Friday, September 28, 2007


During my formative years, I lied to my parents as many children do in order to avoid punishment. Around the age of 12, however, I developed a rock hard aversion to any sort of lying and stopped doing so. I'm not sure what motivated this change in character. Perhaps my trust was betrayed by a friend or fellow student in such a way that the long-term consequences to a relationship when someone lies were made clear to me. Maybe I just was born with the type of character that would eventually jell into the one I have now. It's also possible that I finally reached an age where I realized that my mother lied whenever it suited her position in discussions or power plays.

In regards to my mother, my father used to say that she lied so much that she eventually believed her lies were true. I recall on more than one occasion when she'd make up some "fact" to back up her assertion that my sister or I should do something or other that she wanted. When we challenged her "facts", she'd just make up more and more ridiculous lies to support what she'd said. When the lies upon lies resulted in the logic of her assertions folding like a house of cards buckling under a gust of wind, she'd get angry and start lashing out and attacking us verbally. I'm guessing that sort of experience might tend to cultivate a strong aversion to fibbing in a person.

During my youth, this wish to avoid lying at all costs translated into a character which was blunt, strident, and abrasive at times. It took until I was nearing 30 or so for me to start learning to seriously moderate these tendencies. While I still hate to lie and having other people lie to me, I began to realize that lies in the service of failing to hurt others, particularly lies that had no long-term impact, were not a betrayal of my principles. For instance, if a student asks me if his English has improved, I won't lie and say it has if it has not though I may say that one aspect has improved (if that is true) as a way of only partially answering the question. Sometimes though, I'll simply tell them that they haven't been putting in enough work to improve based on their current basic level.

"Lies" to students are a part of business though mine tend to take the path of avoiding the crux of the question rather than being out and out lies. I'm not so sure that Japanese people may not prefer this to a 100% accurate answer so that they can have a softened bit of truth. From a certain viewpoint, this may be seen as a self-serving lie since a student who is told blatantly that he isn't getting better despite taking expensive lessons may decide he should just give up and I'll lose a source of income. However, my impulse is not to keep my rosters full of paying customers. I don't want to hurt their feelings or discourage them.

When it comes to lying, two points are always key in determining whether or not the lie serves a positive or negative function. One is whether or not the lie miscommunicates information in such a way as to perpetuate a destructive situation which may eventually eat away at a relationship or result in a future devastating and extremely painful revelation. The most common lie of this sort is related to women lying to their partners about the extent of their sexual satisfaction. If a woman lies about this point, she starts a cycle which confuses her partner about what is best to do to please her and often finds herself pressured to continue to "fake" once she starts doing so.

The other point is whether or not the lie is primarily self-serving rather than in the service of the other party. Yesterday, I was exposed to what I'm certain was this sort of lie. An office worker at my former company was communicating with me regarding scheduling of telephone tests I conduct as freelance work. Since I worked in person with her, I know her character and I've also had issues with her in the past. She can be rude and often doesn't listen to my former boss when he directs her and follows her own counsel rather than his. This always results in a problem because he has good reasons for doing things a certain way but she only has her own interests in mind.

For over a year now, I've been scheduling tests on a case by case basis to accommodate my private lesson schedule changes. This means any time my former company wants me to do tests, my schedule for the times and days in question has to be confirmed. This woman suggested that it was too troublesome to keep asking me about my schedule so it should be "locked down" to avoid the need for the questions. What it seemed to me that she meant was that I should promise I would reserve hours for the tests each week so they could freely slot them in any time without asking about my availability. This would essentially put me in the position of refusing private students indefinitely in such time slots and risking losing income with no guarantee that the infrequent tests would even be scheduled into those slots. In essence, she can skip the part which takes time and set up a situation where I'm the same as I was when I worked in the office.

I told her that the only way they could "reserve" my hours was by paying a retainer for them and she claimed that her suggestion was for my benefit so that I wouldn't have to put up with answering schedule-based questions. This was an incredibly transparent lie as I've never complained about such questions and, in fact, insist it be done this way for maximum flexibility. I should note that that flexibility goes both ways. The company gets far more possible hours for tests (which the companies who buy the tests prefer) by consulting me than locking in a limited schedule of a few hours each week or day.

Like many people who offer up a self-serving lie, she tried to mollify me by saying the situation she wanted was for to my benefit rather than hers. This sort of lie makes me angrier than most because it seems to assume I'm very naive and gullible. The thing about people who lie without a second thought is that they have an unrealistic notion of how effective their lies are. They often believe obvious lies are credible. Of course, in the case of the Japanese, I sometimes feel they know the lies are obvious but they rely on the cultural tendency not to be confrontational to keep them from being called on them.


Miko said...

Lying is a very interesting topic, especially in light of the bizarre case of Tania Head. Socially, I tell a lot of white lies (for example, by insisting that I'm feeling fine when I really feel like crap) and also a few lies of omission (mainly about my childhood and adolescence, because it's such a depressing topic) but as I rule I avoid lying like the plague. However, if I have to choose between being honest or being kind, I'd much rather be kind.

One of my sisters has been a pathological liar since childhood, to the point where you can only feel sorry for her because it's as if she genuinely believes her own incredible lies. And boy, does she tell some whoppers!

Like you, when I was around 12, I had an experience with my mother that influenced me. One night I ran away from my mother's home because I didn't want to witness a violent argument she was having with her husband, who was yelling and shoving her around. I spend the whole night out on the streets, and then made my way to my father's house. There I discovered that my frantic mother had called and claimed to all and sundry that I'd walked out after arguing *myself* with her husband - nothing of the sort had happened, she was making it all up, and obviously didn't want to admit that her marriage was on the rocks!

