March 08, 2007

When and when not to lie

Before, during, and after the "Scooter" Libby trial, lying was much on the minds of press writers. Here at Language Log Plaza we've been mildly interested in the topic too -- see here, here, and here.  Well, I guess I should say that I've been interested in it, since these links are all to my own posts. I suppose everyone tells a whopper once in a while but we have to be pretty careful about who we tell our lies to. Just in case you may be planning to tell a lie, the Washington Post here offers some helpful advice. Here's (more or less) the Post's sometimes light-hearted take on this, along with some telling bits of evidence.

You CAN NOT lie to:

A grand jury or the FBI:  evidence -- the outcome of the "Scotter" Libby trial.

The Securities Exchange Commission:  evidence -- the outcome of the Martha Stewart trial.

Oprah's talk show:  evidence -- James Frey's confession about the lies he told in his autobiography. She got him to come clean. Avoid Oprah. She's tough.

The Internal Revenue Service: evidence -- the IRS says it catches 50% of liars. Unless you're a gambler, it's probably not a good idea to try it.

Readers of your résumé:  evidence -- about half the writers include whoppers somewhere but, as the Post puts it, they're "just waiting to be truth-squaded."

New York Times editors:  evidence -- the NY Times reporter, Jayson Blair, who got caught making stuff up.

Your own children and spouse:  evidence -- Santa Claus, sex, etc. The doghouse looms large here.

Yourself:  (unless you can manage to believe your own lies, a dismal prospect at best)

But, apparently, you CAN lie to:

The American people: evidence -- Bill Clinton's sex adventures, to which one might add many political campaingn promises as well as a lot of commercial advertisements.

Congress: evidence -- the  tobacco companies that got away with a great deal despite possessing evidence that their product was harmful.

The United Nations: evidence -- well, this one is pretty obvious, isn't it?

Readers of some books: evidence --apparent falsification of references and facts (see here).

There seems to be a pattern here. To smaller audiences, such as individual government agencies, television talk show hosts, potential employers, editors, family members, and oneself, telling a lie is usually a very bad strategy. But on the grander scale of things, such as lying to entire countries, to Congress, to the United Nations, and to readers of best-seller books, lying  must seem worth a try..... but one would certainly hope not.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 8, 2007 12:15 PM