Linda, from Santa Barbara, asks:
When my family stopped to see my grandmother this week at her retirement home, I told her that she looked “just great.” She smiled, and hugged me. In reality, she didn’t look so good. She is 85, has been ill, and doesn’t exercise or go outside much.
On the way home my 14-year-old daughter asked, “Why did you lie to Grandma? You know, when you told her she looked just great. She looked awful.”
While my husband tried to duck the conversation by playing with the radio, I explained that sometimes we tell what are called “little white lies.” “So when does a little white lie become a big one?” my daughter asked. I fumbled for a good answer but ended up saying we would talk about it later.
How do I answer her? How should I (and my husband, too) help my daughter find the line between the little white lies that mean no harm and the bigger hurtful ones?
The little white lie (LWL) dilemma is similar to the puffing issue, except in this case, rather than a self-aggrandizing statement, we now have an untruthful statement about another.
Every day I am sure I tell at least one LWL. Last Saturday I filled my entire week’s quota when an old friend, who is trying to lose weight, asked me if he looked thinner.
“Sure you do,” I said. He didn’t, of course, but I said it anyway. But rather than leave it at that, he asked if I thought his shirt fit him well. Again, I resorted to the LWL: “You’re really getting back into shape.”
What was I to do? Tell him he looked fat and the shirt was too tight for him? I have no idea whether he believed me or not, but he seemed to brighten up. Another friend shot me a look of displeasure that I’m sure was a criticism of my LWLs.
As with puffing about oneself, whether we consider LWLs unethical will depend on a number of things, the most important one being in this case the benefit to the recipient of the statement. In the case of my friend, I think he benefited, or at least I hope he did.
Author Sissela Bok, an authority on why people lie, in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life has this to say about LWLs: “White lies … are the most common and the most trivial forms that duplicity can take. And their very triviality, when compared to more threatening lies, makes it seem unnecessary or even absurd to condemn them.”
I would explain to your daughter (and your husband) that LWLs are not unethical, if the statement would not reasonably harm another and are not uttered for the purpose of benefiting the speaker, other than to get her out of an embarrassing situation.
But also explain the concept of the “slippery slope” to your daughter. In other words, stress to her that anytime she doesn’t tell the whole truth, she may well be forming a habit of lying for lying’s sake only or, even worse, to gain a benefit.
As for your husband, who ducked the issue with your daughter, be sure to tell him he’s even handsomer when he answers your daughter’s tough questions.
Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics.