Dispatches: Lying Well

Steve Finch has finally gotten around to filing another report. He asked that this one be filed under: “Is every lie a deception?”

HOLLYWOOD — In a town made famous for the lies it tells to both itself and the world, this reporter found something quite expected: a class about lying well. The surprise wasn’t finding a class which aimed to teach students how to lie, but the way it taught to do it.

Joanna Saltin had nurtured quite an interest in “radical honesty”–the ethic of never telling a lie no matter how minor or face-saving–before she broke away from her mentor, moved to Hollywood, and decided to teach Californians the secret to lying well.

Ms. Saltin makes a quick and careful distinction between what she called “lying well” and “lying successfully.” As you may expect, lying successfully is when you convince people to believe an untrue story.

Lying well is very different, as she explains: “To lie well, you must alway remember one simple and important point: Everyone must know that you are lying. Better still, someone good at lying well will be able to avoid an embarrassing answer because they lie so well.”

She is absolutely clear, the secret to lying well is to come up with an answer that is both funny and outrageous. If asked where she’s been, she says that “Oh, I was shopping…” is among the worst possible lies. She says that the lie must be so outrageous as to not have any possibility of being true. Rather than suggesting traffic as cover for embarrassing tardiness, Satlin suggests that she was engrossed by the architectural details of the Great Wall of China.

Many proponents of radical honesty–who won’t lie about their view–see Satlin as a turncoat who couldn’t stand the difficulty of radical honesty. She has, they claim, purported to take the ethical integrity of the honesty movement and use it for lies. “It doesn’t matter if a lie is successful or not,” Mr. Diller, a psychologist, suggested, “it’s still a lie.”

Ms. Satlin, well-acquainted with these criticisms, offered a different answer. “What lying well does,” she contended, “is prevent lies. Because the lies I champion are always transparently false, the deception that’s absent in radical honesty also goes missing when someone is lying well.”

And fleeing deception, it turns out, was the reason Ms. Satlin found radical honesty so interesting in the first place. Her father, who she called a “chronic philanderer,” managed to hide his infidelity from her mother with lies of working late. When she discovered the truth, Satlin, who had been especially close with her father, was devastated. From that day forward she pledged never to tell a lie.

With time, that view softened to allow for the transparently fraudulent lies she currently champions. Though she seems to sincerely believe in the usefulness of “lying well,” there’s one question Ms. Satlin had trouble answering: if her father had been regularly admiring the Great Wall rather than “working late,” would his infidelity have hurt any less?

Confronted with such a question, Satlin reverted back to her training in radical honesty, “I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know.”


One response to “Dispatches: Lying Well”

  1. Very interesting. Take into account that the woman had a life-changing event that led her to “radical honesty” and empathy with her comes as second-nature. The story was very understated and I think that is why I like it.