Saturday, 31 December 2011

White lies as social lubricant

Have you ever noticed how we lie to each other? The classic example is that scene at a clothes shop:

"Honey does this look good on me?"
"Hell yeah! You look amazing!"

Why do we tell white lies?
I think the reason why people tell white lies is because they're scared of offending the other person. They're worried that if they tell the truth, the other person will get upset. Why would they think that? Because they themselves are afraid of the truth. In my opinion, Australians are crap at giving and receiving feedback. We lash out at successful people, cutting them down with harsh words.

Crab in the bucket syndrome
The Filipinos have a different analogy to 'tall poppy syndrome' that I really like. They call it 'crab in the bucket syndrome'. Apparently if you stick a bunch of crabs in a bucket, a bucket that any one crab could easily climb out of, none of the crabs will get out because they pull each other off the wall as soon as they go to escape. In Australia (and this is a massive generalisation), we love to attack each other. We pounce on slight flaws and grudgingly admit victories. It starts from an early age in the school yard. Teasing turns into bullying and adults develop a pathological fear of receiving feedback.

Lying to avoid giving honest feedback
And so rather than give honest feedback that could help someone grow, we tell white lies. "It looks lovely". "You're doing great". It's like fast food. It tastes good at the time, but it leaves you feeling empty. Did they really mean that?

Lying because we don't care or can't care
Some of the time that's appropriate. If you give someone honest feedback, you owe them a duty of care to follow that up and make sure they take the feedback well. We know that most people struggle to accept feedback. Most people take it badly. Therefore, it is your responsibility to stay with them and coach them rather than just hurling criticism at them and walking away, hands in your pockets, whistling to yourself.

Picking your battles
This kind of coaching takes effort and time. Often you don't have the time or energy to really help someone improve. In that case, maybe a white lie is appropriate. It answers their question without committing you to helping them. I struggle with this mindset. If someone genuinely asks for help, I want to help them, not brush them off with an untruthful affirmation.

Do they really want honesty?
I think the reason most people react badly to feedback is they're not ready for it. Honest feedback can feel like having a bucket of cold water thrown over your head. If you're ready for it, the cold water is refreshing. If you're unprepared, it makes you angry and might even give you a heart attack!

I've had a few instances where I've given someone honest feedback and they have taken it really badly. Hell I've taken feedback badly myself. There were times during my honours year where I stuffed up experiments. All I wanted to do was go outside and walk off some of my frustration but my supervisor pulled me out of the lab and proceeded to tell me exactly what I'd done wrong and how to fix it. It was helpful and useful feedback, but I was in no state to listen. I'd walk out with tears in my eyes thinking "Why is she so mean!?"

Therefore, I reckon it's important to get permission before giving honest feedback. I now ask "do you want my honest opinion?". And I really ask it. I don't just throw out the question and jump into the feedback immediately. I let the question hang in the air. I gauge their reaction. If they look hesitant, I ask again.

White lies or compliments?
Of course, some of the time, critical feedback is not necessary. It's entirely appropriate to focus on how good the dress looks instead of the ugly stitching around that button that only you would notice. After being trained as a scientist with an emphasis on 'critical thinking', I often fall into the trap of only seeing what's wrong and not seeing what's right.

In any case, the same thing applies to compliments as applies to criticism. If the compliment isn't sincere and honest, then it comes across as fake. As a lie.

It's not what you say, it's how you say it
Have you heard of the Mehrabian principle [qqq]? David Mehrabian did some research back in the 70s. He looked at how interesting students found lecturers. His results showed that it wasn't the words the lecturers used, it was the tonality and body language that mattered. From those results, he inferred that meaning from communication is broken down like this:

Words: 7%
Body language: 55%
Tonality: 38%

Keep this in mind when giving compliments or feedback. If your voice tone doesn't match what your saying, then people will interpret your sincere compliments as lies. A weird trap that I've fallen into is laughing when giving a compliment. It completely confuses the message. What I intended to be a compliment was probably perceived as a white lie.

Specific makes memorable
When people give me compliments or feedback, I almost always discard them if they are general or abstract. Mentally, I class them as white lies not as true statements. For a compliment to be meaningful to me, the other person has to point out a concrete example, rather than making a blanket statement.

The overall message: white lies are all about perception
After writing this post, I've now crystallised my thoughts on white lies. They are statements that are purposefully vague. They are lies of omission. They could be true but only because no evidence is included to the contrary.

What do you think of white lies? Do you think they are appropriate in a networking situation?

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