SOL.

My wife does not ask me the "does this make me look fat" question. For she knows I will reject the question out of hand. I refuse to answer questions that have no right answer. But from time to time, she WILL ask questions and then attempt to interpret my answer. For example. She will ask me my opinion on how to do something. I will give her my opinion on how it should be done. She will then explain why she thinks that it would be better done another way. Then I will say, "then do it that way." At which point she says "but you said X."

Ladies, let me spare you the argument that inevitably follows. If you ask your husband for an opinion, and then you lay out the case for why he is wrong, don't be surprised if/when he gets upset. And then certainly do not berate him if he subsequently tells you to do it your way after you lay out the reasons his way is wrong. Because that has a completely different meaning in male communication standards.

[in female communication]
You just said "What do you think?" He told you his honest opinion. You, in an attempt to get the best possible of ALL answers, point out the weaknesses in his argument. He responds with abandonment of his position (rather than responding with counterpoints). You then become upset that he disengaged from the conversation.

[in male communication]
You just said "What do you think?" He told you his honest opinion. You tell him he's wrong. He's hurt and upset you asked him for his opinion and then proceed to ignore it. He tells you to do it your way then since his is 'clearly wrong'. You get mad at him for agreeing with you.

Believe it or not, that's how he sees it. Not exactly on topic of lying, but kind of.

Posted by: MikeD at October 22, 2009 11:05 AM

Sure it is :)

FWIW, I've never understood the problem with "does this make me look..."

My spouse used to get nervous about answering this until I explained to him, "Honey. I am not asking you if YOU THINK I'M FAT."

I'm quite capable of looking in the mirror and assessing that one myself. I'm asking you WHETHER THIS DRESS/PANTS/WHATEVER makes my butt look fat".

"And I want an honest answer."

So the next time I asked, he said, "Well, I do not think that you are fat, but that dress doesn't flatter you."

And I walked away, having learned a little more than I asked, but most importantly, having secured confirmation of my suspicion that the dress did, in fact, present my derriere in an unflattering light.

Other than that, I agree with everything you said. If you can't handle what they really think, don't ask them :p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 11:15 AM

Also, in my own defense I will say that I have progressed a long way from the time, when I was only 18 or 19, when I bought what I thought was a very stylish dress and asked him if he liked it and he replied:

[wait for it]

"Yes, I like the dress very much. But it would look much better on a woman with larger breasts. It's designed that way."

Which I took to mean:

1. He thinks my breasts aren't large enough, and


Nowadays, realizing that that style of dress does, in point of fact, have a minimizing effect on the visual appearance of breasts (it featured copious loose criss-cross draped fabric in front), I would have concluded:

1. He thinks my breasts could be larger, and

2. This is the wrong style of dress for a woman of my more modest blandishments. It's cut all wrong for my figure.

And I would give it to Goodwill, hopefully to be purchased by a woman of more substantial God given talents than I possess :p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 11:21 AM

And I walked away, having learned a little more than I asked, but most importantly, having secured confirmation of my suspicion that the dress did, in fact, present my derriere in an unflattering light.

But that's the key. You would not be upset with HIM regardless of whether he thought the dress was flattering to your posterior or not. Combat trained Marine or no, that's a brave man for venturing the answer regardless of whatever assurances you made. One more data point showing what a catch you were Your Hostfullness.

Posted by: MikeD at October 22, 2009 11:22 AM

"Yes, I like the dress very much. But it would look much better on a woman with larger breasts. It's designed that way."

I take it back. Your man is not brave, he's suicidal! :P

In seriousness, I do not like Empress Cut (I think that's the term for those dresses that look like the waistline is right under the boobs) dresses. It has NOTHING at all to do with a woman's bust (or lack thereof). I just do not like the appearance of them. My wife (being an endowed woman) would look ridiculous in one, or like she was wearing a maternity dress (which is a COMPLETELY different issue... I do not dislike that cut of dress on PREGNANT women, but nor am I exactly scoping them out for fashion faux pas). But I can see how someone might hear me commenting on the DRESS, and think I'm talking about the WOMAN.

Posted by: MikeD at October 22, 2009 11:30 AM

Am I understanding the argument correctly?

