Why honesty is always the best policy

Published on 19 January 2022 by Adam Leigh

When I was seven years old there was a craze at school to swap keys of all shapes and sizes in the playground. Not having a set or knowing anyone at Chubb, I had to use my own initiative to find something to trade. Rummaging in my father’s sock drawer, I found a stash of loose keys which clearly had had no value. I chose the best one based on its unusual shape and the very next day exchanged it with my friend Jonathan in return for that rare artefact, a radiator key.

A couple of days later, my father found me before bedtime and with a look of wild fear brandished a similar looking key, asking me in desperation if I had seen one that looked just like it.

“No”, I lied, my bottom lip trembling. He spotted this obvious tell and carried on probing. (Even at that age, I knew that a career as a professional poker player was unlikely.) 

“Are you sure?”

“Noooooo” I repeated the lie. This time my body went into spasm in reaction to my mendacity.

“Are you telling the truth?”

“Yes Daddy. Yes Daddy.” The lie kept coming, but my fear of its discovery meant I could not conceal my guilt. Eventually, like a tortured prisoner of war, I told him everything in an incoherent splurge and at 9.00 pm he drove round to Jonathan’s house to make the exchange. Jonathan’s dad was able once more to bleed his radiators and my dad with much relief could now retrieve the contents to his safety deposit box. The stolen family jewels and drugs-trade cash were safe.

Why is this anecdote worthy of the re-telling?

It’s just that I have this ever-so sneaky suspicion that our current Prime Minister may be something of a liar. And it’s not just because he makes up ‘alternative facts’ when it suits him, like the many people with controversial crusades peddling falsehoods on social media.

No, he lies continually to save his skin from recrimination or responsibility. For the most powerful man in the country, he claims never to have been at the scene of the crime, ignorant of it being committed and clueless of its perpetrator. His personal mantra (in Latin of course) is ‘fidelio ad nauseum’ loosely translated by this classic scholar as ‘honesty makes me vomit.’

But from the vantage point of our moral high ground, it turns out that the view is foggy. You see, when it comes to it, we are all in fact liars.  Research commissioned by the University of Wisconsin last year revealed that 75% of the sample of 116,000 people admitted to telling at least 2 lies per day. In other words, we all lie effortlessly, proving that the famous warning learnt as children is wrong, and our pants don’t actually catch fire.  We lie because we want to avoid socially awkward situations or to avoid causing offence. We think this is harmless and has traditionally been called a ‘white lie.’

In 1741 its first definition was given in The Gentleman’s Magazine as follows: “A white lie is that which is not intended to injure anybody in his fortune, interest, or reputation, but only to gratify a garrulous disposition and the itch of amusing people by telling them wonderful stories.”

Nowadays its more about self-preservation and in professional context we have all done it many times. It is important to look impressive and to not get in trouble, so we dispense with any signs of weakness that might cause us trouble with colleagues. 

If you haven’t said one of the following lies, then you are a bigger liar than Boris.  Rank them yourself in order of frequency or preference:

“I didn’t get your text”

“My e-mail’s playing up” 

“My phone died”

“I am five minutes away”

“My last meeting overran”

“I have to cancel the meeting. Something has come up”

“It must- have gone in the spam folder”

“I have almost finished the report”

“I’ve read all the research”

“I have spoken to team about this”

“I worked late on this”

“I phoned the client, but she didn’t get back to me”

Psychologist Robert Feldman cites self-esteem as one of the biggest culprits in our lying ways: “We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels.” In other words, the moment we don’t feel confident, we feel compelled to bend the truth to avoid exposing our fragility.

And yet, when it comes to our places of work, we all tend to gravitate to organisations that have values of integrity, openness and fairness; after all it would be hard to join a company that lived by the precept ‘see what you can get away with’. We wantpurpose, we want sustainability, we want diversity and inclusion. That should sort out the bullshitters.

If only.

It seems that most of us have told a few porkies along the way to get the job in the first place. A survey in 2020 from Chekster, a reference checking company shows that 78 % of candidates who applied for or received a job offer admitted that they did or would consider misrepresenting themselves on their application. You know, the small harmless stuff – eliminate jobs where you didn’t stay long enough, up the level of seniority a bit of the last job, pretend you learn to split the atom in your gap year. Nothing too serious, surely.

So, there you have it. I am a liar. You’re a liar. And that chap you work with who says he’s Beyoncé’s cousin is not to be trusted too. Does it matter if the lies are harmless? There is clearly a fine line between convenience and opportunism, and we should all tread it carefully. If our collective approach sanctions casual mistruth, then the result is a culture of poor values, arrogance, and an absence of responsibility. We are all better people when we embrace our fears and failings by acknowledging them, even if it makes us uncomfortable or insecure.

Mark Twain when paraphrasing Disraeli, another famous political chancer famously wrote “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” and this reveals a truth that we all should try and respect. You can use whatever self-serving facts, figures, or statements that will get what you want. But in a world in which there is so much rancour and division, you can create something better if you are more afraid of the consequence of a whopping lie rather than coming clean with a dose of healthy truthfulness.

I just hope you believe me.