The Myth of the White Lie
Does the Acceptable Lie Challenge Integrity?
The dawn of conscious memory is the miraculous moment you are suddenly aware of life. Your brain, your senses, your ability to process thought is suddenly alive. It’s not the moment you’re born… It’s the very first moment you recall your mind having thoughts.
For most people, it falls somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6. Your first memory could be one of delight, something that awakened your curiosity about life. For others, it might be a painful memory that booted your brain’s hard drive.
My dawn of conscious memory was a blend of both. I remember sitting in the back seat of a car, just about four years old.
My new friend sat beside me. I remember feeling happy to be with her, and it seems we were returning from a party because I had a paper hat and wore my party shoes.
My friend pointed to a round knob next to the ashtray in the armrest of the car door, something we don’t see in the back seat of cars anymore. “Push that,” she said pointing to the cigarette lighter, “see what happens.” I pushed it down, and moments later it popped up. We giggled.
She pulled the button out of the hole and I saw it glowing red. She said, “Now, stick your finger down the hole, quick!”
I followed orders, stuck my finger down the hole, and suddenly the skin on the tip of my finger seared with pain. I yanked it out. There were big round singe marks on my finger. I shoved my hand under my leg, hiding it.
I wanted to burst into tears. My friend stared at me, waiting for my reaction.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing…” I replied.
And there was the first lie I ever told.
Confused, I couldn’t look at her. I didn’t want her to know she just ruined my perfect day.
Why was my little four-year-old mind reluctant to show vulnerability?
I squeezed back tears.
The car drove up in front of my house, and my mother was waiting by the curb. I got out of the car wearing a fake smile and ran into her arms.
I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. I tucked my throbbing finger inside my coat pocket.
“Did you have fun?” she asked.
“Oh yes, Mommy. It was so fun!”
There was the second lie.
Why didn’t I tell my mother… was I protecting my new freedom? It was the first time I went anywhere without my mom. And, I had a new friend! Did I want to save her from getting into trouble?
Looking back, I now believe there was an additional reason for giving birth to my first white lie. I felt ashamed. I felt stupid to be so gullible. So many emotions tied up into this first conscious memory of being alive.
Then, I didn’t have a name for not telling the truth, but as years went by, I heard my mother use the term “a little white lie.”
Telling a white lie was not supposed to feel bad, it was justified in a twisted way.
Collins English dictionary defines a white lie as “a minor or unimportant lie, especially one uttered in the interests of tact or politeness.”
Is there really such a thing as an unimportant lie?
I grew up believing that a white lie was okay, as long as it was considered harmless, for the greater good, or to keep from emotionally hurting someone… and I eventually added to that… lies of convenience.
I started questioning how the white lie had transitioned into my adult life, wondering if the adult lies still followed the guidelines of “an unimportant lie.”
Statements like these…
-“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you, I’ve got a tough client I’m dealing with.” (I had forgotten)
-“I’m sorry, I can’t attend your event tonight, I’ve got a deadline on a project.” (I just didn’t feel like going)
-“I’m sorry, I can’t donate $100 to your event, I just gave a big donation to another charity I’m fond of.” (I just bought an expensive new purse and was feeling guilty)
When I examined white lies like these, I discovered they always began with the word “sorry,” and they had one purpose… my personal exoneration. I didn’t want to look bad. They were attempts at minimizing my own indiscretions.
Living in Southern California, I had gotten so used to being stuck in traffic, being late was a behavior pattern for me. It was an excuse I relied upon.
I knew exactly how long it took to drive for a lunch meeting with a client in Temecula Wine Country. Thirty minutes. Why did I always try to do it in 20? Did the extra ten minutes I spent answering emails before I grabbed my purse and flew out the door add efficiency to my life? Or… did the stress of rushing in traffic actually hurt me?
And… what did it do to my client’s perception of me? I showed her total disrespect.
I knew the moment I got there I would have to apologize….”Sorry, I got stuck in traffic.” But, was my client feeling upset with me at that point? Did I need to re-establish her confidence in me? What did I lose by not being on time, and using a big white lie as an excuse?
I lost integrity. It’s that simple.
What is your integrity worth? The New Oxford American Dictionary defines integrity as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.”
As a woman in business, and a woman who values connections, there is nothing more important than integrity. It creates harmony in a relationship and lays a foundation of trust.
I’ve discovered even the “white lies” can plant the seeds of mistrust.
