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When Is Lying The Right thing To Do?

Most people agree that being completely truthful can sometimes do a great deal of harm. When is a lie the right thing to do?Find author Bill Allin at http://billallin.com

Most people agree that being completely truthful can sometimes do a great deal of harm. When is a lie the right thing to do?Find author Bill Allin at http://billallin.com


Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret,
for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.
- Robert Brault, software developer, writer (1938- )

It's tough to argue against kindness. Each act of kindness that each person does makes the world a better place.

However, is it ever an act of kindness to bend the truth? Let's consider some possibilities.

First of all, an old saying goes: a half truth is a whole lie. What does truth look like when bent to look like something different?

I can understand why someone would want to avoid blurting out to another person, "You're ugly." But ugliness is a position on the scale of beauty. Moreover, not just ugliness but everything on the beauty scale is a matter of personal opinion, a subjective judgment that may not be shared by others. In general, when a compliment doesn't speed to the lips, it would be better to remain quiet.

What's ugly? Was the Elephant Man ugly? Joseph Merrick (inaccurately called John Merrick in the film of the same name) had a head shape that bore almost no resemblance to that of an ordinary person.

Merrick never imagined himself as handsome. He was, in the estimation of many, a very charming man. Though some of his admirers were no doubt fascinated with the extreme distortion of Merrick's head from the norm, many enjoyed his company. A great many people in this world would prefer to be admired for the enjoyment they give to others in their company than to have average looks. Thus, I submit, Joseph Merrick had a beauty about him that thousands of people admired. Ugly? Not a chance.

It's a sad person whose self esteem depends on their looks rather than on the many other admirable qualities and talents and skills that generate genuine admiration. Was Beethoven ugly? Van Gogh? Leonardo? I use these names simply because they are familiar to people around the world. I have beautiful paintings and music in my home by people few have ever heard of. Many might not like them, but most realize that calling something "ugly" is merely the personal opinion of one individual.

"You look beautiful in that new dress, dear." Some people expect to be lied to, even count on it from their loved ones. I wonder what people who expect to be lied to and want flattery about their clothing and appearance would think if they knew that others they will see in public think as negatively about their appearance and clothing as the lying loved one does. Does a woman really want to go out in public with a dress that looks terrible on her, feeling confident because her husband lied to her about it?

If the husband really cared about the appearance of his wife, he would go with her when she shopped for the dress and express his true opinion then. For a husband to leave an opinion until the last minute is as unwise as a wife leaving the enquiry until the last minute.

My first wife loved good quality black and white clothing combinations. She wore them constantly at work and received many compliments from those who worked for her. She had (she died many years ago) a "winter" complexion. Not one for false flattery, I seldom issued compliments on her outfits unless they were hanging on a hanger. I did, however, compliment her one day years before we were married. She wore a red sweater and a red pleated skirt (I love pleated skirts, especially box pleats and kilts) and I told her how great she looked (she looked stunning, but I didn't want to go overboard in front of her mother). She was offended because she claimed it was an old outfit and she hated it.

How would it have benefitted my wife to be told she looked beautiful in black and white when she looked washed out? Indeed, if I had known about "colours" then, I would have recommended that she try bright primary colours. She likely wouldn't have listened--she never did, dying with loads of regrets about how many bad decisions she had made in her life. I am colourblind anyway.

If the truth must be negative, maybe the solution is to find ways to convey it in such a manner as to make it seem like good advice.

How does it benefit someone trying to become an author to praise a manuscript that is dreadful? That person could literally spend years improving a manuscript that should have been used to start a fire. A bad story can never be beaten into submission until it's a good story.

Bending the truth, as Robert Brault claims to have done, is no advantage if it causes the listener to make unwise decisions or faulty judgments based on it. Someone looking for praise needs more than a lie. A person who accepts a lie as if it were truth, and knows it was flattery, lives a false life. We all live false lives to some extent, but we don't have to embrace it as a lifestyle.

When asked for an honest opinion, the choices should be between a sincere compliment or a constructive suggestion as to how to improve the objective under discussion. No one likes destructive criticism. Constructive criticism requires skill and practice, but it's learnable.

People gain more from constructive suggestions than they can ever benefit from allowing themselves to be deceived by lies.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to grow children who can separate truth from flattery and who seek constructive evaluation as a way to improve themselves.
Learn more at http://billallin.com