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What's a little lie between friends?

  • 11 August 2017


'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.

Repeated 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.