A) Lies most commonly arise to cover areas where you'd like to feel independent, and are afraid that your partner is intruding; or areas where you feel your partner won't like you as well if they know what's going on.

B) However, if you remove that danger, there's no reason to lie.


C) Partners should determine where their partner wishes to be independent, and not press in that area.

If I'm grasping that correctly, it's servicable advice in some arenas, but potentially destructive in others. If your partner 'wishes to be independent' in the question of how much alcohol he drinks, for example; or if it is a question of whether she needs to go to the doctor to address a persistent complaint with worrisome symptoms; or even a simple matter of whether he or she gets enough exercise, with the long-term consequences of becoming sickly, and running the hazard that their less-attractive future self might be harder to seek intimacy with...

...well, it seems to me that there is some balancing that's going to have to be done in that area. What happens is that you have to press gently, and accept that your partner is lying to you in response, in the hope that the gentle pressure and their own dislike of lying will move them in the right direction without an open confrontation.

This entails some deception on your part, too: you have to pretend not to notice that they are lying, in order to preserve their honor. You rely on their own sense of shame to get them to change the behavior rather than continue to lie.

In some cases, they are lying to themselves, and you need to give them the opportunity to 'be the first to notice' the lie. In fact, you noticed it long ago, but you have to preserve their sense of honor by letting them notice and change.

In the worst cases, where they 'value their independence' in that area enough that they persist in lying to themselves, you have to push the line to the point that they realize you know they are lying, without actually declaring that you know they are lying. That may be the only way to get them to admit the truth to themselves: when they know they can no longer deny it to you, they'll finally accept there is something to be denied.

I doubt anyone gets through a successful marriage without some of this negotiation. It's an honor-and-shame issue, not a truth-and-guilt issue. You will have better results if you preserve their sense of honor, and indeed, if you do continue to honor them and love them. No one is perfect, after all -- we have to help each other live up to what we'd like to be.

Posted by: Grim at October 22, 2009 11:34 AM

I have to give him most of the credit. I tried telling him how I preferred to be dealt with and he paid me the compliment of believing it wasn't some kind of trap.

I have learned through long experience that if I ask him a question, he may initially try not to answer if he thinks I'll get upset. And I'm not perfect - there are one or two subjects I've tried to solicit his opinion on but found too upsetting to be detached about.

If pressed, he simply states his opinion politely, but without embellishment or apology. And if I insist on pushing him (which I have done from time to time) he simply says, "Look - I don't want to talk about this any more. Let's change the subject."

I say I've never been taken aback by that (mostly b/c I can't imagine saying that to him) but I have to say I am far more willing to let something go when someone is straight with me.

That's why I really that a lot of times there is a feedback loop in persistent arguments. If you can agree on a way to short circuit the argument, it minimizes the emotional fallout. And I am not sure that the same things work for everyone - I think that's something that has to be negotiated.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 11:42 AM

FWIW, I've never understood the problem with "does this make me look..."

Yeah, that attitude is actually more common than most men think. I believe there might be a second who lives in Wyoming...

...maybe. :-)

"Yes, I like the dress very much. But it would look much better on a woman with larger breasts. It's designed that way."

I've found something that seems to work well for that situation (whether it's chest, tummy, butt, legs, whatever). "I like the concept, but not the execution". It approaches the issue not from the perspective that it's your body that is at fault for not fitting the dress, but that it is the dresses' fault for not fitting your body.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 22, 2009 11:46 AM

Well Grim, I think I might take it farther than that.

If you are lied to about something really major (say, an affair) I don't think pretending you don't know they're lying works at all.

I think I was explicitly ruling out major lies (or at least I intended to do that if I didn't do so clearly). Personally I would consider many of the lies in that article to be a fairly big deal.

For instance, if my husband felt so confined in our relationship that he couldn't be honest about going out for a beer with the guys, I think that's a pretty serious issue that still needs to be handled tactfully if he were lying, but I would want to tackle it head on. Which, to me, doesn't mean beating him over the head w/ a 2x4 but is probably closer to, "What can we change so you don't think you have to lie to me?"

Of course, if he wanted to go out and visit a prostitute (or sleep with a co-worker) I wouldn't offer to accommodate that. But having a beer with a few friends?

Sheesh - I have literally pushed him out the door. Of course he doesn't abuse the privilege so I trust him.

