The Sacred Art of Telling It Like It Isn’t

Everybody lies.

Oh, you can claim otherwise, but you will, of course, be lying if you do so.

C’mon, we all know that everyone else lies – is it truly that big a leap to admit that you do too? Oh no. You lie, and you know you lie. I won’t humiliate you by trying to trap you into admitting it. Just admit it to yourself, and we can move on, okay?

This essay (or series of essays, depending on how wordy I wax), is intended to be a comprehensive look at the hows of lying, including an analysis of the various ways of lying and the pros and cons of each, and some thoughts about how and why lies are detected.

What it will not be, at least until the very end of this, is any sort of moral judgement. I don’t care why you lie. Your motives, rationales, justifications and ass-covering do not interest me – any more, I imagine, than mine would interest you.

No, I just want to talk about lying.

I want to talk about it as frankly, as honestly and as non-judgmentally as possible. This may prove discomforting for some of you to read, if you are unaccustomed to considering this matter dispassionately. If so, just navigate away now. It’s a blog. No one can tell if you’ve read it or not.

Unless, of course, they catch you in a lie about it…

Let’s move on.

Why we lie:

All lies come from the same basic source: the desire to deceive or falsify. That’s it. That’s also why motive doesn’t enter into this – why you’re doing a thing is less important (at least for purposes of this essay) than the means you have chosen to do it.

The source of a lie can also be defined inversely to the above: the desire to conceal or deny the truth. Again, motive doesn’t matter here. Neither does the specific way in which the lie is told. A lie is a lie is a lie.

It’s possible to go a little further with that: lies are an attempt to control the perceptions of another. This control can be for any purpose, and does not necessarily imply that the control is malignant. It can be neutral or even beneficial. The key point is that in telling the lie, you are attempting to make the other person think what you want them to think.

Robert A. Heinlein famously claimed (in Time Enough For Love) that there are only three ways in which to lie. I’ve searched high and low for others, but each time I’ve found a fourth, a closer analysis has revealed it to be a special case of one of Heinlein’s three, or a combination of two of them. These are:

  1. The lie of commission
  2. The lie of omission
  3. Telling the truth unconvincingly

Let’s take a closer look at those.

Lies of Commission:

The lie of commission is simply defined: it is a deliberately false statement, the knowing communication to another of something that is not true. It is the simplest and most common form of lie. I believe that it is a direct result of this simplicity, this ease of creation, that it is also the most readily detectable of all methods of lying.

Quite simply, it is the most obvious – if you say that the ball is orange, but it is actually green, anyone who looks at the ball can tell you are lying (or possibly colour blind). Lies of commission most often fail because they are too easily revealed. A lie of commission that rests on something unprovable or hidden is a lie that will survive this kind of scrutiny far more easily – if you say that your missing watch was dropped in the ocean, rather than the bin, it’s unlikely anyone will care enough to investigate further.

Lies of commission are best suited to small matters that are not worth checking on, or on large matter that cannot be checked – if you were the only person in the room with Uncle George when he breathed his last, you can make up whatever you want and pass it off as his last words, because no one can disprove you.

Lies of Omission:

The lie of omission is the knowing concealment or exclusion of one or more details in an otherwise truthful account – which leads to their common name of half-truths. They commonly occur on witness stands everywhere, and in the words of politicians of all stripes.

Lies of omission are trickier than lies of commission. You have to work out, before you speak, what you want to leave out and why, otherwise you don’t know what to leave in. It wouldn’t do, for example, to omit one detail, but leave in another that logically depends upon it.

Unlike the lie of commission, which is inevitably in the form of one or more statements, lies of omission can be phrased as questions, which further helps to conceal their status as lies. If you’re trying to avoid saying that you know what Adam did on Wednesday, and someone asks you point blank if he went to the movies, you can always respond by asking if or why the other person thinks he did that. A lie of omission told in this way tends to be interpreted by the audience as hardening their suspicions: by throwing the question back on them, you push them back to their own thoughts, and thus reinforce them.

The lie of omission is also an easier thing to defend if you get caught at them – you can always claim to have only become aware of the omitted details later on, and it’s not like anyone can read your mind and prove that you did or didn’t know a thing at a particular time.

Interestingly – and confusingly to me – many people appear to not consider the lie of omission to be as bad as a lie of commission, or in some extreme cases, a lie at all. However, by the definition I gave above, intention to deceive, lies of omission are clearly just that: lies.

Telling the Truth Unconvincingly:

To tell the truth unconvincingly and succeed in doing so, you need to know a little something about your audience. You need to know what ways they fancy themselves able to detect lying in, and to play up to those. In most cases, this will amount to careful control of tone and body language. If you look nervous or fail to make eye contact, many people will assume that you are lying. Alternately, you may find that this works best for you by seeming to insist too much upon a point.

Often, it is necessary to combine telling a truth unconvincingly with lying by omission or commission, as one of the easiest ways to be unconvincing is to omit or deny details that would seem to support what you’re saying.

Heinlein classed this as the most difficult way of lying. I would add that it is also the most dangerous. This is because you are deliberately making the person or people you address think that you are a liar, in order to lie to them in a different way from that which they suspect. It’s an exercise in brinksmanship, and a tricky one. After all, you give your audience the idea that you’re a liar, and it will motivate them to examine all your statements more carefully – which means that it may well inadvertently expose earlier lies you have told.

Furthermore, because they think you’re lying, your audience will attempt to come up with an alternate explanation for whatever it is you’re lying about – and you can exercise very little control over what that might be.

Telling the truth unconvincingly is the easiest form of lying to defend – all you need to is point out that it’s not your fault that the audience didn’t believe you. (Although to do so is tell a lie a commission – which may expose the whole business.)

Come back next week for thoughts on detecting lies and my conclusions on the subject.

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