2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Is Lying an Ethical Alternative to Self-disclosure?

Michael Handron


My objective for this paper is to truthfully and objectively answer the question “Is lying an ethical alternative to self-disclosure” by sharing my thoughts, opinions and insights drawn from my own life experiences and learnings from this class. In order to gain more insight, I tracked my own lies for a week and made notes on the significance of the lies I told. I also kept notes on lies that were told to me (that I was able to determine). In addition, I watched five episodes of a popular sitcom and kept a tally of the lies told in those episodes. Some of the lessons learned from these exercises were instrumental to my final answer which I will discuss in the conclusion of this paper.

Part One: Catharsis

To begin, I will start with a catharsis of sorts. In our textbook Looking Out/Looking In, Catharsis is listed as the first benefit of Self-Disclosure. What follows is the first entry on my list of personal lies:

“Today, November second 2007, I told the first lie of my project. I think it’s appropriate that this first lie was told to my communications teacher Martha by way of e-mail. I told Martha that I could not attend her class because I needed to take a shift at my work, when in fact, I just did not want to attend class and listen to my classmates give a presentation and watch a movie that I have already seen. My justification for the lie is that I have three other computer lab classes that need my attention, and I can also start to watch the television shows required for the research aspect of this paper. While I think this is a very valid justification, I can’t help but wonder how telling the truth in this situation would portray me in the eyes of Martha. Would I be seen as a “bad” student for not supporting my classmates and participating in the discussions of the day? Or rather, would I be seen as wise to budget my limited time effectively by missing one class that is not (in my grand scheme) too important? The possible consequence of my lie will be that Martha will take note of my absence as a sign of not being involved with the class work, and in turn affecting my participation grade. 1

This intentional lie was my first step in answering the question “Is lying an ethical alternative to self-disclosure?” As with many questions, the answer is not always as simple as yes or no, but rather in degrees of right or wrong depending on your perspective. While I can easily justify missing a class to myself, can I just as easily justify lying about missing class to my instructor? Why did I feel the need to lie?

These questions have made me think about the many different perspectives, rationales and judgments that accompany the lies we tell to others and ourselves. In the case of my first lie, I was dealing with some of the common risks of self-disclosure. I felt the biggest risk to managing my self image was giving a negative impression to my instructor. Self-disclosing that I had “more important” things to do than attend her class that day would surely not go over well and I would risk the consequence of hurting my instructor’s feelings. I would also potentially hurt my final participation grade in the class.

Our book brings up some guidelines for self-disclosure. One guideline being, “Is the Risk of Disclosing Reasonable?” By revealing this deception to my instructor in this paper, I believe that I am opening myself up to reasonable risk because I don’t think that my transgression was a major one. Another question posed is “Will the Effect Be Constructive?” In this case, I think the disclosure is very constructive because it is helping me to illustrate what is involved with my decision of when and where to self-disclose, and for what purpose (I can only hope that my instructor shares my views!)

The main question of this paper is dealing with the ethics of lying. Ethics is defined as conforming to accepted standards of conduct. Was my conduct in lying to my instructor ethical? I believe this is a matter of opinion and perspective. There is no rule in the class syllabus that states “You are not allowed to lie to your instructor”, but by the same token, it is understood that lying is “bad” or “wrong”. In this case, I equate my lie to someone calling in sick to work when they are not. This is something that almost everyone has done at some point (or many times!) in their life. The ethics of this behavior can be debated to exhaustion, but the fact remains that for the majority of society, the taking of a “sick day” is perfectly acceptable. It is this social acceptance that makes the behavior fall under the umbrella of an ethically accepted standard of conduct.

I should note that I balance this opinion with the fact that in my job as a retail manager, I have been on the other side of this type of deception with one employee (“Jane”) in particular. She has called out sick on numerous occasions and crossed the line of the acceptable amount of sick days 38,39,40. In her case, it did affect me personally because I had to spend time in my busy day to get her shift covered and protect the day’s business. What was interesting and frustrating, was the fact that I discovered her deception because of a posting she made on Facebook. Had she not been my “Friend” on Facebook, I would not have been completely sure about her deception. As a consequence of this experience, I have lost trust with her as an employee and de-friended her and a few other employees as well.

Once the lines of friend and employee have been blurred, it becomes much more difficult to manage interpersonal relationships in the workplace. I have chosen to re-evaluate who I invite into my online world and make sure that my online friends don’t become a liability to my real world existence.

