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Why We Lie

By Jamie Rodney

That’s a nice skirt. I enjoyed today. I agree with you. I understand how you feel. I want to spend more time with you. No, I don’t think you’re too much. Yes, I do think you have a chance of passing your exams. It’s her, not you. I know you’re a good person.

I’ve stopped speaking to him. You’re going to be ok.

These are a small selection of all the lies I have told to, or been told by, friends, family members, and people I care about, in the last couple of months alone. They say every relationship is built on honesty and openness, but most of them require a healthy measure of deceit as well. Whether it’s to protect our friend’s feelings, to avoid conflict, or simply to save time, all of us tell lies to the people we love, like, or even just respect. It would make spending time with them intolerable, otherwise. Obviously, some people are more honest than others, but I doubt that anyone reading this has ever been entirely truthful in all of their relationships, or assumes that all of their acquaintances are truthful back (if there’s anyone reading that does think like this, drop me a line- I know a Nigerian prince who wants to give you some diamonds).

So, the question is not whether it’s acceptable to tell white lies in relationships, but rather how frequently.

There is a case for doing so as little as possible- arguably, if you can lie about the small things, there’s nothing to stop you lying about bigger things either. And besides, if you can’t get on with someone without mutual dishonesty, then you have to question how healthy that relationship is. Certainly, I’m most open and direct with the people I’m closest to- or, at least, I try to be. And I definitely count on my best friends to disregard my feelings when I ask for their honest opinion.

The other side of the debate is harder to articulate, so I’m going to let a couple of fantasy authors do it for me. (Unashamed nerdiness is sometimes an advantage). Kings of the Wyld, by Nicolas Eames, features the story of an ettin (a kind of two-headed giant), who lives a pretty abject life as a slave to a tribe of cannibals. Gregor, one of the heads, is blind, and entirely dependent on the other head, Dane, to interpret the world for him. Instead of telling his brother the truth about their miserable existence, Dane does his best to convince Gregor that the life they lead is pretty pleasant- they’re not slaves of the cannibals, but honoured guests, and the chains around their necks are actually golden necklaces gifted to them by their gracious hosts. As a result, Gregor has a pretty happy life, unaffected by the privations he and his brother are subjected to. Obviously, Dane and Gregor’s experience is a little different to that of most St Andreans, but I think the takeaway is pretty clear. Maybe sometimes, lying to our friends is not only acceptable, but the moral thing to do- there’s nothing wrong with convincing someone you care about that things are better than they are when they’re down, even if only for a little while.

The other fantasy author I’m going to enlist for the purposes if this article is David Gemmel, a far more prolific (and, in my view, more accomplished) writer than Eames. In Gemmell’s fictionalised retelling of the Trojan War story, the Storyteller King Odysseus tells his protégé, the depressed, anxiety-ridden Aeneas a series of so called “Golden Lies” about the younger man’s capabilities, with Odysseus weaving tall tales about what he believes Aeneas to be capable of. These Golden Lies- so called because they eventually become truth- help to raise the standards Aeneas holds himself to, making him push himself to become a great leader. Again, once you strip out the context, the application to our day to day lives is pretty obvious. How many of us have exaggerated our friends abilities while giving them encouragement? And how often has that encouragement lead to them raising their expectations of themselves, making them more proficient, or at least self-confident?

Obviously, you shouldn’t lie to your friends. But if reading heroic fantasy has taught me anything (and it bloody better have, based on how much of my life I invested in it), there are some exceptions to that rule. And that’s the truth.

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