At Least Lie to Us! The Decency of Lying

Larry DavidMary writes and publishes a film review in a local magazine. She asks her boyfriend Jeff to read it and tell her what he thinks. He obliges and tells her it’s great. “Really?” she asks. “Oh yeah,” he says. “It’s entertaining enough? Interesting enough?” “Definitely.” And Mary grins, pleased with herself.

But later when she’s trying to fall asleep, she relives the conversation. It seems strange . . . Jeff is so critical usually. Of everyone. Often espousing an air of superiority. His sudden lack of criticism feels highly suspicious. Based on similar, past interactions, even if he enjoyed the article, he still would have had some suggestions for how she could have improved the review.

Is it possible Jeff lied? Of course it’s possible. But is the possibility strong? Well . . . Yes. But Mary wonders if Jeff had lied, would she want to know? Would she want to hear any criticism he secretly harbored? She’s surprised to discover that the answer is NO. Absolutely not.

If we’re really honest with ourselves, we might discover that sometimes, we actually want to be lied to. Can you recall a time when you asked a friend, significant other, or family member for feedback on something you wrote, painted, cooked, or otherwise created? And that friend, significant other, or family member responded in the negative? And you were taken aback? I bet you can. And I bet your surprise and pangs of resentment stemmed from receiving a response starkly contrasting not just with what you had hoped to hear, but what you expected to hear.

Sometimes, we’re not ready for the truth. We might say we are—we might even believe we are—but we’re not. We ask for feedback not seeking an honest response, but seeking praise. In the above anecdote, Mary realizes she was lucky Jeff responded positively, because she wasn’t prepared for a negative response and would have reacted very badly had he given her one. She may have cried, she may have gotten defensive, upset, or yelled at him in an attempt to disprove his opinion (as though opinions were not a matter of taste but rather divisible into two categories: facts and sorely misguided beliefs arising from ignorance).

Her heightened sensitivity likely stems from the fact that her review was already published. Thus, if her review sucked, it was a much harder notion to contend with, given that anyone could read it and she no longer had the opportunity to revise it. And of course, there’s also the ever present desire of wanting those we love to love what we do (or even, for everyone to love what we do), which exacerbates any latent anxiety on Mary’s part about the quality of her work. As it is, she acknowledges that if Jeff did have a negative critique—even just a sole negative remark—she was much happier with the lie. In that moment, she could only handle a truth that would reinforce positive beliefs she wanted to have about herself and her abilities as a writer.

But—this is not just about artists who may or may not be insecure and overly sensitive about their various creative endeavors. This is about everyone and what seems to be an omnipresent desire reverberating throughout our cultural milieu. Regardless of whether we are aware of it or not and regardless of our ethical stance, most of us (yes I am generalizing and I don’t think unfairly so) at some point or another have preferred to be lied to. Because even if we don’t consider ourselves artists, there are still plenty of subjects we’re not ready to hear the truth about, depending on our investment in the subject and specific level of sensitivity/vulnerability on a particular day.

1. Lie to me about my capabilities if I’m anything short of wonderful.

We want people to lie to us about our skills in general, whether it’s our athletic prowess or our ability to give a good massage. Remember that episode of Friends when Chandler discovers what an abominable masseuse Monica is? If the contorted expression on Chandler’s face is any indication, Monica uses her hands to inflict undue torture on Chandler (or whoever else she may “massage”). Yet, Monica believes herself to be among the world’s best masseuses. Afraid of hurting his girlfriend’s feelings, Chandler lies and reinforces her distorted perception.

Although Monica is furious when she discovers that Chandler lied to her, her behavior indicates that she’s not ready to hear the truth. Deploringly, she tells Chandler that if he doesn’t like her massages, he should just say so. So he does. And Monica starts crying. Sobbing actually. And she freaks out when Chandler tells her that it’s okay; she doesn’t have to be the best at everything: “Oh my God! You don’t know me at all!”

We may not care that we aren’t the best at everything (accepting how unrealistic such an aspiration is), but still, we want to be good at some things. And we’d like to be really good at one or two things, at the very least. But we can’t always be as good as we would like. Especially if we desire to be really good at something we just don’t have a knack for. Given that it’s not easy to contend with the idea that we’re not good at the thing we want to be good at, or that we’re not as good as we’d like to be, we of course are sometimes going to be a little too sensitive to hear the truth. And so we would prefer our loved ones to lie to us about our skills, so we can believe ourselves to be better than we really are—and maybe we are that good, but we don’t want to deal with the possibility that we might not be.

