Liar Liar: Week #5 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On fibs, falsehoods, and fabrications
Topic Idea: Diana Bellonby
A while ago I came across a claim that something like 75% of what the average adult says is wholly or partially untrue. Or maybe it was something like the average adult utters over 10 lies in the course of a typical day. I can’t remember where I read it or what the actual statistic was, but the point is that we all lie a lot, without even realizing it. What particularly struck me about this factoid (since obviously the actual numbers involved failed to make much of an impression) was the unconscious nature of our casual lying. Most of the untruths we utter are not deliberate attempts to mislead, but rather lazy verbal shortcuts. It’s often easier to say something pithy and only sorta true—a quick shorthand for the truth, or in Stephen Colbert’s immortal term, “truthiness”—than to lay out all of the caveats, qualifications, and exceptions necessary to give a full picture of a situation. It’s important to know your audience, and to make a good-faith effort to avoid boring them to death. It’s part of the social contract.
The article (or maybe blog post?) where I read this information that I can’t fully remember advised its readers to start taking note of how many lies they said during the course of a day, in order to gain a full appreciation for the pervasiveness of our mendacity. I did this for one day and was truly disturbed at how many untruths just slipped out of my mouth, easy-like, all slippery and glistening and sparkling in the sun. They looked damn good, no rough edges or awkward corners, and it was just so much easier that way. “I’m so sorry I missed your call; my phone battery died.” “I waited in line for at least 45 minutes for a stupid latte while the barista gabbed with her friends.” “I am sure he didn’t mean it; I know he really cares about you and is just bad at expressing his feelings.” “This oxtail-crème fraiche smoothie is delicious—you should go into business!”
If examining your own lying practice is too difficult or uncomfortable, you can always test the theory by paying close attention to what your partner or close friend says in social situations. If you’ve been together long enough you’ve heard all the stories a bazillion times (and probably been a co-star in a number of them) so you are in a good position to assess the veracity of what comes out of their mouth. We all know that great stories tend to change and shift over time as details are embellished, or even invented out of whole cloth, in order to entertain the listener: the “tale tale” is a beloved home-grown American genre and no one is going to give Paul Bunyan a hard time about just how big Babe the ox is, really. That said, the stories that most of us relate over beers with friends tend to be of the more quotidian variety, and it is here that we can observe the full scope of “creative” embroidery in action. “Uh honey? It didn’t really take three hours.” “I don’t remember you saying anything like that at the time.” “I’m pretty sure it was only two elephants, not four.”
Uttering this kind of corrective aloud, as opposed to silently noting it down on your mental clipboard and filing it away as research, is a highly dangerous activity recommended only in extraordinary circumstances—under a grand jury subpoena, perhaps, or when being tortured by kidnappers. Otherwise, it’s best to let your partner or friend merrily exaggerate unimpeded, probably wholly unaware of the fact that they are even doing so. In my experience, a kind of gauzy mental scrim drops down between me and Scott whenever he launches into story mode, and a gentle “lalala” hum in my head interposes itself between the executive-function area of my cerebral cortex and the words emanating from his side of the room. It’s really best not to listen too closely or critically; then you don’t have to feel moral outrage when your partner blatantly exaggerates or—horrible dictu!—makes you personally look silly or buffoonish just for laffs. (Unfortunately my dearly beloved did not come with the optional Truthiness Filter™ upgrade, and is constitutionally incapable of letting me blather on, making up nonsense, without intervening to correct me in front of our friends, my family, or the Dean. It is my cross to bear. He makes fantastic paella.)
If you really think long enough about this state of affairs—all of us running around telling lies all the damn time—you can be driven to a kind of existential despair. Apparently we live our entire lives in an impenetrable fog of misrepresentation, not knowing what is true or false and not even caring, like the chained prisoners in Plato’s cave hypnotized by the flickering shadows of puppets on the wall. Just as the prisoners’ situation comprises multiple layers of falsity—the shadows they mistake for reality are cast by representations of objects that exist only outside the cave—so our world is cobbled together from a wide variety of lies of varying strengths: exaggerations, evasions, omissions, prevarications, taradiddles, distortions, blatant falsehoods, whoppers, fraud. We could sketch a taxonomy—perhaps even a hierarchy—of untruths.
Of course, Plato had a fix in mind: through education, the prisoner is pulled (painfully!) away from the wall and first forced to look at the cut-out shapes casting the shadows, then eventually dragged out into the sun (in agony!) to stare upon the originals of the objects in the real world. I’m not sure what the analogue would be for the situation I describe; how could we begin to climb out of the murky soup of social falsehoods in which we are happily aswim? How could we resolve to “tell the truth”? Even if we all started saying only what was strictly true (leaving aside what that even means), how would we know when we had said enough? Isn’t it a type of lying to leave stuff out, to fall short of a full and accurate picture? What constitutes a full and accurate picture?
What was the astrological alignment of the stars at the precise moment when you tripped over the cypress root on your hike and nearly went over the cliff? What was the exact height of the root? The species of the tree? What was your blood pressure, your sodium level, your pulse rate?1 How many gallons of rain had fallen on that spot since the Paleoproterozoic Era? Can you provide a full catalogue of the fossilized animal bones underneath the path where your foot made contact? That owl in a tree nearby—what had he just eaten? What had the creature he had just eaten just eaten? What was Vladimir Putin doing at that precise moment? Was there mustard on his sandwich? What kind of mustard?