My personal experience has been that men in general react very poorly to shame or accusation. It often provokes the very WORST reaction because when someone feels attacked they (rightly or wrongly) circle the wagons or return the perceived fire. In that position they are unlikely to be open to your point of view.

As I've gotten older, I've become more openly confrontational. That sounds bad, but what it really means is that I no longer bite back discontent the way I used to. We have more fights now, but I think we also understand each other a LOT better.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 11:51 AM

It approaches the issue not from the perspective that it's your body that is at fault for not fitting the dress, but that it is the dresses' fault for not fitting your body.

Couldn't agree more. Not all clothes are equally flattering.

I have occasionally expressed normal feminine anxiety about growing older/less attractive/not looking like a surgically enhanced 15 year old supermodel whose photos have been airbrushed :p

I try really hard not to get into, "am I as pretty as Veruschka" because we all know the answer to that one and it ain't one that will play well.

Sometimes a woman just wants to be held and that is the best answer of all. I miss that. A lot.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 11:55 AM

Hm. I must have misunderstood, probably because I don't know why anyone would lie about small things. I can only conceive of lying in a relationship like a stable marriage if it's around big issues that are genuinely terrifying for your partner: issues like addiction, or disease, or something similar.

I might put adultery in a separate class, because it's a betrayal of the relationship. These issues I'm thinking of aren't a betrayal, but something that is frightening enough to one partner that they might try to 'defend their independence' out of a desire to avoid facing the depth of the problem.

Open confrontation may not be the best way to address these issues. Neither, though, is 'giving them more space' to 'be independent.' These are precisely the areas where they are most apt to really need your help.

Posted by: Grim at October 22, 2009 11:58 AM

I think what I meant to say (but may not have) is more like this:

B) However, if you remove that danger, there's LESS reason to lie. But sometimes people aren't rational - all you can do is try and make sure you're not part of the problem (i.e., your own behavior is not making them not want to be straight with you)

C) Partners should respect the idea that they may have different ideas of what constitutes a desirable degree of independence. IOW, you don't necessarily get to decide how someone else wants to be treated. Better to find out what they think and then try to find the acceptable middle ground.

I can tell you right now that I wasn't happy about this deployment. I have never really felt that way before.

At the same time, I realized that he doesn't see life the same way I do and ascribing my thought processes to him (i.e., "I can't imagine what you'd do if I upped and said I felt I needed to live somewhere else for a year. If I ever did that, it would be a sign that I wanted out of our marriage) is not fair.

Now I could very well say, "I'm not willing to spend another year apart." Or even, "If you do this I'll stay but will never forgive you." But at that point we're talking divorce unless the other person bends to your will. Or they give in and hate you for holding them back. Neither is a good solution.

Still, you always have options but they properly relate back to your behavior. You control that, but not someone else's decisions.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 12:04 PM

I can only conceive of lying in a relationship like a stable marriage if it's around big issues that are genuinely terrifying for your partner: issues like addiction, or disease, or something similar.

According to the article though, that's precisely where people did lie - when the matter was fairly trivial in the bigger scheme of things.

I agree - to me, it's not 'worth' lying over small things. I'd rather have it out. But I got the impression that view is not universally shared :p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 12:07 PM

I have occasionally expressed normal feminine anxiety about ... not looking like a surgically enhanced 15 year old supermodel whose photos have been airbrushed :p

And occasionally expressed anxiety about Bill revealing a photo where you do.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 22, 2009 12:08 PM

I hadn't thought so much on the 'needing your help' aspect, Grim. If it were disease or addiction, that might require a different approach.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 12:09 PM

And occasionally expressed anxiety about Bill revealing a photo where you do.

Yeah, but she's blonde and I'm a brunette :p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 12:09 PM

Well, 'in sickness and in health,' as they say.

Posted by: Grim at October 22, 2009 12:11 PM

I honestly don't know how I would handle such a situation, Grim.

It's a good point.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 12:16 PM

Yeah, and you look at *least* sixteen...

Posted by: BillT at October 22, 2009 12:17 PM

Now I could very well say, "I'm not willing to spend another year apart." Or even, "If you do this I'll stay but will never forgive you."

KtLW only had one stipulation when I started OCONUS contracting: "They've gotta have Direct Deposit or you don't go anywhere."

