White Lies

Article / Produced by TOW Project

“White lies” are lies that are meant to smooth discourse or deflect minor conflict, supposedly without doing harm to anyone. For example, if you are late to a meeting, it is often tempting to manufacture a face-saving excuse, such as “Traffic was bad today,” or “I got a last minute call that I had to take.” Or take this very common scenario. You don’t want to talk to someone, so you ask a colleague to tell the person that you’re out of the office or in a meeting. Other kinds of white lies include statements like, “Let me introduce my dear friend” (of a colleague you don’t like very much), “I see you are a wise person” (to a customer who is obviously a fool), “I’ll call you” (when you have no intention of calling).

While it is difficult to take a strong stand against white lies, since they seem so harmless, there is usually a way to manage these cases without lying and still stay out of awkward situations. If you are late to a meeting you can simply admit that “I’m sorry I got hung up,” and let it go at that. The people with whom you are meeting don’t need to know what hung you up, and the ambiguity is better than a white lie, though both seem relatively harmless. Similarly, when you want to be unavailable, simply have the person representing you say you are unavailable. The person asking generally doesn’t need to know the precise reason you are not available to talk to them, and you are under no obligation to give full disclosure of the reasons. Or if you are dealing directly with the person, you can simply say, “I can’t talk about this now, but would be glad to get back to you later on that.” Again, you are under no obligation for full disclosure. Leaving some ambiguity is not necessarily the same thing as deception and less than full disclosure is not necessarily lying.

Some situations in which we are tempted to tell white lies are actually scenarios in which we ought to be truthful. Take, for example, when someone asks for your evaluation of a presentation made at the company. It would be easy and very efficient to say, “It was great, I liked it,” and leave it at that. But that may be missing an opportunity to give helpful, constructive feedback if, in reality, the presentation wasn’t good. You can praise the parts that were genuinely praiseworthy, but also point out the areas that are shortcomings so that the person can improve for the next presentation.

Likewise, we may try to convince ourselves that some types of deceit are acceptable because they are relatively minor. This includes misleading your employer about how you use your time or padding your expense account. We may be especially susceptible to this kind of deceit if we can convince ourselves that it’s common practice. Or we may try to justify deceit as compensation for a perceived injustice against us. “I deserve a bigger share of the tips, but I’m getting cheated out of it because I’m not sleeping with the boss, like Pat is, so I’ll make up for it by skimming a little out of the cash drawer.” These have clearly moved beyond anything like a white lie or harmless puffery. They are deceits against unsuspecting counterparties, having no other object than personal gain we know we could not achieve if the other party were not deceived. These have no place in Christian ethics.