"What's the worst lie you've told lately?" I ask a few of my female coworkers recently. None of them could think of any really bad mistruths aside from the lies they told in high school to get out of trouble with their parents or teachers. One of my colleagues said she used a photocopied ticket for a school dance and didn't step forward when students were initially asked if they had fake tickets. After her dishonesty gnawed away at her, she later went to the principal to confess. All of them told me, though, that they feel comfortable telling those you-don't-look-fat-at-all white lies to please people and make them feel good. But downright dirty dishonesty? They feel too guilty to engage in it. (I'll take them at their word.)
Our society certainly frowns upon lying. Witness the brouhaha over former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, where he accuses his former boss of a "lack of candor." McClellan says he's most upset about the damage to his own reputation after he "unknowingly passed along false information" from administration officials.
For most people, however, a certain lack of candor is acceptable. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts several years ago found that 60 percent of people lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation. What's interesting is that women and men differ in what they lie about. As my coworkers attest, women are more likely to lie to make a person feel better. Men, on the other hand, tend to lie to make themselves look better (i.e. the former girlfriend who was a swimsuit model).
All of us, though, tend to exaggerate a little. Consider Hillary Clinton's embellishments about sniper fire in Bosnia she supposedly encountered in 1992. And think of all those résumés and memoirs that are really works of fiction. In fact, a British study published in February found that nearly 50 percent of college students significantly inflated their grade point average when asked to enter it on a computerized form. But the researchers concluded that this wasn't so bad because this type of self-aggrandizing is often wishful thinking, and people work to improve themselves and create this image they project.
I'm certainly comfortable saying white lies and shaving a few pounds off my weight if someone was rude enough to ask. And I must confess that on rare occasions, I've come up with complete fabrications. In the moment, I'm sure I give myself away with the classic lying signs: looking away, fidgeting, sounding tenser. But even if the person is fooled, I find myself revealing the lie soon after I tell it. Like my co-workers, that guilt is just too much for me to handle.