Unraveling the secrets of lying 

Wednesday February 26, 2020                         By: Dr Laila Abdel Aal Alghalban

photo credit Jim Pruitt

When was the last time you lied?! I can see many readers raising eyebrows, pushing forward lips and shrugging shoulders. The answer would be mostly “Can’t remember.” Some would deny that they even lie that much and call themselves bad liars. Others would be much more frank and confess that they cannot even remember because lying is such a situational reaction they may practice in their daily lives. Lying is part of who we are as humans, according to neurologists, anthropologists, philosophers and psychologists. We unstoppably tug the truth daily, between 20 and 200 times. The potential for lying is in the design of the human language itself. What are the unique properties of the human language that make lying in its different forms possible? And ironically, why do we lie about lying? 

It’s a big lie

Why do we lie? A puzzling question. Some psychologists say that we practice lying as early as six months old; newly-born babies cry not for being hungry but for more attention. People lie as they breath, unconsciously and not necessarily for evil reasons. They lie to avoid punishment, evade imminent danger, reap personal gains, entertain others, beautify self-image, etc. one of the most common things people lie about is their age; the elderly are desperate to look younger for employability and finding partners. Paradoxically, teenagers lie to look older! Interestingly, in order to land a job, sometimes you need to excel in lying, to be a fantastic liar; think about actors, sales persons, public relations personnel, and, of course, politicians.

Linguistic etiquette

I’ m fine, I’m on my way, I was sick, I forgot, you look great, I got it, I ‘m about to finish, nice to see you, see you later, and I ‘ll do are among the 40 lies everyone tells daily, experts say. Some of which people call white lies, compliments or linguistic etiquette. Others may involve deliberate deception. Our daily speech teems with such clichés. The problem is that lying involves a sense of guilt, people might end up feeling dehumanized; they would behave unethically, in vibrant clash with the values moral creatures should be upholding. This is why we lie about lying!

Amazing fun makers

Let’s look on other sides of the story. It would be amazing when we meet lovely people who are the life of any company or meeting. You would be definitely lucky to have someone landing jokes, a fun maker whose laughter generator and lying mill never stops; people gravitate to them although they know that they add a lot of lies to season the meal. 

The toxic side of lying 

Lying may turn into a gloomy toxic weapon for narcissists who usually wear masks when they go into a relation, until they drag, usually, loving, sensitive partners. Like crocodiles they keep suffocating partners. Narcissists never stop lying and are usually so selfish and arrogant that they deny to others, the right to truth.

The miraculous human language

People may lie via nonlinguistic tools like coughing to pretend that they are not okay and justify showing up late to work. Yet, it is language, the amazing tool at our disposal, that helps humans lie and sometimes lie beautifully. Does this mean that we are the only liars on the planet? Of course not! But we know little about that, since studying non-human communication is still in its infancy. 

Linguistics gives us an interesting interpretation. Human language is designed to allow us to speak beyond the here and now. It is one of the unique characteristics that set human language apart from non-human communication systems. We can talk about the past, the present and the future. We can demolish the borders that keep us away from our past; language helps us relive it when we talk or write. Language is always there by us. So far, we have not got enough evidence that there are species other than us who are gifted the ability to tell stories, to pass knowledge and experience to following generations. Were fish is endowed with the ability to record knowledge, tell stories to younger fish about how to avoid baits or how to live away from dangers, would fishing be that easy. Only humans write history and are aware of their past, as far as we know. Likewise, we are exceptionally time-sensitive creatures and languages allow us to describe meticulously what we had done, did, have done, do, are doing, will do, will be doing, will have done, etc. Time reference in all languages cater for the best needs of people.

The language faculty we are born with incredibly allows us to tear down the fabric of place. You can talk about places you haven’t been to and others that never exist except in our heads. We can, using the poetic or literary license, unlock our wild and crazy imagination and grow masterpieces in the gardens of literary Eden for generations to come to experience the same joy, catharsis, liberation and immense enlightenment literature grants us. Another characteristic of language is creativity, we do not invent a lot vocabulary during our lifetime nor do we change grammar profoundly, but we can produce an endless number of sentences, many of which are new. Furthermore, thanks to stimulus-freedom, another incredible characteristic of human language that we can make responses free from the situational stimulus. We can talk about unreal or imaginative things. But are writers liars?

Beautiful lying

Neil Gaiman gives the best and most compelling answer I have ever thought of. “Writers are liars, my dear, surely you know that by now? And yet, things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” We love literature and entertainment. Let me take storytelling which involves a lot of lying as an example We love stories. This is how we connect to the world and understand it. Telling is the best way to make things linger in our memories. Our episodic memories work this way. Telling allows us to live so many lives, some of them we dread and others we adore.

Finally, honesty will remain the best policy, the safe haven that shelters us when our weakness consumes us. Stick to honesty!

Dr Laila Abdel Aal Alghalban is Professor of Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, Kafr Elsheikh University

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