Posted by: BillT at October 22, 2009 12:24 PM

I agree - to me, it's not 'worth' lying over small things. I'd rather have it out. But I got the impression that view is not universally shared :p

That does indeed seem to be the problem. And it might also have something to do with the high divorce rate.

Fact is, some men out there, correctly or not, feel they need to lie in order to go out drinking with the fellas. Your husband would not require it, nor would my wife. In fact, you implied your husband needed to be pushed out the door to go. And I, in turn, have asked my wife for permission to go out, knowing the answer would most likely have been "yes". Had it been "no" we would have discussed it, and I probably would not have gone. I certainly wouldn't lie about it. Because for her to veto said action, she would have a good reason, "We said we were going over to the Smith's house tonight, remember?" sort of thing.

But Cass, sadly neither your marriage, nor mine, is typical. Thus, folks lie about things we would not dream of.

Posted by: MikeD at October 22, 2009 12:26 PM

Your husband would not require it, nor would my wife.

That should have read, "your husband would not need to lie, nor would my wife necessitate it." It made sense in my head when I typed it. :|

Posted by: MikeD at October 22, 2009 12:28 PM

KtLW only had one stipulation when I started OCONUS contracting: "They've gotta have Direct Deposit or you don't go anywhere."

Boys... :)

I think it's very much a 2 way street, Mike. I would not be willing to compromise if I were constantly provoked or couldn't trust my husband. He gets my respect because he has earned it, partly by being willing to stand up to me when that is required instead of stomping off or going silent just because my face has turned pea green and my head is spinning around like Linda Blair's :p

I have more than my share of faults, but so long as he is willing to meet me halfway I will meekly whatever he tells me to :)

*running away before the BS detector goes off*

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 01:09 PM

Cass, I'm rolling on the floor. Women can become really wierd aout boobage. I guess if the Unit can get away with his comments, I am tolerated here. There is more I would say, but Foot in Mouth disease is mine.

Posted by: Mark at October 22, 2009 01:30 PM

...Foot in Mouth disease is mine"
Mark, don't think you're the Lone Ranger in that regard. Most folks that know Walkin' Boss and me are fairly amazed at how brutally frank we are with each other. But then I think we've always considered ourselves to be best friends first and foremost. Makes most things easier to tussle around and get over. And we have our drop it and/or nahgonnadoit codes fairly well established.

I appointed her Chief Financial Officer early in our marriage, placed everything in both our names, and always told her where I was and what I was up to. She's always reciprocated. Equal partners in all things. But we've never, or maybe only seldom and with no real intensity, had the yours versus mine contention or complained about individual interests that the other did not share.

Yep, a best friends kinda situation. Seems to be working, but it's still pretty early on...

Posted by: bthun at October 22, 2009 02:27 PM

Women can become really wierd aout boobage.

As you might imagine, I have my own thoughts about that but there's no profit in a woman saying what she thinks about this subject. It only brings on put downs.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 02:28 PM

It only brings on put downs.

And Google-hits from Abu Dhabi.

Posted by: BillT at October 22, 2009 02:43 PM

Hard to say which is worse :p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 02:49 PM

I have three incredible sons-in-law, but the youngest, about a year before the wedding, put the whole "does this dress make my butt look big" matter to rest.

They are all dressed up for New Year's Eve out on the town and I'm taking a photo of them. I've got one decent one and focusing for a back up shot when he says, "I really like that dress."

Of course daughter turns toward him with the beginnings of a huge smile when he continues, "because it doesn't make your butt look big."

It's a great photo. And one of the few times I've seen my daughter speechless.

And now (7 years later) she can't even ask the question without both of them giggling.