2. Even if you think I’m ugly, just tell me I look good.  

We all would like to believe we’re attractive. And if someone finds us physically unbecoming, we don’t want to be privy to that information, do we? We would rather others lie to us if they think we look anything short of stunning. In Although of Course you end up Becoming Yourself—David Lipsky’s interviews with David Foster Wallace during the Infinite Jest book tour—DFW exemplifies that in our weaker moments, we favor dishonesty over the truth. Wallace recounts to Lipsky the excruciating number of photo shoots he had to partake in to publicize the book.

“They’ll take seventy pictures, and a Details shot’ll come out . . . There’s just been a whole bunch, and most of ‘em have just been atrocious. I think. Or maybe I really look like that. That’s the nice thing. I can go to my friends around here, and I could go, ‘I don’t really look like that, do I?’ And they’ll go, ‘No.’ Now, whether it’s true or not . . . ?”

Interestingly, DFW here is aware of his desire to be lied to. He knows that he could very well look like shit in many, most, or all of these photos. But of course, he, like most of us, would rather believe that his perception of himself as hideous is merely a product of self-deprecation, that this perception is so subjective and skewed it’s limited to himself alone, and that in reality, objectively, he is attractive. Although we may find ourselves disgusting, it’s because we cannot see ourselves clearly, and everyone else sees us for what we really are. Or at least, okay looking enough. This is the hope. This is always the hope. And in those moments when honesty is more than we can bear, we ask our friends if we look alright, not asking openly, but asking with the expectation that they will say, “Yes, yes you look alright,” and maybe even, “You look damn hot.

3. If you don’t like me, for the love of God DON’T let me know it.  

Perhaps the lie we most frequently desire: If someone’s perception of us as a human being isn’t exactly favorable, especially if our perception of that someone is overwhelmingly positive (but even if it’s not), if they think we’re annoying, abrasive, uptight, boring etc., we’d really rather not know. Larry David knows it. Throughout his HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, David frequently quips that lying about such things is an act of decency.

One of the most memorable examples comes from season one, the episode where Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen invite Cheryl and Larry to a Paul Simon concert. When the day of the concert arrives, Cheryl and Larry end up sitting around all day, waiting in vain to hear from Ted and Mary. It appears Ted and Mary have blown off Cheryl and Larry without a word. And the Davids are furious, because to blow them off without so much as an excuse defies social etiquette:

Larry: “At least lie to us.”

Cheryl: “Right, something.”

Larry: “Call us and lie. Don’t let us sit here like schmucks.”

Cheryl: “Yeah.”

Larry: “A lie is a gesture, it’s a courtesy. It’s a little respect. This is very disrespectful.”

According to Larry (and Cheryl), if you don’t want to see someone, it is kinder to lie to them about it than to blow them off and allow them to infer that you don’t want to see them, or that you might not even like them. It’s the courteous thing to do. And maybe it is . . . Of course, Larry David, as a comedian, is pointing out our deficiency as a culture—the fact that what we really want contradicts what we purport our ethical values to be. Although our societal moral code condemns lying (and our mores condemn insecurity), David would likely say (as would I) that we want people to lie to us so we can avoid dealing with the possibility that they don’t like us or don’t like us that much, and would prefer to not be around us.

Again, I am not suggesting that we want to be lied to anytime the truth is less than favorable. I’m suggesting that sometimes we prefer lies, and probably not consciously. In fact, were we to become aware of this preference, self-loathing would likely ensue and dissolve the desire almost instantaneously.

If we want to take one step closer to maturity, to evolving as individuals, to becoming happier, healthier human beings, we need to cultivate some self-awareness. It’s inevitable that we will have moments of fragility, when we aren’t ready for criticism, constructive or otherwise. That’s perfectly okay. But before asking someone for their opinion, we should pause and consider if we’re really asking openly, or if we’re anticipating a particular response. And if we’re anticipating a particular response, we just shouldn’t ask.

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2 comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more with, “But before asking someone for their opinion…” It really is a matter of bracing ourselves for that moment of vulnerability from which we either become weaker or stronger in its wake.

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