Little White Lies That Shouldn’t Be Told

Sometimes little lies turn into white-out snow jobs.

Posted Jan 22, 2019

Do you remember when you first learned about the concept of the white lie? It might have been when you were you a child and an adult fudged the truth to keep you from being upset or sad. Or, someone might have promised you a reward for a behavior, but the "reward" really didn't exist. If you're a parent yourself, you might use white lies to keep your child from worrying about lost toys, forgotten play dates, or to not be afraid of an immunization, because he's such a big boy that the shot "won't even hurt."  Research shows that most people consider it totally socially acceptable and culturally congruent for parents to use white lies with their kids (Lupoli, Jampol, & Oveis, 2017).

We also learn about the difference between “acceptable” lies and “forbidden” lies when most of us are young. When we lie about having stolen something from a friend or a store or about our grades or our behavior, we are learning to use white lies to protect ourselves from punishment. We might tell a boss that we have the flu and are taking a sick day when we're really needing a "mental health day" just to hang out at home and binge watch Netflix. The lessons we learn about the boundaries between truth and consequences when we are young are likely to stay with us for a lifetime.

The marker between types of lies usually comes down to the purpose of the lie or its intent. Lies that are meant to protect others or ease their burdens are lies that are generally considered to be acceptable under specific circumstances. If someone is terminally ill and death is growing imminent, assuring them that they are going to “get better” is not usually “acceptable,” unless the certainty of imminent death would be too much for her to hear at that moment in time. However, reassuring a child that “grandma doesn't feel well right now" might be considered a kinder choice than informing a young child that death is near.

If you’re lying to spare others harm or pain, that’s considered prosocial lying and is often a sign that you’ve got a well-developed sense of empathy and can choose to act compassionately towards others. If you’re lying to keep yourself out of trouble, that’s not exactly a testament to your altruism or kindness.

When do “White Lies” become “Snow Jobs”?

Telling a white lie about why you’re no longer employed isn’t a big deal, but lying to potential employers in ways that could be easily revealed might come back to bite you on the derriere.

Telling a white lie about why you’re not able to meet up with a group of friends because you’re currently at odds with a member of the group is generally acceptable, but turning your “opt out” message into an opportunity to diss the mutual friend is likely to lead to deeper conflicts and potentially additional damaged relationships when others hear about the negative things you’ve said about the mutual friend. And word will get out—“secrets” told are “secrets” meant to be shared.

Telling a white lie about why you need to cancel a date with a romantic partner is okay if the discovery of the “truth” behind the white lie isn’t damaging to your partner. If you’re prioritizing tickets to a ballgame or a night out with the boys over dinner with your partner, that’s not considered too out-of-bounds. Cancelling the date with a partner to spend time with another romantic interest, however, is a “truth” that might be in your own selfish interest, but a truth that might do lasting damage to the other’s feelings.

4 White Lies You Should Never Tell

  1. I’ll be in touch... If you know you’re never going to dial those digits again, don’t promise that you will. Protecting yourself from the pain of being the heavy isn’t worth the potential psychological and emotional pain you’re dropping that person into with a hollow promise.
  2. You’re the only one for me – I never even look at other women/men... If you’re already texting another potential partner or trying to think of ways to break off the relationship already. The longer you lead someone on, the more painful the actual break-up will be. Ending a relationship that’s going nowhere is like ripping off a Band-Aid, you can make the break quick, final, and clean—which can sting pretty sharply at that moment—but the pain will fade with time. Or you can slowly drag out the process which may seem less acutely painful at the time, but can be torment and torture as you wait for the final break to occur. Honesty and fair warning are always more valued—the white lies used to snow a partner are self-serving rather than chosen for the common good.
  3. We’re only friends, nothing more... If you were really “only friends” it’s probably unlikely that you’d have any reason to try and convince a partner that an extra-relational companion is nothing more than a friend. Emotional affairs can be every bit as devastating as physical affairs to relationships. In fact, women are likely to be a lot more jealous if they think you’re growing too close to a friend, so claiming that another woman is “just” a friend isn’t the tack to take when you’re getting called out for potentially wayward behavior by a significant other.
  4. I promise I’ll quit (fill-in-the-blank) after tonight... Whether the behavior is flirting, gambling, drinking too much, smoking, or sitting on your butt while your partner is doing something constructive that you should also be doing, if your intention isn’t true, don’t even make a promise that you know is a lie. Your partner knows, too, and each time you make a “white lie promise,” you are doing damage to the relationship if it’s a high-stakes issue for your partner.

When do White Lies become hazardous to a relationship?

Deciding what is an “okay” lie and what is a “dangerous lie” requires consideration of your motivation and the potential fall-out if the truth were found out. When it involves interest in or voyeurism of another person that could be seen as a romantic rival or threat, the real question is why you are giving into temptation when you know it’s a behavior that might land you on the wrong side of an argument with your current partner. The “lie” that you didn’t peek isn’t as big a problem as the decision to do the peeking, for most people.

A white lie becomes hazardous when it’s done to protect your own hide, not when it’s done to protect the feelings of another.  Think about it this way, what’s the probably reaction if a “white lie” was revealed for the untruth that is is. In cases of actively stalking exes on Instagram, a partner has a bit of a right to feel ticked that his partner was doing this covertly. If he found out you were willing to re-watch an episode of Billions that you’d already “stealth-watched,” he’d probably be a little disappointed, but not threatened.

When do we tacitly “permit” ourselves to use White Lies?

Research indicates that we are likely to tell a white lie for four common reasons (Camden, Motley, & Wilson, 2009). These are to avoid shame or humiliation; to keep conflict or disruption to a minimum; to end an inconvenient encounter; and to end a relationship (“it’s not you, it's me”).

Using white lies under these circumstances is considered socially acceptable, but when the goal of the lie moves towards deception of others for your own selfish purposes, these lies can take turn into a difficult to conceal “snow job” designed to take advantage of another. It’s okay to lie and save his feelings if you have to say you “love” the meal he lovingly prepared for you, even if it’s not exactly what you’d ever make for yourself. It’s not okay to lie when the only feelings you’re protecting are your own.

Self-Protection Is a Normal Reaction to Personal Pain

When you are fired from a job, it’s natural to want to find a way to make yourself out to be the “hero” or a “victim” of an unjust boss or a rigged system. Thus, you resort to “white lies” to adjust the “optics” of the situation. You might choose to bolster your self-image—“The boss knew I was better than she was at the job and she had to get rid of me because she was threatened by my success and potential.” Or, on the other hand, you might opt to make yourself the target of sympathy, “The company is going through a reorganization and when it’s every man for himself, the head honchos only protect their own.”

Unfortunately, not every “white lie” will stay benign—sometimes a white lie turns into a white-out blizzard of lies that no longer serve to protect a person’s ego or the feelings of others. White lies that become deceptions that go on too long or are no longer “containable” can cause a lot of damage to relationships that were once meant to be protected through the use of a lie.

The Equation for Measuring the Risk of a Lie

So, the equation for deciding whether or not to lie would have a couple of variables:

  • the measure of the intent of the lie
  • the potential fall-out you will face if you’re found out

Weigh these variables before you risk telling the lie, no matter how “harmless” it may seem at that moment.

References

Camden, C., Motley, M. T., & Wilson, A. (2009). White lies in interpersonal communication: A taxonomy and preliminary investigation of social motivations. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 48(4), 309-325.

Lupoli, M. J., Jampol, L., & Oveis, C. (2017). Lying because we care: Compassion increases prosocial lying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(7), 1026-2042.