Part 2: Lies at Work

I have always had a self perception that I am an honest person and generally believe that I don’t make a habit of lying too often. In preparation for discussing the question at hand, I spent a week tracking my lies as best I could. I also tried to determine if someone else was lying to me. This tracking of lies was a difficult and eye-opening process. The fact that I work as a retail sales manager in a clothing store puts me in very dangerous waters when it comes to equivocating or “stretching the truth” with my customer and co-worker interactions. One major requirement of my job is to sell products or ideas to customers and employees that I don’t always believe in. This can range from selling company credit cards to feigning excitement about new company policies and directives to our employees.

My first day on the sales floor with a heighted awareness of my lying behavior quickly made me realize that I am not nearly as honest as I thought, and my “little” lies began to add up quite quickly. The art of selling requires quite a bit of positive reinforcement for a decision that a customer has already (sometimes unconsciously) made. In these cases, telling the truth of your opinion (“Why yes, you DO look fat in those jeans”) will not fall on appreciative ears. With these customers, I see it as my job to make them feel better about what they will buy anyway (and truth be dammed). I balance and justify this type of selling behavior with the more honest selling to customers that truly want my opinion.

As I tracked more and more lies at work, I soon realized that I would have to focus on recording the major transgressions because otherwise I would not be able to do my job! (This was an unfortunate discovery). I found that the majority of my lies centered on selling our store credit cards. It’s a reality for many businesses that getting customers to sign up for a store credit card will increase that customers potential to buy more product by a substantial margin. Unfortunately these credit cards can be easily abused and cause problems for the users. I personally don’t think they are a good idea for most of our customers, but I am required to sell them or risk losing my job. As a result of this ethical dilemma, I end up feeling guilty most of the time when I do get someone to open a card. Why? Because, I end up lying about the “great” benefits of the card in order to convince people that they are a good idea.

Of all my lies that I tracked, the credit card lies were the most difficult to ethically justify. While I don’t enjoy this part of my job, or the way it makes me feel, I have accepted that it’s financially necessary for me to do it in the short term until I finish school and get a better position.

Part 3: Lies on Television

The second research aspect of this paper was to watch five episodes of a popular television show and keep track of the lies being told by the actors. In contrast to my self-discovery about my own lying, I had believed that watching the five episodes of a sitcom on television would result in several pages worth of lies to talk about. I picked one of my favorite shows, Friends. This well known sitcom follows the lives and situations of six best friends as they navigate through the many funny (and sometimes serious) events of their young lives in New York. To my surprise, the writers for the show use far fewer lies then I had expected to make the stories funny. The run times for these shows are 23 minutes and in that time, the two episodes with the most lies only had eight each. The remaining three episodes had four, four, and three lies respectively. I thought there would be many more than this! What I found interesting to watch was how the writers would use the snowball effect of lies as a plot device to carry the storyline of the episode. The season 10 episode 9 story in particular used this method to take a case of mistaken identity and carry it over the course of the entire episode. What follows is my brief synopsis from my episode notes page on the Friends episode 9 and how lies moved the storyline along.

“This episode brings the morality of lying to the forefront with the mistaken identity of Monica and Chandler to their potential adopted baby’s birth mother. Upon their first meeting, the teen mother mistakenly mixes up the information files of Monica and Chandler (Monica is a Chef and Chandler is a middle manager) with the file of another much more “desirable” couple where the husband is a doctor and the wife a minister. Monica chooses not to correct the mother on her mistake, and thus begins the string of deceptions to the mother. The fact that Monica is lying about being a minister and making religious comments along with it, (“and behold, adopt unto them a baby, and it was good”, ““you are SO going to heaven!”) gives the morality play an obvious (if slightly overbearing) blasphemous edge to drive home the point that lying is wrong. In the end, Chandler gives a heartfelt speech to the mother about how he is sorry that they lied, and it was only because they want to be parents so much that they lost sight of what was morally right. Ironically, the lies told to the mother by Chandler and Monica laid the groundwork for Chandler’s speech that ultimately sways the pregnant girl to choose them as the adopted parents. It is implied by the teen mother’s discussion with them (Monica and Chandler) that if they had told the truth about their identities at the outset, the mother would have surely passed them up for the actual doctor and minister.”

