The Fork in Your Pocket
My stepmom was uncannily good at telling when I was lying in my youth. She would often explain to me that I was completely obvious when I’d try to get away with something, and would use the example of somebody who would steal a piece of cake. “It’s like you’re standing there saying ‘I didn’t eat the cake!'” she’d say, “when there’s a fork covered in frosting and crumbs sticking out of your back pocket!“
Powerfully persuasive for the ten-year-old me, though it did neglect the situation that developed in later years, namely two younger sisters with a penchant for sticking cake-covered forks in my back pocket. But early on I was indoctrinated with the idea that no matter how good a liar I was, someone – my parents, my teachers, my friends – would know. Some of these were very hard lessons to learn – what someone doesn’t know will hurt them, for example – but the most unfortunate result was that as I grew into my teen years, I got better at lying.
One Born Every Minute
Part of this was due to my preoccupation with science fiction – Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, for example, had an interstellar conman named “Slippery Jim DiGriz” (translation: Jim the Gray) as a hero who always was able to con his way out of things. In the realm of fantasy there was Fritz Leiber’s Grey Mouser, who along with the hulking barbarian Fafhrd swashbuckled through the kingdoms of Lankhmar. I got books on con games (my dog-eared copy of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was with me for years) and loved movies like The Sting. Still do, in fact – good heist movies like the Ocean’s n+11 series are still guilty pleasures. Heck, it is a fact that I met the mother of my children at a high-school pep rally where she was entertaining herself by relaying insulting messages between two cliques…messages she was entirely making up herself. How could I not fall in love with such a woman?
But the problem is that when you get that good at lying, you begin to get…well, lonely, yes, because of a lack of confidants, but more to the point you get bored. If you’re so good that you never get caught, where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge?
Leave it to another science fiction writer to give me the answer:
It’s not enough to be able to lie with a straight face; anybody with enough gall to raise on a busted flush can do that. The first way to lie artistically is to tell the truth — but not all of it. The second way involves telling the truth, too, but is harder: Tell the exact truth and maybe all of it…but tell it so unconvincingly that your listener is sure you are lying.
– Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
…which, before you think I set out to become known as “The Man Who Always Lies”, I should tell you I extrapolated into a third way of “artistically” manipulating the truth – that is, to tell it in such a way that you don’t have to lie at all, but instead tell the truth and still get to do whatever it is you meant to do. It’s not saying “Don’t ever do anything you’re ashamed of!” Instead, it’s “Don’t ever be ashamed of anything you do!”
I think that integrity comes into the mix there somewhere, too, but that’s not really where I wanted to go with this post.
While doing some research on body language for some classes I’m developing I began to explore the work of Pamela Meyer, who runs Calibrate Inc (making all Lie to Me fans squee with delight) and wrote the book LieSpotting. While I’ve not read the book yet (it waits patiently on my Kindle) I did get to watch her entire TED talk, and it was fascinating, if a bit disheartening. In spite of her assurances in the beginning of the talk (“I don’t want to alarm anyone…“) what she had to say had some pretty heavy statistics for people with trust issues:
- Most people lie to each other within the first 10 minutes of meeting.
- Married couples lie to each other in roughly 1 out of every 10 interactions.
- Unmarried couples do it one in every three interactions.
…and many more. It’s a fascinating talk, and for your convenience it’s linked below…but I warn you, at a certain point you start to think about people you talk to. Worse, you start to think about the ways you talk to other people. And you end with the conclusion, as I told a friend, that people lie a lot. And once you learn some of the tells, the only way to unsee them is to lie to yourself.
The Hard Practice of Compassionate Truth
I’m not going to go for some big “radical honesty” idea – the only way to be that honest without hurting people is to be Dalai-Llama-level compassionate, and I’m pretty sure no one reading this blog is there yet. But it does seem to me that it’s possible to cut down on the level of untruth in life – either cutting down on the white lies, or telling the truth in a way that has the same intended effect that the white lie would have had.
That’s one challenge. You can also try something like calling other people out when they lie, which should make for quite the interesting week of confrontations (in other words, I don’t recommend it). You could also try to notice where you might be less than honest with other people in more-than-white lies (please refrain from any reference to shades of gray, thank you). A noble effort.
But I think the real challenge comes in finding ways to face the lies you may have told yourself for the sake of comfort, security, or just plain habit. Call out your patterns where you see them. Look in the places in your life you’ve averted your gaze.
Journaling helps. In my case, I suspect some whiskey and a cigar or three will help too. But it’s an interesting experiment, don’t you think?
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