Are little white lies OK?

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about my experience at a networking event where I was talking to someone who was ready to continue networking but didn’t know how to gracefully end the conversation. The blog post was titled “‘I’d like to freshen my drink” and other little white lies.”

As I sometimes do, I posted the article on Biznik, an in-person and online networking site for small business owners. Well, my article got quite a bit of attention with over 1800 views, 20 comments and 33 votes. One of the people commenting stated that she is committed to not telling white lies. She wrote, “One of the things I am committed to involves telling the truth – no little white lies. Which means rather than saying something like, “It was nice to talk with you. I don’t want to keep you from mingling with others,” I might instead say, “I loved your perspective on (fill in the blank with something specific from our conversation). I am now going to mingle. Enjoy the rest of the event.”

I responded by stating that while I think it’s admirable to not tell little white lies, I’m not sure it’s realistic. The premise of etiquette is to make others feel comfortable, to the point even that if someone commits an etiquette mistake, like using the wrong bread plate, we should do the same so that the person doesn’t feel they made a mistake. There is a saying I’ve quoted before that I think came from Emily Post. It is, “etiquette is knowing which fork to use, manners is not saying anything when your neighbor doesn’t.”

So, in effect, to be a courteous person we sometimes have to tell little white lies through our actions or our words. If you think about it, we do this a lot. When your friend asks if you like her new haircut, you find something positive to say even if you don’t like it. We do that so our friend doesn’t feel self-conscious about her new ‘do and so that we don’t hurt her feelings.

A friend was telling me about having to make up a story about why the Tooth Fairy forgot to leave money for her daughter’s tooth. To allow her child to believe in something magical, like the Tooth Fairy, she had to lie. Prime example of a little white lie.

I don’t think these sorts of lies are wrong. That said, if you are lying to prevent yourself from embarrassment or to avoid consequences, then that is wrong. Little white lies are OK if they are used to let someone else save face, but if they are about saving your face or saving your rear, they are not OK.

I’d love to hear your take on this. Do you think little white lies are OK? Do you think there is a difference between little white lies and bigger lies?

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


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