I think it was Nicolas Joly who once said, before a wine can be good it must be true. I like this sentiment. We want honesty in wine: I don’t like the idea of a wine that has deliberately been made to be likeable. I’d rather drink something where the winegrowers intent is to fashion something that is true – true to its place, made without trickery or enological make-up. Honest. But this gets my mind whirring: what does ‘true’ mean?
In the somewhat over-long but absorbing film Interstellar – about saving humanity by going into space and finding a new world to colonize – there’s an interesting conversation between main proponent Cooper (the spaceman) and his robot assistant TARS. Cooper is querying with the settings of TARS, much as you would do with any piece of consumer electronics.
Cooper: Hey TARS, what’s your honesty parameter?
TARS: 90 percent.
Cooper: 90 percent?
TARS: Absolute honesty isn’t always the most diplomatic nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings.
This amusing interchange has got me thinking about truth. Is anyone always truthful? Would we tolerate 10% non-truthfulness in our business partners or lovers? Is TARS correct?
Back in January 2020 I tried online dating for the first time. I’d never done it before, and I was curious. On the profiles I saw, I noticed one requirement that kept cropping up time after time: everyone was looking for someone who was honest. They wanted the truth. [As an aside, the online dating experience was very interesting, but unsuccessful. The psychology of this sort of dating is utterly fascinating, but this is another story.]
You can’t read another’s mind; you only know what they are thinking and feeling from a combination of their words, and also their facial and bodily cues (something we are actually more skilled at interpreting than we realise, which leads to problems of dissonance when people aren’t being truthful – you don’t need a polygraph to spot a lie: a trained investigator can pick it up more easily than we’d like to think.)
Of course, this is in the context of inter-personal relationships, but it also applies professionally. If you read my writing, you want to read my honestly held opinions. You make the assumption that when I state something, I’m not being dishonest. You can also rightly expect that I should make explicit any potential conflicts of interest.
But is it easy to parse out various bits of communication as either truth or lie? This binary division doesn’t work so well in real life. How much of our perception is externally derived versus that which is internally created? And there are several ways to tell a story without lying, but each of which can create quite different impressions to the listener. Factual accounts of an event can all be truthful, yet can paint different pictures of it. So here we run into our first problem, and it makes this discussion about truth more complicated, but not impossible. We can have degrees of truth; degrees of disclosure. How we choose to package the truth can itself be part of the discussion about honesty. Dishonesty doesn’t require a lie.
But there are many cases where lying is straightforward: a deliberate attempt to deceive. A lie may seem to save you, but it rarely does. And when it is uncovered, there is a massive erosion of trust. The lie will bring a temporary reprieve – maybe a permanent reprieve – from the consequences of an action. But it casts a shadow forward. Once you have lied you may need to maintain that lie with a whole new family of lies, each of which will in turn need their own maintenance. If you forget exactly how you lied and change the story, there’s a chance this will be picked up, with erosion of trust a consequence.
Some people are habitual liars. As a result, they become dishonest to the core. Their life is a series of dishonesties and they aren’t honest with themselves. Lies breed lies and eventually corrode the core of a person. Truth is not at home anymore.
Some people are more-or-less honest, but in some contexts lie. They may even lie with good intentions. And they might not even realize they are lying.
Some of this low-level deceit (which often isn’t recognized as such) is utterly pointless, too. One example that used to irritate me more than it should have was a friend who lived some distance away and always used to underestimate journey times, as if it made it better when they said they were half an hour away rather than 50 minutes. And then there’s the classic, what time will you be home? Does it really make it better to say 10.30 when really it’s not going to be before 11.30? [I know: I have done this before.] Or: are you going out tonight? Yes, but I think I might cancel (when there was never any intention to cancel, but expressing doubt about fulfilling the engagement somehow makes it better to the other party). In almost every situation, being honest is better, and these faint deceits are perhaps prompted by hidden guilt that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
One of the most insidious forms of dishonesty is the failure to disclose information that a reasonable observer might have expected to be disclosed. This is insidious because it doesn’t involve an active lie, so the deceit feels easier to justify. As a result, his sort of dishonesty can seep more easily into an otherwise sound business relationship or friendship. If discovered later, it creates distrust.
Perhaps the main ethical issue with lying is that it is theft. You are stealing someone else’s right to the truth, in addition to any damage the lie can cause.
Is honesty always the right approach? Not in the case of illegitimate requests for information. People sometimes ask questions without realizing quite what they are asking. Our boys were adopted, and sometimes people who didn’t know us well would ask why. This is incredibly personal information, and without realizing they had asked an illegitimate question, requesting something they had no right to. So we gently had to decline to answer, recognizing that the questioner probably didn’t realise what they were asking for.
Sometimes a demand for honesty can be the result of the demander’s personal insecurity. They may fear that something they dread is true, and in a strange way want their worst fears to be realized sooner rather than later. This prompts endless questioning, but it’s driven by distrust and insecurity, and is toxic because the insecure person is projecting something onto the third party.
Flattery is a form of lying. Some people fall for it, and that is exploited by dishonest people who want to manipulate or manage others. But if you are at all perceptive, it feels horrible to be on the end of it. It’s someone saying something ‘nice’ to you that leaves you feeling slimy, because it wasn’t honest.
What about ‘white’ lies? Does the benign falsehood exist? How do you justify being untruthful on occasion? The way I would approach this is to say that sometimes when someone asks a question, they aren’t necessarily seeking an answer. They are asking for an answer, but the answer isn’t the important bit of the communication. This isn’t the ‘have you ever cheated on me?’ sort of question – more the ‘what do you think of this new shirt?’, or ‘how did you like the book I bought you?’ Sometimes what lies behind a question is a desire for reassurance. It’s a plea for a stroke. A ‘bid’ for a response. Sometimes it is not your honestly held opinion that is being asked for; the need is for a positive connection. We have to go beyond the question and try to discern what the other person is really seeking.
Back to truth. To focus on lies and their power to erode trust would be to forget the power of truth to build trust. Ultimately, being fully truthful and open builds trust. If we are guarded and have too many private areas, which inevitably are fenced in lies to keep others out, then it’s hard to build trust. The power of being truthful is immense. People notice if you are true, just as they feel if someone is habitually dishonest. There’s a purity to true people, and also a vulnerability, because they can be damaged by those who aren’t very true. Being true feels risky, but it opens the way to very deep relationships, and there’s a beauty in it.
So what about TARS’ truth settings? 90% might be good for some people, and having that 10% wiggle room can certainly be useful in navigating the world and getting ahead. But it’s limiting the possibility of a really deep relationship, because this 10% will eventually eat away at trust. Two people who are 90% truthful can negotiate a passable level of trust and keep things ticking over for a while, but too many doors and windows are being left open here, and eventually there will be a break-in, and things will be stolen that should have been kept safe.
Because of the nature of being human, we can never make a fully binary distinction between truth and lies. And we can’t hope for absolute certainty, or absolute honesty. But what we can do is choose to side with truth, and to try to be brave enough to live honestly and openly, and our best attempt at this is likely to be good enough and close enough that we will reap a positive harvest in our relationships.