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Jerry Earl Johnston: The truth about lying

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

To hear author Sam Harris tell it, lying — whether to protect someone’s feelings or protect a reputation — always leads to a worse outcome than telling the truth.

For instance, say your husband comes up to you wearing a silly shirt and asks, “Honey, does this shirt look silly?”

If you say “no” to protect his feelings, or to honor his sense of taste, or just to keep the peace, you’ve done the man wrong. He will then act on your response and — the next night — stroll proudly into a crowded room like the “Prime Minister of Silly Shirts.”

Your benevolent fib has only made matters worse.

"Lying," writes Harris in his new book “Lying” (Four Elephants Press, $16.99) “even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.”

And what constitutes a lie?

“Believing one thing while intending to communicate another,” the author explains.

What befuddles Harris is how often we indulge ourselves in the practice.

“Few of us are murderers or thieves,” he writes, “but we have all been liars. And many of us will be unable to get into our beds tonight without having told several lies over the course of the day.”

Having interviewed many LDS people over the years, I’m always struck at how responses to questions about financial obligations or fidelity are answered directly with conviction while questions about honesty are often hedged with words like “try” and “strive.”

In fact, looking back at how I spent my own day today, I can “honestly” see moments where I purposely shaded or shifted the truth.

Why did I do that?

Why do the rest of us?

Harris offers a dozen reasons, including: To avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate our accomplishments, to disguise wrong doing, to conceal defects in a product or service, to gain an advantage over others and, of course, to spare someone’s feelings.

And in each case, Harris says, telling a lie is never in our own best interest.

We just think it is.

Honesty, he concludes, is always the best policy. The trick, he says, is to tell the truth in a way that people won’t slap your comment back in your face like a badminton birdie.

Harris does concede there are situations where a lie is justified. If we — or those we love — are threatened with violence, telling a lie becomes a form of self-defense and is just as appropriate as using force to defend ourselves.

But those moments are few and far between in our lives.

Most of the time we finesse the truth or offer bogus opinions for the simple reason we think it will make our lives easier. Yet, Harris says, that is seldom the case. Lying almost always makes things more complicated. And a fib is the quickest way to undermine trust, sabotage a relationship or make people feel betrayed.

People who hear the truth might not like it at first. But, in the long run, they will appreciate the candor.

I know I do.

And I have the silly shirt at home to prove it.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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