Lies told to avoid personal accountability at the expense of another compromises integrity. Over the years, I’d somehow transformed the white lie into meaning an acceptable lie told to get your ass out of trouble.
The boundaries of white lies are critical.
What if your friend says she put on 20 pounds and you say, “I didn’t notice, you look great!” Is that an appropriate lie or a kind response? Should I have said, let’s go to the gym to work on it together? Is that a better reaction for a friend struggling with her weight or does she just need to have someone say she is beautiful?
I guess we can second-guess ourselves forever, but there seem to be times when it’s okay to say something that’s not quite true to avoid hurting someone else, or to provide what they really need… like love, support, and encouragement.
“Context determines meaning.”- Benjamin Hardy, How To Reach the Next Stage of Your Personal Evolution
It’s all in the context. That’s right. The quality and acceptability of the lie appear to be based on context, and sometimes that feels a little twisted, but it takes getting back to the original motive for lying… kindness, protection, love.
However, the white lie has had destructive effects on my life. That four-year-old little redhead took on a personality trait that stuck around far too long… the martyr.
The day that I lost my 16-year-old son to meningitis, I became a woman I didn’t recognize… The martyr in me was broken, and the hole in my heart wasn’t the same as a seared finger I could stick in my pocket and hide. This kind of pain was forever and seared every part of my life.
My whole identity changed, and for the first time when people asked me how I was doing, I didn’t know what to say. I could no longer “white lie” my way out of the answer and say, “fine.”
The aftermath forced me to strip away the white lie and let people see who I really was. I was no longer Sandy Peckinpah, the martyr who had life under control. I was now a wounded mother who needed help learning how to live with the loss of her beautiful child.
Through it, I learned the unbearably difficult task of asking for help. I’d built quite a rigid wall around being competent at everything in my world… but, as a bereaved mother, even planning dinner seemed beyond my capability.
Break the need to lie… let people know you need them.
When my friends asked if there was anything they could do to help… my previous answer would have been, “oh no… I’ve got it under control.” But now nothing was under my control, and my vulnerability exposed for the first time in my life.
I have the best friends in the world… and they did hold me up until I could stand on my own. There was no place for a white lie in the midst of learning how to survive…. And I did survive.
It’s been years now, but the lessons in telling the truth have stuck with me. As a woman in business, it is critical for your professional and personal integrity.
Even white lies could cost you.
Integrity is what I want to be known for and what I will pass on to my children. I embrace the quality of being truthful and forthright, balanced with the value of being kind.
One of my goals in life is to be an encourager and supporter, and that takes discovering the right thing to say to someone who is struggling or uncertain. There might be room in this for the appropriate and kind white lie.
Sometimes, just sharing the love in a way that is not black or white, but compassionate… “I love your song, you sing it beautifully.” Your friend might not be the best singer in the world, but she owns her song, and it brings her joy to sing.
Did anyone ever tell Bob Dylan he couldn’t sing? Thank goodness no, and he went on to write and sing some of the most beautiful masterpieces of our time.
“I love your hair, green is so vibrant!” Green may not be your first choice, but it makes your friend happy. Oh well.
In his book, Four Seconds, author Peter Bregman recounts how replacing negative responses and patterns with more productive behaviors help us retain integrity, trust, and connection.
He suggests stopping before creating an excuse and breathing for four seconds, then speaking the truth:
“I apologize for being late. It was inconsiderate of me not allowing enough time. I’d like to make it up to you.”
Consider this, how could your relationships, your business, and your productivity change when you draw the line at any behavior that could possibly undermine integrity?
I have worked on it for years, and I still work on it! Any time I’m tempted to make an excuse like, “stuck in traffic,” “had an important phone call,” I stop myself. Wow… it’s hard sometimes!
But, it feels great knowing I’m speaking the absolute truth. When you hold yourself accountable, you are putting your best self into the relationship. You’ll earn trust and respect, both personally and professionally.
Is there really an acceptable lie?
I’m still not so sure there is an “acceptable” lie. To this day, I wish I had told my mother about my little, burned finger so I could have felt her comfort and love. It would have absolved me of the shame instantly.
On the other hand, I’m glad my Grandma Pearl told me I was the smartest child in the world, and there was nothing I couldn’t do. If that’s an acceptable white lie, then I’ll embrace it.
Thank you for reading this! I have a 2 page, Free Creativity Mindset Checklist for you that expands on some of the ideas I share about committing to a creative life.
**Previously published on ThriveGlobal.com**