Yes, of course now I am just being silly—at best—and indulging in a kind of cheap dime-store deconstruction at worst. (If you are still with me at this point, thank you! I promise to rein it in now. I think! Who knows? Perhaps I am lying.) Obviously we make decisions about how to frame anecdotes and stories and reportage all the time: where to begin and end our accounts in both time and space.2 But the frames themselves are built from a bunch of arbitrary social conventions that we learn through osmosis and cannot fully describe—in other words, their DNA is lies. Kids learn the rough outlines of these frames by bumping up against them over and over again, figuring out what they can get away with through trial and error: they are essentially little psychopaths.3 We like to think that as we get older all this changes, that as adults we’re not running around blaming our own foibles and mishaps on invisible friends or vampires in the closet. But clearly we are wrong. We just get better at it.
A number of years ago I was having a catch-up drink with a friend at a conference, and she told me her birthday was at the end of the week. “Happy birthday!” I cried. “This must be the big 4-0!” No, she told me, her 40th birthday had been the year before. I must have looked puzzled, because she then confessed that years before she had started shaving a year off her age, and now she didn’t know how to stop. She didn’t really get to celebrate her 40th since everyone thought that year she had turned 39.
I have a similar story to confess. Many years ago, when Scott and I were first getting to know each other, I let slip that I had gone off to college at age 16. Only a little later in the conversation did I realize I had misspoken: I was actually 17 when I started university.4 Why had I lied? Well, it wasn’t really a lie, I don’t think—my mnemonic was to subtract a year from “normal” college age, but in this instance I subtracted a year from my own real starting age by mistake. I think? Who knows. But there it sat on the table between us, this harmless little accidental lie, and there it has remained for 22 years. Every once in a while it comes up again in conversation, sometimes in social settings, and I never correct it. I am fairly certain that when I ask him to read over this essay, Scott will learn about this ossified, decades-old fabrication for the first time. I shudder to think how many other dessicated lie turds we would uncover in our shared garden should we decide to start digging.
Perhaps there is a more generous way to think about our shared addiction to fudging. Maybe when we tell each other lies, we are doing an end-run around the actual, literal, factual “truth” in order to communicate other kinds of information, other—perhaps deeper—truths. When little kids fling themselves against the barriers of the truth in order to test which parameters break and which will hold, they’re not just figuring out what they can get away with—they’re learning how to speak another language. When I say My phone battery died what I really mean to say is that I couldn’t face talking on the phone because I am exhausted and can’t fake joviality right now. I waited in line for at least 45 minutes = I feel terrible about being late but I am crap at managing my time and am too embarrassed to admit it. I know he really cares about you = you are my dear friend and I want you to be happy but in this moment your short-term happiness is at odds with your long-term happiness and you should leave this abusive bastard immediately but you probably never will because if you were the kind of person who could do that you would also be the kind of person who wouldn’t be with him in the first place and I am too weak to risk angering you by saying this out loud so I am opting to make you feel better in the moment because advising you to leave him is probably not going to do any good anyway. This oxtail-crème fraiche smoothie is delicious = I think you might have a brain tumor but don’t want to frighten you.
When I tell you I went to college at 16, I want you to understand how little my parents paid attention to me, how alone I felt, how hard it was. Sometimes I will supplement the “early college” story with the story of how I started kindergarten at age three5 because I had already taught myself to read,6 and no one seemed to notice or care that my older classmates tortured me for years. In both cases, what I also mean to say is that even though you can’t tell just by looking at me, I’m extremely smart and I urgently need you to know that—because otherwise I don’t know why you would talk to me, I don’t know why anyone would like me, I don’t know why I’m here. After spending a lifetime trying to justify my existence on this planet by being “special,” I’ve only recently started to suspect that what justifies my existence is precisely that I’m not.
I assume that were we to have fuller access to the storage areas of our fellow human beings’ brains, we not only would know exactly when and how they were lying to us, but also could piece together the fuller context—the deeper truth—of their lies. Including bad lies. Even slander or plagiarism or swindling can be translated into this other language—the What I Am Desperately Trying to Say language—were we patient and generous enough to spend some time thumbing through our pocket dictionaries. But then again, if we lived in a world where everyone actually did this—really listened to their fellow travelers and spent time trying to understand their histories, their weaknesses, and their pain—then we wouldn’t need to lie to one another to begin with. Our unacknowledged language of dissembling is just an elaborate prosthetic device.
I wonder what I am really trying to say?
All my Victorian peeps are now thinking of the same passage from Middlemarch! Here it is again for your convenience: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” But but but! Do you remember the lead-in to that famous quotation? “We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it” [emphasis added]. I have read and discussed this passage approximately 87,562 times, and I still find it mysterious and difficult to parse. In a casual side note, Eliot seems to claim that mere repetition can make any everyday event tragic—or even necessarily makes that event tragic! I’m sure she didn’t mean to imply that if only our constitutions were more sensitively framed we would be moved to tears by brushing our teeth—and yet there you have it.
Not to mention the fact that we don’t have conscious access to most of the information I listed in my silly example. But drawing the distinction between lying and truth-telling along the fault line of consciousness would open up another whole can of worms.
It’s fascinating how outraged children can be by one another’s lies, given how much time they themselves spend lying. The whole “Liar liar, pants on fire!” thing is a classic reaction-formation in action.
But a young 17! I didn’t turn 18 until well into the second semester of my freshman year!
It might have been at age 4! I’m honestly not sure any more.
This part is true!