Posted by: Donna B. at October 22, 2009 03:47 PM

Have you ever noticed the delay that occurs when people are calculating the risks between tell answering honestly and fibbing? I'm not talking about BIG HONKING LIES, but little ones.
For instance:
She: "How many beers did you have at the ball game?"
He counts on his mental fingers and thinks "Six. No, seven! Oh man! At $8.50 a pop that's like...um... well, 10 times 6 is 60, take away 3 times $1.50 which is about 5 bucks and you get um...almost over 50 bucks! What a freaking rip-off! And I'm not even buzzed! or at least not anymore after sitting for more an hour just trying to get out of the stupid parking lot. Stupid Redskins. Make me pay 8 bucks a beer after I've already forked over 125 samolians for a crummy end zone seat in the rain just to watch them miss two field goals on their way to another drubbing? They ought to pay ME for going to watch their crappy team play. Man, I could have bought a keg of Heineken and invited the whole neighborhood over to watch the Patriots game on the big screen, and I'd still have had enough left over for a case of pork rinds. Wait a minute! Why is she asking me how many beers I had? I'm not drunk. I wasn't even driving the car. Oh man, did somebody call her up tell that I was on the jumbo screen doing the Soupy Shuffle with the blonde girls in the row in front of us? I'll bet you that's it. I'm a dead man. But that was just harmless football game stuff! I din't do anything really stupid, did I? I'll tell that I'll never do it again. Hell, I'll tell her that I'm never even going to go to a football game again. instead I'll help her around the house doing laundry and stuff. Yeah, that's what I'll say. Might as well get this over with. Here goes! "A couple-few or so. Why?"

She: You're still wearing your wig and pig nose, that's all, so I figured you were having a good time with the guys.

He: Baby, you're the greatest.

Posted by: spd rdr at October 22, 2009 05:47 PM

So a couple of the commenters above have hinted at another thing that I think needs to be brought up, and I think it relates to something fundamental about the human mind. I've been reading some neurological lit lately about how we all have a few loose screws in our brains, in that occasionally we'll have a totally inappropriate thought about something or someone come to us out of the blue. I think we've all experienced that, and then a second later, you think, "Where the heck did that come from?" Combine that with the fact that we've all been guilty at some time of operating mouth (or keyboard) without brain engaged, and we start to develop a fear that, in any situation where we aren't watching our words, we might accidentally say something inappropriate.

So I think that the real purpose that a lot of these white lies serve is to be stock answers that we know are emotionally neutral. The fact that they're lies is almost beside the point; their real function is to be reliably context-free statements. We've all had the experience of someone taking offense at something we honestly thought was not offensive. And so we become more measured with our words, but engaging in a conversation in which you're having to consider your words carefully is mentally fatiguing.

If we assume that, in general, men are less trusting of other people than women are (Cass sort of said this in an earlier post), then it's no surprise that men would be reluctant to talk about it. It becomes a meta thing; you ask men about the stock phrases that they use to avoid threatening situations, and they perceive that question as a threatening situation and respond to it with stock phrases. Or something like that; I haven't got this bit worked out yet.

As for the fat question: I guess the issue there is that there can really be two questions hidden in that. The one is a need for personal reassurance. But the other is, as Cass pointed out, really a question about the garment, and should be answered from that perspective. I figured out some years back that clothes are sort of a hobby for my wife, and that I would have more opportunities to interact with her if I learned a few things about her hobby. As it happened, that was about the time the "What Not To Wear" series started. That became appointment TV for us, and from it, I learned some things about women's fashion and how women's garments are made. So when we're in a store and she tries on something and asks me, "What do you think?", then if I see problems with it, I can point them out in a way that addresses the garment: "It's pretty tight across the bust" (the dreaded mono-boob!) or "That color doesn't go well with your skin tone". And I think she appreciates that, because now if I tell her that something looks great, she knows I've really considered it and I'm not just giving her a stock answer.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at October 22, 2009 05:48 PM

Have you ever noticed the delay that occurs when people are calculating the risks between tell answering honestly and fibbing? I'm not talking about BIG HONKING LIES, but little ones.


I have noticed that when I bring up certain topics (the unrelenting asshattery of John Kerry comes to mind) there's an audible pause whilst the love of my life watches his life pass before his eyes :p

I used to feel vaguely hurt/insulted when I saw that little pause. I assumed he was thinking, "Oy vey. Here she goes again, and me with only one beer in me. How do I escape this with my nether regions intact?"

The thing is, I don't think that you guys realize, sometimes, that even though we ladies talk a lot (and so may seem to dominate a conversation) inside there is a part of us - I know there is in my case - that is very much aware how much bigger and stronger and tougher and more pragmatic you are. It's a purely physical thing.

I am very self confident. I rarely hesitate to speak up when I have something to say (and sometimes even when I don't).