This was the most lie centric of the episodes I watched and I observed almost every type of deception listed in our text book. I found it interesting that even though the message of the episode seemed to be that lying is wrong, the outcome of the episode (with Chandler and Monica getting the baby) sends the mixed message that it is ok to lie if the lie is told for a good reason.

Part 4: So Why do we lie?

 Our textbook Looking Out/Looking In discusses some of the reasons for lying as an alternative to self disclosure. The first reason being is to save face, or in other words, to tell a tactful lie in order to protect the feelings of the other person. A personal example of this I can share is when my good friend Michael emailed me a piece of music he recorded, asking for my opinion 35. I told him (honestly) that I enjoyed the music and the instrumentation. I also (dishonestly) told him that his vocals on the piece sounded good. The truth of the matter is that I don’t like his singing voice. I have chosen to carry on this evasion on my opinion of his singing ability for over two decades in order to save face and protect our friendship. In this case, I value my friendship with Michael so much that I pay the personal transactional cost of feeling guilty for telling him the occasional lie. I also know that telling him the truth of my opinion would serve no useful purpose since he cannot change his voice. All it would serve to do is put a strain on our friendship and most likely prevent him from sharing his music with me.

Another good example of saving face was in one of the Friends episodes I watched (episode 10). The character Phoebe looks into a crib where her friend Rachel’s baby is sleeping next to an ugly doll. She remarks to Rachel that her new baby looks “just like a doll”. Rachel then remarks “that IS a doll next to Emma (the baby)”. Phoebe then replies “oh good, because that doll looks creepy”. Here we have Phoebe comparing the baby to a doll, which we would assume to be a compliment. When she remarks later that the doll looked “creepy”, we know that she actually (mistakenly) had thought that the baby looked creepy. Since she did not want to offend her good friend, she saved face by equivocating. I think most people have been in a situation where a friend or relative shares a baby picture with you, and you have to tell them how “cute” the child looks, no matter what you really think. This type of equivocating lie is a cornerstone of social niceties, since no one wants to hear that their child is ugly!

In both these situations, the act of lying was done out of consideration for the other persons feelings and not malice. It is also clear in both examples that the cost of the lie is less than the price paid for telling the truth. When I look at the previously mentioned situation at my job where I need to lie to customers in order to be considered a valued employee, the justification for lying becomes much more difficult. I do think that the majority of these types of lies are ethical because otherwise we would end up alienating those who are close to us because of too many unpleasant truths.

Conclusion: Is Lying an Ethical Alternative to Self-Disclosure?

So is lying an ethical alternative to self-disclosure? I say yes it most certainly is. I believe that to answer the question honestly, I must take into account the social nature of the world that surrounds us. We all have our own moral code and compass that we try to follow to lead our lives, but these codes are not shared by everyone. The decision to tell a lie is based on hundreds if not thousands of little reasons that can change minute by minute in our dealings with other people. So I would have to answer that not only is lying ethical, but in most cases it is mandatory in order to survive socially in our world. My opinion may come off as overly pessimistic, but I believe that the majority of the communication in our society is facilitated by the alternatives to self-disclosure (Silence, lying, equivocating and hinting). The fact that we try to live as good people within this frame work is ultimately the measuring stick of our ethical behavior. Depending on your personal point of view, one person’s political, religious, or social ideals could be based on what you perceive to be lies, thereby creating a level of distrust based on those ideals. In this type of social climate, is it any wonder that we need to lie to each other on a daily basis in order to function as a society? I am not speaking in absolutes, because it will always be vitally important to share thoughts, ideas and ideals with those that don’t agree with our own, but in the interest of living peacefully in our diverse society, lying in many forms will be a continual and necessary occurrence.

As a result of this project, I have come to question what can be done to reduce the vast number of lies we tell on a daily basis? I believe the answer lies in education and self awareness. By the relatively simple task of tracking my own lies and becoming more aware of my behavior, I was able to pinpoint more clearly some of my own shortcomings as a person and communicator. My dissatisfaction with my current job was the original catalyst for returning to college after many years. Discovering the frequency that I need to lie at my job, and the relative ease in which I do it, has helped to reaffirm my decision to get my degree and put a finer focus on the steps I need to take to create a healthier work life environment for myself. By following this path I truly believe that I will be able to lead a more truthful and better life.

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