3 min read

How a Lie Journal Can Help You be More Intellectually Honest With Yourself

are white lies ok

Originally published: July 2018

A month ago I started a Lie Journal. I wanted to track how many “white lies” I told in a month. I decided to start tracking this because of how seriously I take my job of finding and telling the truth as a journalist—and I wanted to see how congruent I was with that standard in my personal life.

Technically, I started the Lie Journal 25 days ago. So the month is not quite over yet. But so far so interesting.

For example: Do you see what I just did there? Once I started paying attention to little untruths in my everyday speech, I immediately started catching myself telling needless exaggerations and convenient fibs, mid-paragraph. Sometimes those clarifications didn’t make a real difference in the stories I was telling—but sometimes they did.

Even cooler: Each day the number of lies I told seemed to decrease. Here’s what I wrote down in the Lie Journal on the first full day:

  • I told the barista at The Bean that I was “good” when he asked how I was doing.

  • I logged into The Bean WIFI as Bob Barker and not my real name.

  • I told my colleague I was around the corner when I was late to get her card back, but I was actually further away (2 blocks).

  • I was honest with people at the breakfast event that I wanted to go (when I normally would have been more gracious and said “It is OK!” and stayed)... but I gave a couple of them the excuse that I was heading to therapy, which was not actually until later.

  • I told the server lady at Bob White Counter that I didn’t want a biscuit because I didn’t want to waste food. But I knew I wasn’t going to eat all the chicken either, and I let her give me extra to replace the biscuit. I lied to myself that I would eat it and it was just about the carbs. But I think I just wanted to accept her kindness. [Update: I ate the rest of the chicken the next day.]

Versus a couple days ago, in which I only caught myself telling one:

  • I told my friend I met with that I already ate, cuz I didn’t want to eat. (Should have just said I am not hungry.)

As you can see, each of these white lies are fairly inconsequential. I guess that’s why we call them that. Some of them may not even count as lies. I was being conservative. Nobody got hurt. (Except maybe me, deep down in my soul.)

Though I don’t often subscribe to Slippery Slope arguments (it’s usually a fallacy), my hypothesis has been that if I get good at catching the little lies, I’ll be less likely to find myself caught in a more consequential lie—in my personal life OR in my work. (White lies breeding grayer and grayer lies, etc.)

But no matter how accurate that hypothesis ends up being, I’ve found it liberating to stop myself when I exaggerate in day to day interactions and stories—and even better, to prevent myself from exaggerating in the first place. Turns out there’s not much harm in just telling the unvarnished truth, even on the little things. And that is a great little anxiety killer.

But an even more pleasant surprise has come out of this exercise.

I’ve decided that some of my white lies are just random conveniences, and many are efforts to spare myself or someone else the discomfort of knowing what’s really going on. But I’ve learned that when I am up front with people about what’s really going on with me, not only do they appreciate the candor, but they often open up themselves. I’ve had some deep conversations already during this exercise that I would not have had if I’d have withheld whatever little thing I might normally have fibbed about.

One of those deep conversations led to a discussion about keeping a daily Gratitude Journal, which I’ve decided is going to be the thing I keep track of next month. It’s going to be my birthday, after all. There’s a lot to be grateful for! Near the top of the list: the ability to learn and grow every year.

I will probably end this month’s Lie Journal by making some decisions about the kinds of things I think it’s okay to withhold something about in order to spare someone a burden. (E.g. telling the barista I’m “good” when I’m having a bad day may actually be okay, if he really is just saying “Hello” and is not actually asking how I am.) I’m working on a bigger writing project that all this ties into, and I’ll be sure to update you on it.

Meantime, I’ve decided I’m going to tell The Bean my real email address. They make good breakfast burritos and give me free WIFI. And besides, it feels like the right thing to do.