The Oxford Dictionaries defines a white lie as “A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.”
A white lie is the opposite of a black lie and the phrase itself can be traced as far back a 1741 to The Gentlemen’s Magazine where it said that a white lie is “…that which is not intended to injure any Body in his Fortune, Interest, or Reputation…”
A black lie is everything a white lie isn’t. Black lies are those told for self-preservation or to cause harm. They are the bad lies. But can white lies be good? Can any lie be good? Am I going to condone white lies here?
Yes. Yes I am.The White Canvas of Quiet
It is always best to start with an example. Let’s say that you’ve had an extremely busy week. Work has been especially trying. Not only has there been issues with the project you are working on, there has been client lunches to deal with (a thing which you hate but manage to get through), and the team has worked after hours to pull things together. On top of this your family has been in town and you’ve spent a couple of evenings with them over dinner to catch up. You love your family but, after a long day, your energy levels are near zero and it’s a struggle to contribute to the conversation. All you have to look forward to is the weekend. You’ve already looked at your calendar and there is nothing scheduled. No get-togethers and no plans. Nothing. Just two blank and open days for you to do whatever it is that you want to do with your time. There’s two books on your nightstand you’ve just been dying to dive into but haven’t had the time. On top of that, Saturday calls for rain so it’s the perfect reason to stay in, have some tea, and watch an old movie. Something you’ve always wanted to see but haven’t. Citizen Kane is a good choice.
Armed with this knowledge you forge ahead. When things get a little too stressful you think about the weekend. It’s a white canvas of quiet waiting there for you to curl up in and escape into for a few hours.The Dreaded Invite
Friday night arrives and you eagerly head to grab a few groceries for the weekend. Your short on tea and a few other items. You’re standing in aisle three when an old friend suddenly appears with her basket in hand. She is surprised and happy to see you and you put on your best smile. It’s just a few minutes more, you tell yourself, as you clutch your box of tea to your chest. You exchange the usual pleasantries and at the end of it she mentions that she is having a get together on Saturday and that it would be wonderful if you would come. You won’t know everyone, you are told, but they are all great people. The hours will fly by. She looks so happy and excited about it. You should want to go right? You should be excited about this and that she wants you to be there. But all you feel is a sense of dread pass over like a black cloud. You feel as if there must be something wrong with you for wishing that you had waited a few extra moments before getting your groceries. Then you wouldn’t have bumped into your friend and you wouldn’t hear your own voice telling her that you will be there.
A Lost Day
Saturday morning comes and you wake up with your stomach in knots. You weren’t able to sleep well and at those moments you found yourself awake you wished you had the ability to turn back the hands of time and had not gone to the grocery store. The hours leading up to the party are worse. You are unable to enjoy your book and when you try to watch a movie to escape into it only gets worse because you know that soon you will be leaving. Simply thinking about it leaves you feeling drained.
You pull yourself together, as you always do, because it is about everyone else and it is good to get out, and you leave. At your friend’s house you put on your best smile, you have a couple of glasses of wine to calm your nerves, and you do your best to engage in conversation. They are nice people but your mind continues to drift back to what could have been. It drifts back to your vision of a quiet weekend with a book, a cup of tea, and the rain hitting the windowsill.
A White Lie Saves the Day
Let’s perform the impossible and turn back time to that moment when your friend invited you to the get together. Only this time things are different. This time, instead of feeling as if something is wrong with you and saying yes, you say something else. You say, “I’d love to go but my family is in town and I have other plans. Thanks for asking me. Maybe next time?”
You’ve done it. You’ve just told a white lie. Sure, it’s true that your family is in town, but there aren’t any plans except those you’ve made for yourself. Namely your book and your movie. You might have even said, “Thanks for the invite but I already have plans.” It’s not a bad lie and hopefully your friend won’t press you for your plans. Even is she does you might respond with, “My family is in town” or “I have dinner plans.” You don’t have to say that those dinner plans include an evening with Orson Welles.
You go home, put your tea away, and you sleep peacefully. You have an entire weekend ahead of you.
A Necessary Evil
When presented with an invite such as the one I’ve just described I used to seize up. I was fully aware that any attempt to get out of it would appear exactly like that, an attempt to get out of it. I felt sure that red “LIAR” sign would suddenly emerge from my forehead. I worried that even an innocent white lie would be obvious. So now I’m prepared. It’s not as if I am walking around in constant fear or dread of invites. I enjoy my time with my friends. But for those weeks where my energy levels are low and I have a lot going on, I have a handful of responses prepared, little white lies, just like the scenario above, so as to save my weekend for myself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and, unfortunately, you are expected to accept every invitation thrown your way if you don’t have other plans that involve other people. Imagine how wonderful it would be if you could just say to your friend, “I’ve had such a busy week. I’m just going to stay in and read a book”, and to hear her respond with, “That’s wonderful. You deserve that time to yourself.” What a relief it would be as opposed to her being slightly offended that you would prefer time by yourself over spending the time with her and her friends.
A white lie is a necessary evil at times. Wield it responsibly and sparingly.