Wright Team | April 22, 2021

Is it Ever Okay to Tell “White Lies”?

The truth will always set us free and help us live authentically. We should always tell the truth, even hard truths. We should all be big believers in the truth.

Is it ever okay to tell white lies? It's essential to be as truthful as possible, but here's how to navigate these tricky waters.

Inevitably, when we discuss telling the truth—and especially difficult truths—the question of little white lies always comes up. Is it ever alright to tell white lies?

When someone asks, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” or “Did you like my Jell-O salad?” or even, “Do you like my new girlfriend?” How can we be honest? Does it really matter? How do we navigate these delicate situations?

Why Do We Lie?

So is lying ever okay? When can we get away with telling a little white lie?

Most of us don’t like to hurt others. We may even cringe and find it painful to tell people hard truths (and the hard-to-hear truths). No one wants to say to a friend they don’t like their outfit, homecooked meal, or significant other. Is it alright to fudge the truth a little when we’re asked these challenging questions? When is it better to tell a white lie?

On one level, the answer is never. A lie is a lie is a lie. In a world where so many people navigate murky waters, the truth is like a shield and a superpower. When we free ourselves from the need to “lie” or put on a false front to others, we shift to align with our most authentic, true self.

So many of us, especially women, navigate the world by feigning interest, acting concerned, and trying to please others. Studies found that women tend to be less likely to lie when the stakes are high but are more likely to tell white lies or “altruistic” lies when it means pleasing others.

We may lie on first dates under the guise of “putting our best foot forward.” We may hold back when something bothers us, at the risk of offending others or believing we don’t matter or it’s not convenient to address our needs. We may lie to a friend because we think it’s what she wants to hear, and we want to make her feel good. We might even be so used to telling little lies that we don’t even catch ourselves doing it.

People mainly tell white lies out of the idea that they’re being sensitive to the feelings of others, but it may often be to protect ourselves.

We may tell a white lie like “I don’t mind running that errand for you” when we really do mind, but we don’t want to rock the boat. We lie because we don’t want to face conflict or upset someone by sharing the truth. But by doing so, we’re not authentic; we’re holding back our feelings.

When we realize the importance of operating in truth, it’s a power change that can boost our careers, friendships, and even our love life. We become authentic, honest, and we start to get exactly what we want because we’re truthful about it. The truth is powerful and valuable. Whenever possible, we should find a way to orient our path toward the most truth possible.

Should We EVER Tell a White Lie?

Reflecting on the question of “should we ever tell a white lie,” we may wonder about what to do when the truth is extremely hurtful in some way. For example, when telling a harsh truth is needlessly damaging, unsolicited, or we’re hurting someone in a way where they’re very vulnerable. In some instances, we may need to soften our approach. In one study, “white lies” were defined as trivial, non-malevolent, and partly grounded in truth. So are they really harmless?

Now, the idea of softening the truth isn’t giving license to telling little white lies every time we face a situation where we’re uncomfortable—not at all! Those times are when it’s even more important to lean into the truth. Even if we are in a situation where the truth may hurt or sting, it’s essential to face it head-on. Our discomfort with the truth may feel terrible, but we can learn a lot by exploring that uneasiness and going for it anyway.

It’s not about telling white lies. It’s about still telling the truth but thinking it through tactfully. In our approach, if the truth will have a tremendous negative impact, we may need to approach it with sensitivity.

Aim to always be as honest as possible but attune to the feelings of others. For example, suppose someone has a deep emotional wound or is particularly vulnerable to a particular topic. In that case, we may want to approach it carefully, gently, and from a position of concern rather than poking the wound and hurting them further. We can even express and acknowledge that we realize it’s a sensitive topic for them by saying something like, “I know this is a difficult area to talk about, but as your friend, I want always to be honest with you.” These cases are very rare, but they will occasionally come up in our lives, and sometimes the ability to tell it like it is, elevates us from being friends to being allies.

In all cases, we should side with the truth.

Why It’s Better to Tell the Truth

In most situations, 99.9% of the time, honesty is the best policy. Even if we feel like certain truths are difficult or complicated.

But why do we avoid the truth? Why do we struggle with honesty? Terms like “brutally” honest, spring to mind. We’ve trained ourselves that sometimes honesty is hurtful and means being critical and mean. We all yearn for others to notice us, to like us, and accept us. We may fear that our real selves won’t measure up or that expressing our feelings might hurt someone else.

So many of us have been trained to be extra careful with each other. We tiptoe around, not saying what we really need or want from others. We may think we’re protecting them, but often, we’re really trying to protect ourselves from rejection, from hurt, or from finding out that someone doesn’t like what we’ve said.

The reality is that most people we encounter are highly resilient. Most of us can handle the truth and even appreciate hearing it. Better still, we face many situations where having the courage to speak the truth will actually result in a greater outcome for all involved.

Take telling a hard truth at work, for example. If we see a fatal flaw in a coworker or boss’s strategic plan but don’t speak up, not only are we disempowering ourselves, but we’re doing a disservice to the company that could end up costing them significantly in the long run. It might feel uncomfortable and even frightening to tell the truth in the board room, especially when we know it could make someone feel angry or result in backlash. It’s hard to critique someone else’s hard work.

Yet, when we bite our tongues and let the project go out the door with our stamp of approval, we’re equally responsible for the inevitable failure. Look at those who have been brave enough to blow the whistle when it means saving lives. It can be painful and result in a lot of fallout, but it may ultimately protect people. Isn’t it better to tell the truth in a board meeting and head off the problem before it becomes too big to fix or someone is hurt?

Airplanes have crashed, scandals have erupted, and patients have died because people were afraid to speak the truth. While it might be intimidating to tell a surgeon he made a mistake, the benefits of the truth far outweigh any bruising sustained to his ego. The truth requires bravery, but it’s worth the risk of upsetting someone.

On a smaller, day-to-day level, telling the truth still requires bravery, but the payoff is worth the effort. The truth will bring us closer and boost our relationships with others. We all want that friend who will be real with us—who will tell us the harsh truths. We can trust what they say, and we believe in their authenticity.  They won’t let us “get away” with lying to ourselves or others, and as a result, their praise and compliments resonate more strongly too.

Now there might not be a kind way to answer, “Do these pants make my butt look bad?” But most pals would appreciate knowing the truth from us before they walk out the door. There are nicer ways that we could say it, like, “I think those blue pants are more flattering on you.” In choosing a gentler approach, we’re not telling a white lie but rather sticking to the truth in a less hurtful way. The results and the message are still the same, and our friend will appreciate our candor.

We all need people in our lives who will be unflinchingly honest with us. We can and should be that person for others as well. If we’re struggling to tell someone a “harsh” truth, we should explore why we’re concerned about being honest with them. Are we trying to protect others, or are we just trying to protect ourselves from feeling awkward?

The truth is freeing. When we move toward operating in 100% truth, we are becoming our most authentic and honest selves—something that’s good for everyone.

For more on unlocking your full potential, please explore our courses on Wright Now. You’ll find excellent resources to help you live with more truth, light, and purpose.

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.