But there are times when I long to hear what my husband thinks, and am slightly hesitant to advance my opinion.

I think what I'm trying to say is that the 'threat perception' is often mutual. I used to think, "Oh gosh, is he going to be irritated? I know he hates to get into political arguments when he's tired from a long day at work. Did I screw up?" It just doesn't show up as easily in women b/c we are so comfortable with words.

There are things I think men are quite good at naturally. If we had to persuade someone of something or improvise in a pinch, I would be the better person to do it. But if I wanted to come up with a long term plan for a complex endeavor, I'd pick my husband every time even though it's not natural for me to take a back seat.

I have gotten the impression many times that my husband, sons, and male acquaintances are much more likely to anticipate trouble from conversational gambits we ladies consider innocuous. I also know I often get a real kick out of seeing my spouse slightly tipsy. I love the way his whole demeanor changes; oddly enough I find it very endearing b/c the slightly forbidding aspect disappears and his face is open and delighted like a boy's again.

So, as spd's story illustrated, we may not be thinking what you think we're thinking :) In fact, if you knew what your wives were really thinking a lot of the time, you guys would be blushing like schoolboys.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 06:22 PM

I think that the real purpose that a lot of these white lies serve is to be stock answers that we know are emotionally neutral. The fact that they're lies is almost beside the point; their real function is to be reliably context-free statements.

You know guys, I can only explode so many male heads in one day :p

Seriously, I have noticed lots of men doing that with women. I never understood it before though. My husband tried to explain it to me once - but I think the term 'walking on eggshells' may have sent me into orbit around the planet Juniper.... or maybe I'm just an inveterate smart a**.

That poor man. He suffers.

I think she appreciates that, because now if I tell her that something looks great, she knows I've really considered it and I'm not just giving her a stock answer.

I can pretty much guarantee that she does.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 06:53 PM

we all have a few loose screws in our brains, in that occasionally we'll have a totally inappropriate thought about something or someone come to us out of the blue.

Occasionally??? :)

How about all the time?

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 07:50 PM

Something about the different cultural perspectives between a lie and the truth really does bring into focus teh conflict between my Chinese heritage and my Christian heritage; namely, the 'obligation/face-saving' issue.

In most Asian cultures (including, as you have mentioned, the Japanese), public interactions, even between friends, requires a lot of beating around the bush. When someone offers you the last piece of fried chicken, for example, even if you really, really want it you're supposed to demur for two times at least before accepting it. And if you're fat? "No, you're not fat, you're just prosperous," is the answer you will get back. In neither case is it a lie, it's just part of the dance. A ritual, if you like.

So, is it a lie when all parties know you're just saying stuff because it's part of the litany? The closest thing I can think of in the Western context is when you go bargaining, and the seller laments his six starving children and you decry the shoddy quality and workmanship of the product in question.

Posted by: Gregory at October 22, 2009 10:30 PM

No, I don't think it's necessarily a lie at all. To me, a lie is the telling of intentional falsehood (as in intent to deceive). If everyone understands and the custom is agreed upon then there's really no deception, no?

I think my point was that unless there is trust and understanding, the same action may be viewed in diametrically opposite ways.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2009 10:43 PM

Yeah, until somebody shows up who doesn't understand that it's expected, and then...

For example, when we first moved to China -- since you mentioned China, Gregory -- I took a job with a college. As with any job, I negotiated a salary, and I expected to be paid that salary.

So, come the end of the month, where was my money? Ah, well, you know, this is China and sometimes it takes a while for the pay cycle to start; after all we have to get money from the government and budgets can run a bit behind, so...

Right. So I figure, Rome and Romans, and I let it go for a few weeks. By now it's getting cold, and the wife and I didn't bring a lot of warm clothes since it was quite hot in the summer. Some yuan would be very helpful right about now, you know? So I go back to the administrator, and I explain all this, and add, "So, when might I be paid?"

"Maybe today!" she replied happily.

Well, fine, then! And when I wasn't paid that day, I went on home for the weekend; and on Monday, I still wasn't paid. And not for the rest of the week, either.

