David Wray

CommunicationLyingSocial Acceptance

Lying, Is It Ever Acceptable?

Pinocchio Lying

Is lying ever socially acceptable?

It is a great question to ask and one I am regularly asked as a coach and mentor. It is easy to understand why this question results in great debates. On the one hand, some argue that lying under any circumstances is wrong. On the other hand, some hold the view that all lying is acceptable as long as you aren’t caught. Of course, between each end resides white lies. White lies are those defined as trivial or harmless. Can lying ever be socially acceptable?

How do we reconcile that some truths are too difficult to absorb, and some lies are just too painful to accept? Does the middle ground define what is socially acceptable, if at all?

Does Pinocchio exemplify it best – if you lie, something unpleasant befalls you? Or is this loveable character simply human, after all?

Let’s illustrate the ethical dilemma

Planning a surprise 40th party. It takes significant coordinating, sneaking around, and trolling through social media to contact a range of friends. Some lies are uttered about evening plans to get the guest of honour out of the house while the party set-up secretly occurs. The birthday girl/boy walks into the surprise, faces light up with joy and amazement! Is the lying in this circumstance socially acceptable? 

Embellishing a CV. A 24 year-old master’s marketing degree graduate spent a weekend designing an incredibly creative CV seeking a role at a reputable multinational company. The CV, shared on social media, indicated that the graduate developed and led a strategic product marketing campaign for a well-known European car manufacturer. Within minutes, strangers commented on the post. Many compliments on the originality of the CV design and many direct challenges about the credibility of purporting to lead a strategic marketing program at 24! When the behaviour was called out, the mea culpa admission quickly followed (being a junior contributing member not a leader). Is this lie socially acceptable?

What criteria would help us to evaluate these questions? Perhaps, a helpful starting point is establishing a continuum of what may be acceptable versus what is not.

Evaluating the continuum of lying

Lindskold and Walters (1982) outlined a classification continuum of lie acceptability. Ranking them in order from the most acceptable to the most reprehensible, they are:

  • Saving others from shame or embarrassment. (Little things like: “honey, dinner was delicious”, even if you think it was so-so.)
  • Protecting oneself or someone else from punishment or a social faux pas. (Representing a “stay the same” result during a Weightwatchers weekly support group meeting after a 100g gain from a decadent birthday celebration that week.)
  • Influencing others which results in your gain. (Convincing your partner to give you an alibi for a crime you didn’t commit.)
  • Self-enhancing or to protect something gained to which you are not ultimately entitled. (One spouse hiding assets from another in a divorce proceeding to shield them from division.)
  • Others’ actions benefit you and cause harm to them. (Asking a mechanic to roll back the car odometer before a sale to boost the sales price, causing themselves reputational damage in the process.)
  • Hurt someone so that you gain. (Stealing a colleague’s idea and claiming it as your own when senior management loves the idea).

This continuum is helpful in assessing the ethical implications of lying by first understanding who is benefitting. For self-serving lies, societal consensus seems to be that those are clearly out of ethical bounds. Whereas lies benefitting others appear more socially acceptable in most cases (such as continuing the legend of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy).

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