I’m going to be honest with you. I tell lies. Lots of lies. Sometimes I tell 10 or 20 lies a day. And lots of people lie to me as well. In fact, according to a popular TED Talk, I’m probably lied to up to 200 times day – by friends, family members, colleagues, online, in advertising. It’s endemic and it’s an epidemic.
As Diane Keaton’s character said in Something’s Gotta Give, “the truth doesn’t have versions” and she’s right. There is undeniable truth in most situations and interactions. By the same token, a lie is lie, despite its size, colour or intensity but Western society is held up by lies, half-truth, exaggerations, fibs, embellishments and a general glossing over and smoothing out of words.
This weekend I watched a movie called The Invention of Lying with Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner. It was not a success by traditional measures, had a woefully short run in cinemas and earned only a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But it’s cute, provocative and somewhat terrifying. The characters inhabit a world where lying hasn’t been “invented” and their brains are hardwired to tell the truth all the time. If a co-worker asks how they are doing, they respond honestly with things like, “Horrible, I’m thinking of killing myself” or “Fantastic, I had sex last night”.
Their office interactions highlight all of the little lies we tell to navigate the modern workplace. The characters don’t sugarcoat their feelings or opinions and freely tell coworkers how much they dislike them, how little they contribute and how much better the office would be without them. I envy their freedom but I’m not sure I want to be on the receiving end of this kind of honesty on a daily basis. When the female lead meets her blind date, she blurts out that she hoped he’d be better looking. In our world, this kind of honesty would stop the date in its tracks but he just shrugs. He’s spent his entire life in a world with no white lies and he’s been told that he’s ugly so many times that he’s accepted it as truth. (Aside: I don’t think Ricky Gervais is ugly. I adore Ricky Gervais and that’s the truth).
Halfway through the movie, Gervais’ character “invents” lying and finds that it immediately opens up a world possibilities. He tells people they are beautiful, handsome, successful and capable and because they have no concept of lies, they believe him, and their confidence increases. In inventing lies, he also invents fiction because, after all, a world without lies is a world without fiction. We don’t think of Great Expectations, Harry Potter or The Life of Pi as a bunch of lies but that’s essentially what they are and that’s not a bad thing.
Watching this movie, I realized that all day every day, when asked a question, I perform a mental computation that helps me decide whether I should respond truthfully. A colleague I barely know asks how I’m doing in the elevator and I give them the standard polite answer, “I’m good, how about you”? I have decided that they don’t really know me and they aren’t really interested in the inner workings of my life and we only have 30 seconds together so there’s no time to get into it anyway. A vice president at work asks me if I’ll bring another colleague into a project I’m working on. I have no respect for this colleague, don’t value his advice and hate being in the same room with him. But I don’t say that or at least I don’t say it so bluntly. A friend asks me if I like the monkey-head wool hat she bought at a craft fair. I think it’s childish and the colour isn’t flattering but I don’t say so. I nod and applaud her creativity and willingness to live by her own rules.
I’ve even taught my kids how to lie. When they were younger, before every birthday party, I would take them aside and repeat the mantra: “Remember, no matter how you feel about a present, act like you love it. Tell the giver that you love it.” And there’s an entire self-help business based on the concept of “fake it till you make it” that encourages people to repeat affirmations like “I am a happy and successful person” and “I have all the money I need” even when it’s far from true.
Do I feel bad about any of these lies? No, not really. White lies grease the wheels of our society. Unlike the characters in The Invention of Lying, we haven’t grown up in a culture of honesty. Research suggests kids start to lie at age 3 and by 6, they’re telling several lies a day. By adulthood, we’re not really aware of the little lies we tell ourselves and each other. If we converted to brutal, no holds barred honesty today, our society would likely grind to a halt as demonstrated in my final movie reference, Liar Liar. In this movie, Jim Carrey’s character, a chronic liar, is forced to tell the truth at all times and within 24 hours, all of his relationships disintegrate.
As I write this, it’s 10 a.m. I’ve been awake for 3 hours and I haven’t yet told a lie. I wonder if I can make it through an entire day of honesty. I’ll give it a go and let you know how it turns out.