What was so puzzling to me was that she genuinely believed her story to be true, as if in her mind it had really happened that way.

Oh well, at least I know where my sister got it from.

Shari said...

I actually had not heard of the Tania Head situation before (I miss a lot of U.S. news, particularly of this type) but I looked it up. I guess it's really not surprising though it is a little sad and completely disrespectful to the real victims.

I think white lies that are acts of kindness or to smooth social situations are fine. They are neither self-serving nor malicious. I would choose kindness over the truth every time but not if the truth sets up a long-term misunderstanding that I'll have to perpetuate for the duration of a relationship. I think there are situations where a kind lie is worse than a painful truth though that mainly applies to a close relationship with someone.

The situation with your sister sounds unbearable and I'm grateful my sister is trustworthy and sane. I guess it's not surprising your mother lied to others and herself to convince herself her marriage wasn't so bad off though it would seem like she was putting her own interests above yours in such a case.

It's funny because situations like that show how ill-suited some people are to being parents. You can't do that sort of things to your kids. You have to be more mature than that but most parents do it anyway.

Miko said...

"I would choose kindness over the truth every time but not if the truth sets up a long-term misunderstanding that I'll have to perpetuate for the duration of a relationship."

I agree, and in many of those cases it's more a boundary-setting thing than anything else. Something that took me many, many years to get straight!

"It's funny because situations like that show how ill-suited some people are to being parents."

Paradoxically most people really cannot learn just how suited they are for parenthood until they've already gone and done it. There are so many variables to take into account, it's not really a cut-and-dried matter of deciding that you are ready and able to become a parent.

One thing that never ceases to puzzle me is that some people go on to have second and subsequent children, when they can barely cope with the first. Never let it be said that I don't know my limits!

Emsk said...

I think we can be a little jaded with the 'honesty is the best policy' deal and I agree with you if it's to no one's benefit to be blatantly truthful. For example, the large, obnoxious man who hit on me at the bus stop in the rough part of London I lived in - would it have been better to tell him where to go rather than politely telling him I had a boyfriend (I didn't)? Probably not.

But there's lying and there's lying, and I discovered that I'd been lied to at work recently. My contract is about to end and I enquired about part-time contractual work with my company. I received an email saying that there would nothing available, but that my interests had been "noted". My co-worker, who has become a very good friend, enquired herself some weeks later and was immediately called in to head office for an interview. A few weeks she told me that she'd wanted to tell me for weeks that she'd been offered the contract work, but she'd been told by several different people not to tell me about it "in case I was hurt". I was on the verge of confronting the lot of them, but my friend begged me not to because it would mean she'd told me. To her great credit, she'd told them that it put her in a really bad position and that she wanted to be honest with me.

I have not been popular with the Japanese staff at work, although the students like me. Without being paranoid, the management have scapegoated me from the beginning in a way they never did with my Canadian co-worker. Being older than these girls as well as being a bit of a firehead, I've stood up for myself, especially when I've got a whiff of the the sweet smell of BS. For example, my manager blatantly lied to me when she complained that I couldn't 'control' a kids' class, telling me that the Japanese staff could handle the students (I found out that this was far from the case). She refused to accept that maybe these kids may have problems dealing with someone who is 'different' - after all, Japan is hardly multi-racial - and reacted by screaming for their mothers or playing up.

My head teacher also told a fib about me. It was during my first month at my school; I had a 'feeling' that she didn't like me, but couldn't put my finger on it. One evening a student brought her cellphone into class and it rang not once but twice. The student is a middle-aged lady and you might imagine, as my co-worker and I do, that she's a likely candidate for senility. At home I would reprimand a student for doing this, but being new in the job as well as still culturally unaware I laughed it off, saying that I sometimes forgot to turn my phone off as well (in hindsight this was very 'Japanese' of me). On both occasions the lady left the class to answer the phone and was heard gassing, in Japanese, of course, from the classroom.

Imagine my shock then when, leaving class with my students, I was confronted by my manager at the foot of the stairs. In front of a student whose English is very good, Manager told me not to take my cellphone into class and that the head teacher had heard my phone not only ring, but me go into the hall to answer it. She was taken aback when I retorted that this wasn't true. In the words of Margaret Mitchell when describing Scarlett O'Hara, all that was Irish in me rose up I went to confront the head teacher. She was just coming out of the restroom and I think she thought I was going to punch her when I told her that it had not been my cellphone but a student's, that I would never take my phone into class and what she'd told the manager wasn't true. She backed off, didn't look me in the eye and muttered a sorry.

The said thing is that she could so easily have come to me after class and said, "Emily, was that your phone I heard?" I would have calmly said no and explained the situation. I would probably have gone on to ask her advice - what should I do in a situation like this, which is disruptive? Is it okay to ask students to turn their phones off, or will they say that they can do what they want since they're the paying customer?

Shari said...

Emsk: I'm very sorry to hear about the situation at your work. I'm also sorry to say that it's not unusual for managers and people in authority to take a shine to particular teachers and view others unfavorably. They sometimes have a habit of choosing someone to hold in disfavor in a serial fashion. If the current black sheet quits, another person becomes the new black sheep because somehow someone always has to be the one who gets vented at or focussed on as a bad seed.

Any sort of display of temper is going to get you picked as the likely candidate, of course. It's not that the Japanese themselves don't have such fits (I've witnessed them on more than one occasion so I know) but that they are so much more intimidated by it when foreigners have them that they feel much more resentful about it.

As always, thanks for all your very interesting comments!