We used to have a dog named Bonnie. She was a sweet lovable canine unless you happened to be another canine. Then, all bets were off. She hated other dogs. I think it was a turf thing. If another dog, regardless of breed or size, came anywhere within her sight, she was all teeth and terrifying growls. We never let her out of the house unleashed though once she escaped and got into a tussle with a neighbor’s dog. Fortunately that unsuspecting victim was fine.
When we would occasionally go away, we would board Bonnie at a doggie day care facility. It was like camp for dogs, boasting play areas, socialization and grooming which could include a manicure or pedicure for your beloved pet. Since Bonnie wasn’t beloved by other dogs, we only signed her up for daily supervised walks.
While there is nothing funny about a potentially misbehaved dog, there is a humorous part to this story. Every time we picked Bonnie up, she was sent home with a report card. And every time without fail, the report card gave her an A+ specifically stating that she had a great time and made friends with the other dogs. Seriously? How could that be?
Given I had made it very clear that Bonnie needed a private room away from other pups, on more than one occasion I asked the owners how our dog could have made friends with other dogs given her isolation and dog disposition. They would shrug and laugh, never giving me a real answer.
Their report card marks, response or lack of one, comes under the category of telling a white lie. I didn’t think much of it back then, but today as a communications coach, I’m wondering, when are white lies, okay?
According to psychologists, white lies typically benefit the person listening. For example, if your friend has a medical condition, rather than complicate a child with all the details of the disease, you might just say our neighbor isn’t feeling well right now. Yes, it’s a white lie, but it’s also empathetic and sensitive.
Dr. Julia Breur, a licensed family therapist in Boca Raton, Florida says a white lie “is a well-intentioned untruth”. She says it’s a usually a small, deliberate harmless fib intended to spare someone’s feelings and let them down gently. For example, she advises instead of saying the turkey meatloaf that you don’t really like is delicious, you might say “this tastes different than other meatloaf I’ve had, and I like trying new things.”
But it’s important to differentiate between sparing someone’s feelings and actually lying. Lying is deliberately making a false statement like lying about your credentials. In the case of Bonnie’s doggie daycare, the phony report card combined with dodging my questions is more than a white lie. I trusted our pet with this facility and deserved to be told the truth. Evading the truth is an issue of trust. Because I no longer trusted the owners, we stopped taking our dog there. If they fibbed, even to please us, what else did they fudge or not tell us about? Did they heed our instructions to keep our dog away from other dogs? Did they walk her or keep her locked in a cage all day?
I believe there needs to be a balance between false statements for the sake of being kind and truth that others need to hear. A good communication technique we teach is called framing. It helps people answer tough questions with important audiences. For example, I recently worked with a manager who wanted to tell an employee how terrible his writing was. He was going to say, ‘I’ve shown you how to do this many times and obviously you just don’t get it.’ That is a very negative way to frame a message.
Instead, I suggested framing through truthful positive reinforcement to give the employee the confidence and encouragement he needs to improve. Perhaps say ‘I see you’re still struggling with writing copy. I’ve made some notes and suggestions you can use to revise what you gave me. Please let me know if you need more help.’
Perhaps friends have invited you out for the evening, but you had your heart set on binging Emily in Paris while you eat ice cream in your pajamas. Instead of saying I’d rather watch TV alone than go out with you, thanking them and saying you have other plans is a positive white lie, but it spares hurt feelings.
While being honest is almost always the best policy, the key is to differentiate when telling the cold hard truth is necessary or when a little white lie might help preserve someone’s feelings.