20 White Lies We Tell Strangers Every Day
Was it really that nice to meet them?
Of all the people in the world that we lie to—and most of us tell fibs almost 20 times an hour, according to science—nobody gets lied to more often than strangers. When we say something untrue to a friend or a family member or even a coworker, it’s hard not to feel guilty. But somebody we’ve never met before and might not ever see again, well, that’s a different story.
At first glance that may make us look like monsters, but that’s hardly the case. In fact, research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that people who told white lies were more compassionate than those who always tell the truth. Why? Because they’re more concerned with not hurting other people’s feelings. Not that it’s entirely about benevolence, though.
“White lies are a social convention,” says Susan Winter, a relationship expert and bestselling author of books like Allowing Magnificence. “It’s partly based on wanting to be polite and partly based on self-preservation. White lies allow us to share a ‘preferable truth’ rather than the ‘real truth’.”
With that in mind, here we’ve gathered the 20 white lies—or what science calls “prosocial deceptions”—that are so ubiquitous that we’ve practically all made them to strangers on several occasions. So read on, and see if you can actually see your nose grow while you say them.
It can be embarrassing when we realize the person we’re talking to, who seems like a complete stranger, is someone we’ve supposedly met at least once in the past. But don’t beat yourself up over this lie. After all, it may not be a total lie—our memories often rely on context when it comes to placing a face.
Or at least that’s the finding of a a study published in Nature Communications, which demonstrated “how error prone this process [of remembering peoples’ faces outside of context] can be,” said psychologist Manos Tsakiris in an interview. So if you see a business contact whom you’d met twice in a conference room in a tiki bar and your brain is totally flummoxed, don’t sweat it too much!
It’s a white lie that’s at least attempting to be considerate. Better to say “I’ll call you” than to admit “Yeah, you’ll probably never hear from me again.” Well, maybe. You might think you’re sparing their feelings, but a 2014 poll conducted by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair found that 22 percent of people thought “I’ll call you” was the least justifiable lie somebody could tell, far more egregious than “You’ve lost weight” or “the check is in the mail.”
There is no other response to being introduced to a newborn by their proud parents. Remember that classic episode of Seinfeld, when the gang visit a house in the Hamptons and were introduced to what Jerry describes as “the ugliest baby you have ever seen?” Jerry and Elaine were both so repulsed by the child that they could barely look at it for even a few seconds. But they called it adorable and beautiful anyway. As Jerry explained later, “It’s a must-lie situation.” That’s no joke!
It’s a white lie that’s pretty easy to get away with unless you’re clearly decades older than you’re claiming. And lying about your age may actually be good for you. A British study found that people who insist that they’re younger than their “technical” age actually live longer. So go ahead, repeat that white lie even if nobody’s buying it. It could be a self-fulfilling prophecy!
It just seems easier to tell a restaurant server that you have an allergy to mushrooms rather than admit that the creamy mushroom soup-of-the-day sounds really terrible. But as it turns out, servers really wish we’d be more truthful. “If you have a serious dislike of some particular food, that’s fine—tell us, and we’ll recommend something that doesn’t contain that ingredient, or we may even be able to alter a menu item for you,” one server said in an interview. “But if you lie and say it’s an allergy, it’s a huge deal for the kitchen.”
It’s the excuse everybody gives when the truth is more along the lines of “I didn’t feel like coming here, so I waited until the last possible second, and I’m exactly as late as I thought I’d be, but I don’t want to admit to that because it’s insulting.” Long story short, there was no unusual traffic.
So much is left unsaid in a white lie like this. As we all know, on far too many occasion the line “nice to meet you” is actually shorthand for “This will be the last time we’re in the same room together if I can help it.”
Unless it’s a doctor, we’re unlikely to share the absolute truth about how much we really weigh. If the weight listed on your driver’s license is actually accurate, you’re in the minority. According to Matt Prieto, who works at the Department of Motor Vehicles, people rarely give accurate information about their weight, “but not in a nefarious way. The weight will be 299 rather than something starting with a 3.” He says he’s occasionally seen underreported poundage that makes him roll his eyes, “but I’ve only seen a couple that made me say you need to change this to something more realistic.”
