What Is a White Lie?
Certain features distinguish white lies from big lies.
Posted October 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
People lie, and some lie more than others, but most people are mostly honest most of the time. Taken together, studies seem to support the notion that while the average person is entirely honest across a typical day, the majority of people (95 percent) cannot go an entire week without telling at least one falsehood. Despite the disheartening message that most people are liars, we can perhaps take solace in recognizing that most of the lies people tell are small, white lies. So what is a white lie?
Defining White Lies
While the definitions of white lies vary a bit depending on the source, most attach a few defining criteria to the term. They tend to indicate that white lies, unlike what I will call “real lies” or "big lies," are about rather small or inconsequential matters. The white lies are often described as being harmless to others. And the reason that the lies are told is to maintain polite social manners and courtesies.
History of White Lies
The documented definition of a white lie was presented in a 1741 article in a British publication, The Gentleman’s Magazine. In it, the author wrote, “A certain Lady of the highest quality... makes a judicious distinction between a white lie and a black lie. A white lie is that, which is not intended to injure anybody in his fortune, interest, or reputation, but only to gratify a garrulous disposition and the itch of amusing people by telling them wonderful stories.” So it seems, they characterized white lies as being nothing more than harmless fibs told in the service of embellishing tall tales. The use of the white prefix owed to historical associations of white with purity and goodness, while black and darkness carried connotations of malevolence and evil.
Though the Oxford English Dictionary documents the first use of the term lie, in the context of stating a falsehood, to over 1,000 years ago, the term “white lie” was not documented until 1567 in the following excerpt: “I do assure you he is vnsusspected of any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye) wiche is taken for a Small fawte in thes partes.” So, from its inception, the term white lie has carried the connotation of a lesser lie that was free from the moral burden and reprobations of real lies.
Research on White Lies
Modern research has examined white lies and the role they play in the landscape of human deception. Studies have shown that not all lies are viewed the same. They can vary in how harmful and morally offensive they are.
People tell white lies when telling the truth would be overly complicated, uncomfortable, or tedious. White lies allow people to censor harmful truths, reframe socially awkward facts, and otherwise circumvent the inevitable unpleasantness that would necessarily follow a path of unflinching honesty. Some have argued that the capacity to fashion a reasonable and palatable white lie rather than blurting out the offensive, honest truth is seen by many as a mark of civility and maturity. Other research shows that those who always tell the truth, even when that truth is embarrassing and hurtful, are widely viewed as unequipped for the social dance of modern human societies.
Motivations to Tell White Lies
Researchers have further explored what motivates people to tell white lies. What they found is that white lies tend to be motivated by four pressures. The first motivation is tact. People tell white lies in order to be polite and spare another’s feelings. If someone asks you if you enjoyed a dull date, it might seem more tactful to say that you had fun than it would to be honest about your boredom.
Another motivation is psychological compensation. That is, people tell little white lies in order to protect their own fragile image. If someone asks why your most recent romantic relationship ended, you might preserve your ego by saying it was a mutual breakup, rather than admitting the truth that you were unceremoniously dumped.
A third rationale was power deference. People tend to tell white lies to those in power in order to avoid appearing insubordinate. An employee might tell their boss that they are happy to work late, even though they abhor the idea.
Finally, people tell white lies for relational stability. Those little white lies help people avoid conflict and maintain relational harmony. A husband may feign a deeply held religious belief in order to avoid a relationship fracture with his profoundly devout spouse.
White Lies Versus Real Lies
Can we really make a distinction between white lies and real lies? In one study, a large focus group was empaneled to distill the key features that set white lies apart from real lies. There were five distinguishing features they isolated.
The first was the intent. With real lies, the intent is malicious, while with white lies, the intent is benign. The next feature was the consequence. While the consequences of real lies tend to be serious, the consequences of white lies are often quite trivial. The beneficiary was also an important distinction. Real lies tend to benefit the liar, whereas white lies tend to benefit the person being lied to or the relationship.
The degree of deceit also seemed important. While real lies are largely untrue statements, white lies tend to be a mere bending of the truth. Finally, white lies and real lies differed in how morally objectionable they were viewed. Real lies were deemed to be universally wrong, while white lies were viewed as largely acceptable untruths.
White Lies or Not?
Taking all of this research together, a definition can be derived. A white lie is a small, socially acceptable, inconsequential, and benign untruth often told for reasons of propriety or avoiding embarrassment. It is important, though, to bear in mind that the whiteness of a lie is a matter of perspective. What might seem like a caring gesture of support and compassion from a liar’s point of view could just as easily be viewed as a horrendous and duplicitous betrayal of fidelity from the perspective of the person being lied to. The distinction between a white lie and a real lie is not an objective feature of the lie itself but rather a measure of the sting the lie imparts.