The Social Liar Meets the Honest Brute--and They Both Lose
by Carolyn Ray
Date: 11 Jul 98 (draft)
Copyright: Carolyn Ray
The key to the dilemma is that most social lying is done, not out of real necessity, but out of a lack of a better idea at the moment.
Sometimes social interaction seems to require white lies because telling the whole truth would be rude, mean, or downright sadistic. Yet white lies are lies too, and for the sake of one's own happiness lies ought to be avoided in all but the most desperate, bodily- or life-threatening emergencies. Here, I deal with a question concerning a special category of white lies, which I call 'polite lies'.
How can one lead a polite, mannerly social life and still be consistently honest? Can we say that a person who lies to avoid rudeness is really thoroughly honest, but "lubricates the gears of society" with a "harmless" falsehood here and there? A social liar, as it were, styling them after the social drinker who only imbibes at parties so that other people will feel at ease? Or must honest people accept their own offensiveness as a consequence of thorough-going honesty? Social liar or honest brute seem to be the only alternatives.
The key to the dilemma is that most social lying is done, not out of real necessity, but out of a lack of a better idea at the moment coupled with a predisposition--cultivated by frequent practice sometimes over the course of years or a lifetime--to create falsehood rather than tell the truth in an awkward situation. A person who wishes to lead an honest life yet still be socially palatable has the choice to find more creative solutions to difficult situations.
Honesty doesn't mean a complete gut-spilling, nor does it require that harsh or cruel words be used to convey one's honest thoughts. The listener's feelings and context must be taken into account. Fortunately for both morality and society, there are many, many ways of expressing the same thought, that there are many thoughts that might be expressed, and that the expressed thought need not be either expressed in the most offensive way nor need it be the worst thought that comes to mind. Neither the social liar nor the honest brute understands this.
The most efficient way to help yourself be consistently honest while being polite and social is by cultivating in yourself a positive attitude toward the world--known in some circles (e.g., Objectivist circles) as "a good sense of life" or belief in "the benevolent universe premise". There are a variety of benefits one can gain by cultivating this attitude; happy, honest social interaction is just one.
The benevolent universe premise is the idea that the world is fit for human habitation, that it is a source of infinite joy and pleasure, and that pain, ugliness, and disappointment need not be the focus of one's waking moments. Pain is addressed head-on, resolved to the best of one's ability, and then relegated to the back of one's mind while more pleasant issues are attended to. Difficulties that cannot be solved are endured, but they are not be the focus of thought. People who believe in and act on the benevolent universe premise are said to have a good sense of life.
In everyday social situations, a good sense of life means that one can acknowledge problems with someone's, say, hairstyle, choice of clothing, or complexion without dwelling on them. It means being able to see and enjoy what is good about a person, even about a hairstyle or clothing or complexion, that one does not like.
Knee-jerk, unreflectively emotional reactions should not be given the reins in ANY situation, and the trivial social situation in which you are being asked for your opinion should not be treated any differently. Honest politeness should be viewed as a challenge, not as an fantasy only possible in a better world! Awkward situations should be viewed as opportunities to practice, not only creativity, but resistance to cognitive laziness and the "easy way out" in preparation for future more difficult situations where honesty is crucial to the success of your efforts. If you already have a problem with or a predisposition toward lying, use these trivial situations to cultivate a predisposition toward honesty.
Take an easy and typical example in which someone would be tempted to tell a social lie, and consider how many varied responses can be offered. Suppose that an aunt whom you like comes to visit, sporting what is, in your humble opinion, a horrendous new hairdo that you wouldn't be caught dead wearing. What is your first thought? Is it that you wouldn't be caught dead wearing it? If so, then when your aunt says, "How do you like the new hairdo?" it would seem that the most "honest" thing to say would be "I wouldn't be caught dead in it!" since that is what is on your mind. Or, you could lie, and say "I think it's very nice!"
If you think a little further, however, you can usually find something honest yet more constructive to say. For example, have you given any thought to what is so offensive about the style? Does it hide good facial features or accentuate bad ones? Does it seem crooked, out of date, flambouyant? Is there something more or less "objectively" wrong with it, or are you just a very conservative person averse to changes in the people you know?
If you just haven't thought about any of the above and you don't have any constructive answer ready, you might say, "Hm, I haven't given it a lot of thought. Give me a few minutes to get used to it--you look so different to me!"
After a few minutes, if you think there is really a problem that you can formulate, you might say,
"It compliments your face very well, but isn't it a bit flambouyant for your office?"
"I think the design is interesting, but you have such a pretty face it's a shame to hide it."
Or, if you realize that it looks good on her though it is not a style you would have recommended to her or anyone else on the planet, you might say,
"Wow! You can get away with some of the most unusual styles!"
"You can make ANY hairstyle look good!"
Naturally, if you think that your aunt would be hideous no matter what her hairstyle, you will need to find some other positive aspect of the 'do. Perhaps you like the color, or it is very glossy, or it is just so complicated that it looks like great skill was involved in achieving it.
Sometimes an appeal to individual tastes can get you smoothly yet honestly through the ordeal. You might say,
"I think it works fine on you, although it's not quite to my taste."
"Oh, Auntie, you know very well it is my strict policy never to discuss matters of taste! No good can come of it!"
Suggestions in answering more difficult questions:
The point to remember is that when people ask "how do you like x?" they are not always asking for a blunt, unreflective, possibly insulting personal opinion that just happens to be on your mind at the moment. The expression "how do you like x" is sometimes being used idiomatically, to mean "is there ANYTHING good you can say about x" rather than, "please spit out the most biting venom that first enters your mind regarding x." This is a perfectly legitimate use of the expression, in much the same way that "what do you feel the answer is" does not literally mean "what are your emotions about this" but rather "what are your rational thoughts on this issue."
Generally, when a person asks "how do you like x," some sort of positive response is desired, and any sort of positive response will keep the peace even if it is accompanied by a question implying that x is not quite right for some reason. If you find with one or two particular people that only the loudest avowel of adoration for x will keep the person from crying or starting a fight (and for some reason you wish to keep this person in your social circle) you might try explaining that (1) you are a very, very honest person, (2) you have found that your tastes differ significantly from his or hers, and (3) you would prefer not to be put on the spot about matters of taste. This may take a few repetitions, but it generally works with all but the most unstable personalities.
Finally, keep in mind that your opinion might actually change if you think a little more about it. How many of us have greeted a some style of clothing with seething hatred, only to end up happily wearing it because it turned out to be very flattering on us, very comfortable, or advantageous for some other reason?
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