Liar, liar, pants on fire, and if that were true most of us would be alight from the ankles up.
Everyone hates a liar. The word consistently rates in the bottom 5% of 500 descriptive words but we all are; big or small, intentional or by mishap, liars. We have great words for lying. When we tell a little lie we are fibbing. An egregious one is a whopper. An ambiguous lie is known as misleading. An entertaining lie is a tall-tale. A serious lie may be described as a deception. In the end they’re all the same, untruths.
So what makes a lie?
Neither our lives nor our language is cut and dry. There are many facets to both that allow for nuance and within this gray area is usually where lies are born. Most lies are simple niceties.
A: “How are you?”
B: “I’m fine”
…and that’s that.
That’s a lie, but does anybody want to draw another into their complicated word of problems when just trying to pay for a frappuccino and get back to office slogging? These are the lies that grease the wheels of society. Deeper more serious lies are told all the time as well, but how can we tell?
Anyone who has ever seen True Romance will remember when Christopher Walken’s character explains to the late great Dennis Hopper’s about lying. How his father was the world heavyweight champion of lying and had taught him about the pantomime of lying ‘A man’s got 18 pantomimes, a women has 20. If you know these like you know your own hand they beat lie detectors all to shit.’
This may be true for the world heavyweight of liars but experiments have shown that normal people through simple observation are less effective at detecting deception than a coin toss, percentage-wise. What we look for in liars: lack of eye contact, being jittery, excessive smiling are all signs of stress, not lying. In fact in many cultures they can all be signs of respect.
Lying across cultures
Attempting to detect a lie from a person in another language than your own is a much harder prospect. Someone from a vastly different culture becomes almost impossible. All types of body language come into play when humans are judging each other at first impression. Personal space, touching, eye contact, speaking loud, laughing for no reason. In most cases these come off as suspicious in western culture, but in Asia and the Middle East this is normal.
Beyond language and behavior are cultural concepts of what lying is. The truth is not the same the world over. In places where bartering and haggling over prices or conditions is normal the truth is often a more flexible thing then countries where there is one price for all.
Many years ago when I first came to live in the small Thai town where I still live today, a family came to me asking to borrow money. Many people here still believe all foreigners are rich and this was three times the amount of my monthly house rent. There was a sad story involving children and medical care and the people lived nearby so I gave it to them, and never saw them again. When I mentioned it to a Thai friend later he laughed and told me I couldn’t be angry if those people were more clever than me. He didn’t see it as a scam or a lie, but instead a contest in which I had lost.
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Lying in the United States was brought to a new level even in the arena where it is most prevalent. The 2016 election and especially now President Donald J. Trump redefined lying in public by repeating false news, misquoting his opponents and himself, but also just throwing out some of the biggest whoppers ever told by a candidate and side-stepping the backlash by walking it back and redressing his original statements.
A short list, shall we?
He lied about his wealth so many times no one has any idea what he’s worth, especially since he won’t realize his income tax returns.
He tweeted that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese.
The birther movement, of which he was a leading proponent and then not only denied being part of but at an Olympian level of smoke blowing blamed Hillary Clinton for starting it.
Barack Obama created ISIS.
Lies are, yes, unfortunately, an every day reality. Yes, they come in all shapes and sizes. Yes, they are misleading, whoppers, fibs, tall-tales, misleading, untruths, and even doozies. Even, yes, one of the most-observed world leaders commits them in epic proportions. The question, though, from the big to the small is, should we just accept them? After all, a lie is only worth the intent behind it. Think about it.