Yoram Solomon, PhD
White Lies, Half-Truths, and TRUST
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
When is it OK to tell a white lie or only half the truth? In a (really small) LinkedInPoll more than half replied “never,” and almost a third said, “if it makes someone feel good.” But the real answer is…
… on the person you are telling a lie to.
I still remember the day that my older daughter, Maya, came back from kindergarten upset because she had just found out we had lied to her for years and that the tooth fairy didn’t really exist.
The dictionary defines a white lie as: “a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” But are those the only considerations, and are they absolute and universal? Not really.
Telling a white lie or half-truth can affect your trustworthiness, for better or worse. Because trust is relative, the same behavior that would cause one person to trust you could cause another person to distrust you. For that reason, understanding the impact of telling a white lie or half-truth on your trustworthiness must be done from the other person’s perspective. The person you were telling it to.
There are five considerations for that assessment.
Will the truth ever come out?
Will the other person ever find out the whole truth? One good thing about never lying (any lie) is that you never have to remember what you said and to whom you said it. I believe the truth always comes out, probably at the worst possible time. However, there are exceptions. “She died peacefully” could be one such exception. Would you be sparing someone’s feelings by telling that lie when you can pretty much guarantee that they will never learn the truth?
Consequences of the white lie
How significant are the negative consequences of the white lie? The more significant they are, the more the other person would expect you to tell them the truth. Remember that what may appear insignificant to you might be very significant to them.
Could they have been prevented?
Could those consequences have been prevented if they had known the truth? Maybe there is nothing they can do about it, and they would be better off not knowing the whole truth. But the more they could have prevented the negative consequences of not knowing the whole truth, the more they would be apprehensive about you telling them a white lie.
Would I have preferred to know?
Some people still prefer not to know the truth, even if they could do something to prevent the consequences. Call it plausible deniability. The fact that you would want to know the truth if you were in their place doesn’t mean that they would, and vice versa.
Why did you tell the white lie (or hold back some of the truth)? Was it to make the other person feel better or make you feel better? People would be much more understanding and receptive (and even appreciative) if the reason you told them a white lie were to spare their feelings. But they would be less understanding if you did it to avoid an awkward situation for yourself while exposing them to the negative consequences of not knowing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The answers to these questions vary from person to person and from situation to situation. Don’t assume that others would prefer the same as you, even under the same circumstances, because trust is relative.
Next time you consider telling someone a white lie or only half the truth, think about how they will see those five considerations, and then decide.
Listen to the latest episode of TheTrustShow podcast about white lies, half-truths, and trust: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s6e10-white-lies-half-truths-and-trust-part-i/id1569249060?i=1000578332532
Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps build trust in organizations.