Back when I was a teenager, I wanted to be an artist. Not that I had any particular talent, I just wanted to be special. I thought it would be romantic to have a soul on fire and to modestly accept the praises of all those admirers. In darker moments (and teenagers specialize in darker moments), I imagined myself as one whose true genius was unrecognized until after I was dead.
Alas, over the years I’ve tried myself in several artistic fields, discovering only a modest amount of talent in any of them. I am, if a bit wistfully, reconciled to my mediocrity. Genius, I’ve noticed, is pretty unlivable.
There is one field, though, where I’ve become not merely reconciled, but actually quite happy at my solid lack of talent: The Fine Art of Lying.
This is not to say that I didn’t make a fairly solid effort to master the art, at least in my early years. But I failed.
I’ve studied the question and decided that the fundamental problem was that I could never quite forget I was lying…and it showed. Self-deception can be a useful tool, but in this area, anyway, I was incurably lousy at it.
Still, I thought I’d give you the benefit of my research.
It seems to me there are four basic versions of lying, which require ever increasing levels of skill to master.
First, you can simply tell a story that is false from beginning to end. This one is the favorite of teenagers explaining why they didn’t come home on time. Staring nervously into the skeptical eyes of one’s parents, most of us fell into the besetting sin of bad lying: over-elaboration. If there was ever a place where the KISS rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies, it’s here. And unless you are a professional scam artist, keeping all those details consistent soon becomes nearly impossible.
This kind of lie has two sub-categories. First, there’s the Bluff.
Bluffing is one of the many areas of lying that has somehow become respectable. Under the caveat emptor rule, if someone successfully bluffs you, more power to them, particularly at poker.
The second sub-category is the Lapse of Memory ploy. Practiced most conspicuously by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, it works far better on the witness stand than it does in front of your spouse. Still, you can try: When challenged about anything embarrassing, simply declare that you don’t remember.
And good luck.
The second major method of lying is to tell the truth…mostly. You only lie about the bad part. This gives you lots fewer details to keep straight and is probably the most successful for most of us.
This one, too, has a semi-respectable sub-category. It is the preferred method for resumes and job interviews, where a bit of honing is more or less assumed. In the area of catch-ability, just remember that omission is lots better than commission. Leaving something out of your resume is much harder to nab than putting something extra in.
The next type of lying is the favorite of politicians. Here you tell the absolute truth, then lie about what it means. For instance, prior to the last election, both Senator Obama and Senator McCain voted against Iraq war funding bills, one because a bill didn’t contain a withdrawal deadline, and the other because a bill did. In neither case was the vote anything more than political theater.
So, declared some good folks during the election, Senator ______ (fill in the blank) voted to cut off funding for our troops in the field!
For reasons that completely elude me, lying by politicians is another region where, if it is not quite respectable, has at least become part of our cultural assumptions. In the above case, lots of folks don’t even consider this quite lying. Granted, the goal is to convey a false impression to the listener, which is the goal of all lying, but since the statements themselves are narrowly true, they think the package is not exactly a lie.
The final method of lying, and by far the most skillful, is this: Tell the absolute truth in every detail, but do it in such a way that your listener doesn’t believe you and decides the opposite must be true.
There are lots of historical examples of engineered disbelief, but they would take too long to tell. So, instead, imagine you are playing Texas Hold-Em poker. From the two cards in your hand and the ones face-up on the table, you know you’ve won. The question is, how much?
Your opponent is deciding how much to bet. You tell your opponent that it’s a lock and he shouldn’t take the risk. He stares right into you eyes, trying to read you. At just the right moment, you drop your eyes down to your cards. Sure that you’re lying, he goes all-in, pushing all his chips into the pot. You shake your head with regret, generously sorry he didn’t believe you.
Then you go home with all the money.