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What's a little lie between friends?



'Would I lie to you? Would I lie to you honey? Now would I say something that wasn't true?’ The Eurythmics’ hit from 1985 has been played repeatedly in my head of late as I negotiate life as a Dad.

x-ray of teethRepeated queries such as ‘Done your homework? Brushed your teeth? Did you wash your hair? Have you fed the chooks and the cat?’ have been foiled with equivocation and near faultless deceit. Telltale giveaways have helped sort out some of these low-stakes fibs: dry toothbrushes and morning breath, oily hair, squawking hens and a yowling feline. But in other matters, the 11-year-old has now joined the 14-year-old as a consummate liar, able to take in parents with ‘look-them-straight-in-the-eyes’ falsehoods.

We used to be able to bluff their younger versions into confessions; I’d successfully adopted a workmate’s strategy of telling them that their eyes changed colour when they fibbed. That hasn’t worked for some time, sadly.

But parental fib-wrangling and negotation has reached a new stage. The ability to sell a story is part of human maturation, for better and for worse. While ‘you shall not lie’/You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’ is the ninth, or second-last, of God’s greatest hits, as spun by Moses (much better known than Jesus Christ’s linguistically restrictive instruction to ‘let your yes be yes, and your no be no’, Matthew 5:37), the fact is that we all lie, each and every day.

In an article originally published by London’s The Telegraph, psychologist Bella de Paulo said that, ‘on average, people tell 1.5 untruths a day’.

A 2002 American study claimed that 60 per cent of adults ‘can’t have a ten-minute conversation without telling at least one lie [and] two people will tell three lies within 10 minutes of meeting each other’. In light of human nature and psychological studies, fibbing to try to get out of chores or homework doesn’t look that unusual or deplorable. In this, as in most aspects of life, I try to teach our kids it is a matter of degrees and perspective.

The whoppers we tell are often categorised on a continuum between trying to spare people’s feelings in order to appear likeable and desirable; and actively, or compulsively, trying to better our situation and get ahead.

A recent survey of 50 academics in Australia and the United Kingdom confirmed that they feel obliged to ‘exaggerate or embellish’ their research to secure funding. Taking the axiom ‘publish or perish’ literally, one Ocker went as far as to say ‘it’s really virtually impossible to write an Australian Research Council grant without lying’.


"A 2002 American study claimed that 60 per cent of adults ‘can’t have a ten-minute conversation without telling at least one lie [and] two people will tell three lies within 10 minutes of meeting each other’."


Is the frustration I feel justified when I try to work out whether the assignment has been completed, or the note had been handed in? I can’t help but face my own hypocrisy when I review the semi-factual accuracy of my own discourses. Whether I like it or not, the science suggests that lying is an evolutionary tool we’ve adapted for survival/promotion as a species.

Simply put, the theory goes, without cooperation, homo sapiens don’t survive; and without deceit, we don’t often attain that cooperation: ‘By misleading the other individual, one can trick that individual into cooperating…It is the cooperation itself that permits the evolution of the liar’.

Do you want that apple in the fridge, but you’re you tired or lazy to get off the couch? Some flattery and fibs about sore legs will con your brother into getting it for you. Want to cut your rehearsal time in half? An embellishment of the trials of your day will get you a sympathy vote with your Ma and could well cut your trumpet practice in half.

The patterns we establish in our youth will often follow us into our dotage. Truths will out and cons have consequences. In 2012 an employment lawyer, Susanna Gilmartin, discussed the ‘truth’ that dissembling breaks down the trust that enables a professional or personal relationship to thrive. It can lead to ‘terminating for breach of the implied term of trust and confidence … we must assess whether or not that reason is sufficiently serious and substantial to justify us relying on it to terminate’.

It reminds me of the porkie pies enumerated famously by NAB employees, rippingly enumerated in a research paper—dramatically entitled Leadership, Culture and Employee Deceit: the case of the National Australia Bank’—when the bank ‘announced losses in 2004 of $360 million due to unauthorised foreign currency trading activities by four employees who incurred and deceptively concealed the losses.’ 

Mistakes were hugely exacerbated by the decision to conceal and hide those mistakes. It’s not that, God forbid, I worry that my kids will grow up into bankers, or rogue traders. But the same desire to obfuscate in a profession can follow us all into relationship breakdowns.

If you are ever feeling masochistic enough, you can see that deceit—active misrepresentation of the truth—is a common denominator in poor communication, money problems, affairs, interfering ex-partners, sexual conflict, problems in parenting, conflict resolution, and privacy issues.

Scarier but equivalent lists of common breakdown pitfalls abound – again, often around areas such as communication, trust issues, different expectations, staleness, priorities, addictions, abuse, money woes, and compatibility.

Lies are the currency that make and break those transactions. How we treat each other often impacts how we are treated. What we say and don’t say—and the truths inherent in those conversations and disclosures—impacts how much we feel we can trust another person and rely on their veracity.

Setting an example of trustworthiness and reliability—of truthfulness, faithfulness—is an interesting challenge for a Celtic-Australian Dad fond of tall stories and gilding the lily, and who is sometimes guilty of stretching the truth until it breaks.

The truth is out there. Its simple purity is easy to distinguish from those Franklinesque, tangled webs we weave on the way to its disclosure.


Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for The Salvation Army.

The Salvos' 2016 Economic and Social Impact Survey is due to be published in late May.

Main image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, lies and truth



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Existing comments

My youngest daughter is a banker. I'm not sure who she takes after but I do know she was a more than moderately obedient child - even accounting for teenagehood. I wouldn't terminate a friendship on the basis of being lied to. It would involve much more complexities than that. I've been found out in lies and it's not that pleasant but trustworthiness is also more complex than that. Having said that, truth does have a simple purity.

Pam | 11 August 2017  

I never tell lies. Now there's a true lie!

john frawley | 11 August 2017  

I think it is possible to go more than 10minutes without lying as a friend and I undertook the practice inspired by Christ the way truth and life in our daily lives. A virtue has to be nurtured (worked at). There are always exceptions to the rule...take Mahatma Gandhi for instance who worked to make truth central to his path in this world and said 'Morality is the basis of all things and truth is the substance of all morality.'

Gordana Martinovich | 13 August 2017  

Very well said Gordana Martinovich.

Dr Marty Rice | 14 August 2017  

Well said, Pam. While lying can be demoralising there are far worse vices, especially within the context of why liars feel compelled to lie. There's a touch of fundamentalism to this article.

Dr Michael Furtado | 15 August 2017  

Last Sunday we sang: “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, She is His new creation by water and the Word. From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride; With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died.” In knocking the foundation we may end up habitation-less. John Milton’s golden rule in both mathematics and theology is: “closing up truth to truth as we find it”. Indeed, scientists find the brain activity of liars (a high proportion of people) hugely different to that of truth-tellers. When lying, many brain regions have frenzied interchanges. The brain of a habitual truth-teller is tranquil in comparison. There’s a physiological basis to the claim: “It’s easier to tell the truth”! (Robert Sapolsky nicely summarizes this research in “Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst”). People vary but I’m affected by II Corinthians 13:8: “We have no power to resist the truth: only to further it”. For those who don’t like Paul, there’re similar texts throughout the New Testament (e.g. John 8:44). If we think it’s too hard, another hymn: “Little by little, every day, Jesus is changing me . . ”

Dr Marty Rice | 16 August 2017  

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