At this point, I went ahead to the vice president of the college and complained vigorously about the lies. He -- having spent a lot of time in America, and grasping that I wasn't getting the whole 'don't question authority' and 'accept what you're told' aspects of maintaining social harmony -- explained that they had no legal authority to employ me, having not gotten formal approval to hire a foreigner, and so they were having to accumulate petty cash until they had my salary in hand. Since I was being paid the rates of a foreign expert professor, that was taking quite a while.

The lady administrator, who had been horribly humiliated by being called a liar, never spoke to me again. I felt bad later, when I came to understand the culture better. She had indeed said something that was preposterously untrue -- there was no chance I might be paid "today" -- but she had meant to be reassuring. I just didn't understand.

Posted by: Grim at October 22, 2009 10:58 PM

I told you that story, as Lewis Grizzard would say, to tell you this one.

At the end of my time in China, I was due a last payout. I'd come to accept irregular paydays, when they could accumulate the petty cash necessary to pay me off-the-books. It wasn't legal, but I had contracted the job on good faith, and it was honest enough work, so why should I worry about Communist regulations?

In any event, when it was time to leave, I contacted the same vice president and told him I'd be going. He said he wanted to meet to convey the last of my pay. I said that would be fine, as I had a number of English-language books I wanted to donate to the college library, which was short on English-language literature for students trying to learn the language. I put the books in a suitcase that I intended to leave behind, and bright and early one Chinese morning, went to meet him as he headed to work.

The place he had set for the appointment was in front of a government building that, as is often the case with Chinese government buildings, had been assigned a military police guard -- complete with rifles! -- to express its importance and majesty. I was waiting there, an obvious foreigner with a suitcase, at about six in the morning, with few others around due to the early hour.

The VP's car pulled up, a black sedan, and he got out to shake my hand. We spoke briefly in English, and I gave him the suitcase full of books with my compliments. He reached into his coat with many thanks in English, and brought out a big, thick envelope.

It was about this time that I suddenly realized what the Chinese-speaking police must be thinking.

"Well, thank you, I must be going," I said with a final handshake.

"No, no!" he replied. "You must count the money. This is the last time we will meet, and I want to ensure that you are satisfied."

"Oh, I'm sure you were quite right in your count," I said.

"I insist!"

Well, what could I do? I opened the envelope, and pulled out a thick sheaf of hundred yuan notes -- three month's pay for me, and probably two year's pay for the policemen. I counted them out carefully to satisfy my friend.

"Well, it's all here," I said.

"Goodbye!" he replied, with a few last salutations and kind words.

He got in his car with the suitcase, and drove away. I grit my teeth, turned and started to walk away, expecting any second to feel the hand on my shoulder.

Never happened, though. For whatever reason, they let me go.

In those days it was hard to sell Renminbi outside of China, so the wife and I had a big party in Shanghai with my three month's pay before we caught the plane to San Francisco a couple of days after. It wouldn't have been worth much in America, but we had a fine time with it in China's second city.

Posted by: Grim at October 22, 2009 11:08 PM

Hoooo BOY! Sometimes I wish I had my own blog. I could do an entire post on this subject, myself.

I look at lying in a slightly different manner than most of you here have described. I see the good and bad of it from the perspective of motivation.

I consider myself an honest person, honest with others and myself as much as I possibly can be. However, I have no problem with telling a lie to prevent "unnecessary" hurt to someone, whether it is a small white lie, stretching the truth, or a complete fabrication. "Unnecessary" is the key word in this phrase though. I tend to take the advice of Robert A. Heinlein, "Only a sadistic scoundrel--or a fool--tells the bald truth on social occasions." and "Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other sins are invented nonsense."

Telling a lie to gain advantage for myself, get my own way, avoid the consequences of my actions, or to make myself appear better, smarter, more interesting, etc. is something that I refuse to do. The only exception would be in matters of survival, whether personal, or group such as family, friends, society, or national. Perhaps it is my experience in the military intelligence field, but lying to deceive an enemy is something about which I have no compunction.

Whether small or large I keep in mind the 3 effective ways of lying and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

1. A complete fabrication - Effective, but difficult and you run the risk of contradicting yourself if you let it get too complicated.

2. Tell only part of the truth - Very effective and less difficult. Also the most common method of lying.

3. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but tell it so unconvincingly that your listeners are sure that you are lying.

Posted by: Charodey at October 22, 2009 11:13 PM