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October 10, 2011 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Polite Lies Cause Problems All Their Own

By Smarty More Blogs by This Author

We all know that lying is, in general, less than right, but then we reason that there are different levels of lie “wrongness”. 

There are the big, flaming “pants on fire” lies for which there is no excuse, but then there are  “half-truths” which we may grade as mostly okay and there are “white lies” which we may actually grade as more right than honesty!

Think of your friend’s garage band demo tape. Or your coworker with the new and…. “interesting”… hair cut.

What can you say when they smile and ask “So….whatcha think?!”

You pull out a lie, something vague, “Sounds great!” “Looks good!” You do it for the good of your mutual relationship and you do it to protect their feelings. However, as a new report suggests, these well-meant “white lies” may actually be doing us all more harm than good.

Politeness strategies, like the “white lies” described above, sacrifice clarity and can lead to some real confusion.  As authors, Jean-François Bonnefon and Wim de Neys point out, [w]e must think harder when we consider the possibility that people are being polite, and this harder thinking leaves us in a greater state of uncertainty about what is really meant."

Though, in the case of your friend with the tone-deaf ban or your coworker with the crazy do, the consequences are minimal, some people take politeness way too far.

To keep from displeasing a health professional, patients may wrongly claim a treatment is working better than it actually is. To keep from burdening friends and family, people may take hardships on alone. To keep from embarrassing a colleague, supervisor or boss, employees may voice support for efforts – even if they have an idea that may improve things, even though something seems off, and for some, even if they believe fraud or misconduct is occurring. 

Says  Bonnefon, his research is not meant to endorse blunt or overly harsh honesty. In fact, he says "politeness is obviously a very positive behavior in most cases,". He just wants to keep things in check and make people aware of this behavior and its potential consequences. 

Today, some companies, like airlines and doctors offices, are instituting assertiveness training to address the issue of "polite dishonesty" Bonnefon hopes to help with his guide to detecting when a person is telling a “white lie”.

Says Bonnefon "Say that there is a tone, a prosodic feature which typically signals that politeness is at work," If people can be made aware of this tone we could train them “to react intuitively to that tone in order to treat it as a warning signal."

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