Is lying ever okay, or is it always better to tell the truth?
(817 words)
IELTS Reading Questions:
Matching Headings & Sentence Completion

Some people lie a lot, but most of us lie a little. So, why do we do it? And is it ever okay, or is it always better to tell the truth?

There are a range of reasons that people lie, but one of the most common ones is to get some kind of benefit, according to an article in National Geographic. This could be financial benefit, for example, or it could be lying to make ourselves look better. Another common reason people lie is to protect themselves, they say, for example hiding mistakes or lying to avoid other people. They add that when we lie, we do it to achieve some goal, perhaps when we feel that honesty won’t work.

C  Some lies seem more acceptable than others – lying to protect yourself doesn’t seem as bad as lying to get money, for example. And one form of lying that many people think is okay is telling white lies. These are lies that are told to benefit other people, perhaps to make them feel good or prevent them from being hurt, embarrassed or scared. Think about what you would say if your mother buys you a gift that you don’t like and asks if you like it, or a friend wears a new shirt that doesn’t look good, or your grandmother cooks you a meal that doesn’t taste good. These are all situations in which a white lie would spare the feelings of the people you care about, but is it the best thing to do?

D  Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris seems to think not. On his podcast, and in his book Lying, he makes the argument that it’s almost always better to tell the truth. He explains that when you lie to someone, it’s like you’re no longer on the same team: your wish to avoid awkwardness is competing against real connection to the other person. He adds that even when telling white lies and believing we are doing it to benefit our friends or loved ones, we are actually preventing them from knowing the truth about themselves, and their lack of knowledge might have negative consequences for them.

E  What would be the negative consequences of lying about a gift you don’t like? The person who bought it might buy you a similar gift in the future; they might wonder why you don’t use or wear the gift; you might have to lie about it again in the future. All of this could create more distance between you and have a negative effect on how you feel about yourself. Telling the truth would mean that you avoid these problems, and it could benefit your relationships and create trust in the longer term. As Harris puts it, if you are consistently honest, the people in your life will have more confidence in you, as they will know that you will never lie to them and any praise you give will be genuine.

F  Others believe that lying might be better in these situations. The lies would only be small lies, and they would protect the feelings of the people you care about and help to maintain good relationships. In some situations, perhaps the benefits of telling the truth aren’t great enough to outweigh the hurt that it might cause. A good example of this comes from the life experience of writer Cheryl Strayed – while not exactly advocating telling white lies, it does show how the truth and the way we tell it could be hurtful. 

G  Strayed worked as an online advice columnist in her early forties, and her book, Tiny Beautiful Things, is a collection of her answers to people’s questions about life. In it, she is asked by a younger reader what advice she would give to her twenty-something self if she could talk to her now. After listing a few things that she would like to tell her younger self, she describes how she regrets telling the truth about a Christmas gift from her mum that wasn’t perfect:

When your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy… don’t say it’s longer than you like your coats to be, and too puffy, and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you… Say thank you.

H  It’s difficult to say what the best thing to do is in every situation. Harris makes a good argument for telling the truth as much as you can, and perhaps it is something to aim for, but it’s not clear that it’s always the best option. As psychologist Julia Breur says in an article in Psychology Today, whether white lies are acceptable or not often depends on the situation and what your intention is. She suggests thinking about this in each situation and asking yourself if there is a way to tell the truth kindly.

IELTS Reading Questions for Lying:
Matching Headings & Sentence Completion.

Sources and links from Lying

Article in National Geographic by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.
Sam Harris’ website. The information in this article came from his book, Lying and from his podcasts.
Cheryl Strayed’s website with information about her book, Tiny Beautiful Things.
Article in Psychology Today by Jennifer Lea Reynolds with ideas from Dr. Julia Breur
– Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay 

If you liked this article, leave a comment below or share here

Leave a Reply

Advert for Italki - find a teacher and help ideas in english

Italki is a great place to find a teacher for one-to-one online English lessons.

There are over 5,000 English teachers there. It’s not expensive, and if you join from this link and buy $20 of credits, you get $10 free, and I’ll get a small payment from italki.

To go to italki click on the logo or the link above, or click here to find out more.