The Noble Useful Art of Telling White Lies

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

The human urge to cheat and lie goes against the desire to feel good when you look in the mirror. Yet, humans lie and cheat.

The words came out so fast and for the silliest of reasons. Last week, my Japanese neighbour, Mayumi, shared her fresh home-made tofu with me. A few hours later, I ran into her in the garden downstairs. “How do you like the tofu?” she asked with a hopeful beam.

“Oh, it’s wonderful. So soft and fresh,” I replied.

I hadn’t tasted the stuff.

Have you ever uttered a white lie? Before you say “No”, let me remind you of the time your friend sang off-key during a party or puja. As a host, what did you do after she finished the song? You clapped and told her that it was lovely, right? What about the time when your colleague (whom you like and respect in general) asked you if you had read his policy paper—the one you thought was drivel? What did you say?

With my untasted tofu, I fell victim to a concept that economists call framing. I blame it on the question really.

Had Mayumi asked, “Did you taste the tofu?”, it would have been very easy for me to say I hadn’t. But when she asked if I liked the tofu, and that too with such a hopeful smile on her pretty face, it seemed cruel to say “No”. Far easier to please her by saying that the stuff she had prepared for me was ripe and tasty. With a simple white lie, I was making her happy.

As behavioural economist Dan Ariely notes in his lectures and writings, the human urge to cheat and lie goes against the desire to feel good when you look in the mirror. Yet, humans lie and cheat. The way we do this—something that studies corroborate—is by doing a little cheating some of the time, so that we get the benefits of cheating without feeling bad about ourselves. The same rule applies to white lies. We say them, not because we are compulsive, pathological liars but because they are quick and easy.

A friend of mine decided to do something about this. Sriram took out a contract where he committed to pay 17 cents (around Rs. 8) each time he uttered a white lie. is a website that attempts to help people accomplish their goals—exercising four days a week, giving up sweets. You pay a penalty each time you fall off the proverbial treadmill. I read about stickK in a book called Nudge, but found it too cumbersome to use. So I decided to just pay attention to the white lies I was saying. It wasn’t often, after all. Or so I thought.

The next morning, I lied—to my child, no less. My daughter came into my bed late at night, whimpering about bad dreams. Our bed is too small and I didn’t sleep at all. When we woke up, she asked (again with that hopeful face that was going to be my nemesis) if I had slept well.

What did I do? I didn’t explain that I had slept fitfully because she had pulled every inch of the blanket over herself. I didn’t tell her that she kept kicking me. I merely lied.

“Did you sleep well, Ma?”

“Like a baby, darling. I loved having you back in our bed,” I replied with a genuine Duchenne smile that involves both the zygomatic major muscle and the rise of the orbicularis oculi. Authentic smile; fake words. Authentic sentiment but not the truth. Is truth overrated?

Later, I asked Sriram—the founder of the white-lie experiment—what he would have done in my situation. He laughed and said that he would have changed the topic. Perhaps I could have said the truth, said Sriram—that I hadn’t slept all night, but I still loved having her in my bed. Such nuanced explanations don’t work well with children, not at 7 in the morning. They want a Yes or No answer. That’s my excuse, anyway.

A few days later, I lied again, to another friend, who had dropped in at home to pick up something. It was prearranged. I had forgotten. My friend sent me a message: “Where are you?” I am on my way, I SMSed back. It was technically true. I was on my way home, in an hour, after finishing my pedicure. My friend picked up the package and left. Actually, that was a white lie. I wasn’t at a pedicure. I was having a massage but I didn’t want you readers to think I was a dilettante. You see, this is why we lie: to make ourselves seem better than we are.

White lies, in such situations, are at least easier to understand. Unlike my tofu incident, where the lie didn’t gain me anything, lying to my friend had to do with self-esteem. I wanted to seem like an organized person who didn’t forget appointments. The Chinese call this mianzi, or saving face.

White lies serve a noble purpose in society. They lubricate social interactions and make life bearable. What if the colleague you are attracted to doesn’t like you? When you ask her out to lunch, do you think she is going to say: “Sorry, but I can’t stand you so I’d rather not have lunch with you. Not now. Not ever.” She’s going to make up a reason: say that she has other commitments and is “otherwise engaged”. You know she is lying but your foolish ego will thank her for it anyway.

I can’t say that I have stopped uttering white lies. I can say that I have become more conscious of them. When there is no obvious benefit, I am able to catch myself and do the hardest thing of all in that particular situation: Tell the truth.

So the next time you ask me how the tofu was, I’ll say: “It was tasteless. I only eat it for the good flavonoids and antioxidants.” Unless you are Japanese and enjoy subtle cuisine, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Shoba Narayan enjoyed writing this column. And that, dear reader, is not a white lie. Write to her at [email protected]

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