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Is it Ever OK to Tell a White Lie?

Lie: Don’t Lie. What to Do???

According to Merriam-Webster, a white lie is “a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” According to relationship psychologist, Devon McDermott, quoted in a piece by Wendy Rose Gould on Business Insider website, “The biggest problem with white lies is that we often need to continue to create more and more lies to cover the tracks of our original lies.” Thus, we begin the decline down the proverbial ethical slippery slope and need to find ways to perpetuate the lie or be discovered. Once a lie is told it’s challenging to come clean and recover the moral high road.

White lies can have a cumulative effect. You tell one small lie and get away with it and then are more likely to do the same in the future. Lying is a learned behavior. You might ask: Is it ever acceptable to tell a white lie? There are no rules of the game although Gould suggests that if a white lie requires additional white lies or hinders the expression of your personal needs then you should tell the truth. She suggests delivering honesty “with a side of gentleness.”

Here are three examples of when you should tell the truth; avoid the temptation to lie.

  1. Someone from work asks you out for a date and you don’t want to hurt his feelings so you make up an excuse by saying you have other plans. This may seem like a small lie to prevent hurting your co-worker’s feelings and you may even think it’s best to lie for workplace harmony. However, the way we responded opens the door for being asked out again. It’s best to be honest to avoid having to lie again and again. You could explain that you don’t think of the co-worker in a romantic way but want to be friends. (Of course, don’t say ‘friends’ if you don’t really mean it).
  2. You want to break off a relationship but don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. Staying in the relationship may cause more long-term harm than breaking it off as soon as you feel there’s no longer a spark or you’ve met someone else or your feelings have changed. You’re going to have to lie about wanting to go places together. You don’t help the other person by delaying the inevitable and making it seem you’re still interested. It’s best to be starkly honest even though it might hurt their feelings.
  3. You just started a new job and your boss explains your responsibilities. It was confusing and you don’t fully understand. When asked if you have any questions, you say ‘no’ because you don’t want to come off as being dense or accusing the boss of being unclear. This may affect your ability to do your job and do it well so say something like “I just want to be sure I got it all.” Then ask your specific question.

Let’s be honest. There are times when a white lie seems to be the least offensive thing to say. How many of these things have you done?

  1. Someone gives you a gift you don’t like. Do you say you don’t like it or something such as: “Thanks for the thoughtful gift?”
  2. You’re on a phone call with an acquaintance who goes on and on. You don’t want to hurt his feelings but can’t stand it any longer. Do you abruptly get off the phone or say something like: “I lost track of time. I have to go now?”
  3. A friend of yours calls and asks you to meet up with her and three others from work. You are currently at odds with one group member. You don’t want to create undue stress for your friend or the other group members by explaining why you won’t go. Do you say something like: “Thanks for asking but I have other plans?”

The common thread in each of these situations is to avoid harm to another person. It might be said in each case that you are being compassionate towards another person. You’re respecting their feelings.

The key thing to remember is don’t tell a lie to avoid personal responsibility. If your boss asks whether you have completed an important project at the end of the day but you haven’t, don’t make up an excuse like you got called away from your desk just to avoid conflict. Explain why it’s taking longer. There may be good reasons. Even if it’s just a matter of you’re working more slowly than anticipated, the worst thing to do is deny accountability because then your boss may question whether you are trustworthy. Accepting the consequences of our actions, and not telling a lie to cover them up, is a matter of integrity.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 15, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and Like his page.

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