Lies, damned lies and Americans

A new report exposes Americans as habitual liars. Is it their fear of giving offence that keeps them from the truth?

The requirement placed upon advertisers to be legal, decent, honest and truthful seems especially onerous given that most of us lie to each other as a matter of routine.

Researchers in the US have discovered that 91 per cent of Americans regularly fail to tell the truth. Some 79 per cent make up false identities when meeting strangers and compound the offence by offering bogus telephone numbers.

Leaving aside the credibility of a survey whose respondents are self-confessed liars, what does this tell us about Americans? (Suppose the 79 per cent who said they made up false identities were lying and in fact always gave their real names, would the other 21 per cent be telling the truth? You can see what a tangled web these researchers wove for themselves. )

The first thing the findings tell us is that Americans don’t like each other very much, and who are we to question that judgment?

It seems when an American meets another American for the first time, he or she instantly resolves never to see the other person again and minimises the risk of a repeat encounter by giving a false name and phone number.

The second thing the research tells us is that America is a land of bogus bonhomie. We British are quite capable of meeting strangers and fibbing to them in an affable sort of way without the need to imply, let alone openly declare, that we would like to see them again. For us it is perfectly natural and acceptable to have a conversation with a stranger without exchanging our real names, never mind making up false ones.

Wanting to keep strangers at bay is, of course, only one of many reasons for lying, as the author of the study indicates. For instance, the demands of competition in business are such that anything goes provided it achieves success.

Much the same principle guided PG Wodehouse’s character Ukridge, who always wore a disguise “as a normal business precaution”. In politics too, lying is the norm and is a natural consequence of the politicians’ assumption of infallibility.

But the everyday lies of ordinary people are of a different order and serve as an important social lubricant. “You look absolutely marvellous darling,” is so much more acceptable than “My God, not that dowdy frock again! And what on earth have you done with your hair?”

A national falsehood league would show significant regional differences, with more grit in the oil the further North one ventured. Yorkshire folk, for example, are notoriously truthful about their fellow humans; they call it plain speaking and count it a virtue.

To the mealy-mouthed Southerner, however, a Yorkshireman’s direct honesty can all too easily sound plain bloody rude. In extreme cases it may come over as less than polite even to other Northerners.

Events at a recent cricket match between Blackall, Co Durham, and Redcar, Yorkshire, vividly illustrate the disruptive potency of the Tyke tongue. There were five overs to go.

Reports of the incident do not refer to a breathless hush, but had there been one it was to be rudely shattered by the wounded cry of a Blackall team supporter, a lady, who burst into tears when a visiting Redcar player, waiting his turn to bat, called her a “fat slag”.

Why he should have spoken thus is unrecorded. Perhaps he was a victim of nerves. But whether it was the tension of the occasion or something the lady said, one thing is clear: the Yorkshireman in him rose to the surface compelling him to speak nothing less than the truth as he saw it.

Events continued to take an unsporting turn when a relative of the abused female, seeing her distress and sensing an affront, rose to his feet and chivalrously head-butted the plain speaker.

“The bloke’s face was a real mess,” said a witness. “But it served him right. Cricket is a game for gentlemen and he shouldn’t have been so rude to the poor lass. She might be a bit overweight but there’s no need to rub it in.”

And that is as perfect a rebuttal of the case for honesty as was ever made. While strict adherence to the truth might compel the assertion that the lady was fat and uncomely, the code of a gentleman subordinates the virtue of candour to the greater good of sparing his listener’s feelings. Force him into a corner and the most that will escape his courteous lips is “she might be a bit overweight”.

It was the Americans’ imperfect understanding of the euphemism’s social function that led to the dreadful creation of political correctness. There is a world of difference between “a bit overweight” and “circumferentially challenged”.

The former concedes a disability might exist but seeks to make so light of it that it counts for nought; the latter is a defiant assertion of victimhood and a demand for special treatment.

Leaving aside the question of whether Yorkshiremen or Americans can ever be gentlemen, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that on this side of the Atlantic we tell a better class of lie. Who would want to live in a country whose people are reduced to exchanging false telephone numbers to avoid giving hurt or offence?

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