When Little Lies Backfire

White Lies by Caro Spark (CC BY-NC-ND)

White Lies by Caro Spark (CC BY-NC-ND)

That was how dishonesty and betrayal started, not in big lies but in small secrets. ―Amy Tan
I despise the rituals of fake friendship. I wish we could just claw each other’s eyes out and call it a day; instead we put on huge radiant smiles and spout compliments until our teeth hurt from the saccharine sweetness of it all. ―Jody Gehrman
Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. [It] leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.
―Sam Harris


Most little lies are attempts to save face or spare someone’s feelings. They’re meant to be polite.

Your baby’s adorable.
I already have plans.
Yes, that’s attractive.
This is delicious!

But little lies can backfire—especially when what you’re really trying to avoid is confrontation.

Dick: Do you want to go see my friend’s show on Friday?
Jane: I can’t. I have to finish that project for work.
Dick: But you can do that this weekend, right?
Jane: I have a lot going on this weekend.
Dick: Oh. Like what?

See how quickly this dodgeball game devolves? And all because Dick’s trying to make Friday’s plans work while Jane’s scrambling for a way out.

How much easier is this:

Dick: Do you want to go see my friend’s show on Friday?
Jane: No. Maybe Max will go with you.

End of conversation. Isn’t that better?

The problem with making excuses is that people respond to what you say, not how you feel. And they’ll often try to help you work around your made-up conflict, which just wastes everyone’s time and energy.

While honesty can have unexpected results, they’re not all bad. Telling the truth can lead to interesting revelations. Remember to be kind. You might even find that the person you were holding out on agrees with you. Honesty can bring people closer together.

Being honest is also an act of generosity. When you’re straight with someone, you give them info they didn’t have before—insights they can use to make better decisions for themselves. Telling the truth helps others in ways you can’t predict.

So do us all a favor: suck it up and tell the truth. If you don’t want to join, don’t love the meal, don’t feel like going, signing, buying—just say so. Like ripping off a bandaid, dragging it out only feels worse. And the alternative—from a long and tedious conversation to a lifetime of repeat-offender meals—can be downright painful.



  1. Excellent advice. When we can not predict the outcome the truth is often the best path forward. Of course the truth has many authors. If we include silence as at least one of the options in communication it to can allow further truth to enter the conversation.

    Then I am propelled into the arena of combat. You know, where words are a form of duel, seeking advantage, striving for a reward seemingly attainable only by means of the contest of words. There the very concept of truth can be difficult to detect.

    Mouth wash ads come to mind.


    • Telling the truth isn’t a last resort and the outcome of an honest conversation isn’t predictable. When people give canned responses and receive familiar replies we get the impression that we know how things will turn out. Ironically, avoidance perpetuates predictability.

      Unfortunately, advertising and rhetoric are a whole different conversation.

What do you think?