It’s the thing you say to somebody when you’ve run out of meaningful things to tell them. It’s in the same category as saying “I like your shoes” or “where’d you get that watch?” It’s not just about being polite. It’s a survival instinct. It’s caused when you feel the panic of being out conversation and in your head, you’re thinking, “I’m out of ideas! I’m just going to start randomly complimenting things until I can get out of here!”
It’s right there on the speedometer, buddy, which is conveniently located right in front of your face, behind the steering wheel. It’s not like saying, “I don’t know how much I weigh.” We don’t walk around with a scale attached to our feet. But we don’t drive anywhere without being constantly reminded of how fast we’re going. Nice try, though!
If you’ve ever pretended to be a fan of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad because you don’t want to be left out of the conversation, you’re far from alone. In a Hulu survey of people between the ages of 18 and 49, a shocking 46% confessed to lying about watching certain TV shows just because they wanted to fit in. The numbers got higher when broken down by gender—62% of men would gladly pretend they’d seen the latest episode of Stranger Things just so they wouldn’t feel excluded.
How many people have used a white lie like this on their résumé despite having no idea what Microsoft Excel even is? More than you might suspect. A 2017 poll found that nearly half (46 percent) of workers have lied on their résumés. And they’re not necessarily fooling anybody. Fifty-three percent of managers were well aware that applicants were being less than truthful about their abilities.
If you really mean it, you’ll pass over a card, or get someone’s number on the spot and immediately text over, “Hey, it’s Bob!” But if no meaningful contact information has actually passed from one person to the other, the phrase “let’s keep in touch” is basically a nice way of saying “If we happen to run into each other by accident at a social gathering, I won’t pretend I don’t know you.”
This white lie is how many passengers have talked their way into getting a different seat on a flight. We suppose it’s better to claim a fake medical condition than admit the unpopular truth, that they want unencumbered access to the restroom and to be one of the first people off the plane when it lands. Yeah, as white lies go, this is definitely better than the alternative. Nobody wants to switch seats with somebody who says “I just want more convenience than you.” And for more bad airplane etiquette, check out these 17 Hilarious Photos of Terrible Airplane Passenger Behavior.
Any parent will recognize this white lie as the excuse we give to people when our child is crying or screaming or generally behaving like a tiny psycho. But if we were honest, we’d admit what we know in our hearts to be true. Sometimes there isn’t an easy excuse for a toddler’s behavior. It has nothing to do with being sleepy or hungry or anything else. They’re just acting up.
Maybe you’re not lying. But if we’re going by book sales, it’s a far likelier possibility that your favorite reads are really a tossup between The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
For all our paranoia about how auto mechanics deceive us, inventing repairs that are entirely fictional, we do our fair share of lying to them. Do you remember to bring in your car for an oil change on the exact date specified on that little sticker on your windshield? Probably not, right? How about getting your brake pads checked when you notice a high-pitched noise?
“That just started happening,” you tell the mechanic. The white lie is easier than saying, “Listen, I forgot, okay? Just fix it and I’ll promise to bring in the car earlier next time, which I’m probably not going to do.”
Maybe you did only have two drinks. Maybe “a couple” of drinks actually means four, or five. Who are we to judge? And for how much you should be drinking, check out This Is Exactly How Much Alcohol You Should Drink.
Sometimes you’re on vacation in Europe, and it’s just not worth it, to tell the truth. It’s easier to say “I’m from Canada” and be done with it. It’s not about your personal politics, it’s wanting to explore the world without needing to defend the government of the place where you were born. Some white lies aren’t about protecting other people’s feelings. They’re just about “will you please leave me alone so I can be a tourist”?
Face it: No one reads the terms and conditions when they’re buying something online. You might very well be agreeing to sign away all of your personal information, and every photo you’ve ever taken of your children, but that would involve far too much actual reading. Just click the box and pretend you’re fine with whatever you’ve agreed to, and hopefully, it all works out in the end.
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