Are White Lies Ever Okay?

Should I Be Telling the Truth No Matter What?

You've probably heard the old saying "honesty is the best policy". But is there ever a time when you don't have to tell the whole truth? Take a look at this message I received recently:

"I never want to lie, but there are times when I wonder if telling white lies is ever okay. What if someone cooks a meal for me, and they ask what I think, but I don't like it? Isn’t it rude to criticize a complimentary meal? What if something a friend does is bothering me? Wouldn't being totally honest ruin the friendship? I'm starting to wonder if honesty is always the answer, especially when it seems like such an uncomfortable burden."

I appreciate this person for asking a tough question. Maybe you can relate. Perhaps you feel pressure not to tell "the whole truth", or to even be a bit dishonest about how you feel, to keep things from getting too tense? I understand that feeling, and we've all been there. Sometimes we don't even realize we're telling a white lie simply because we're more focused on preserving someone else's feelings. That's okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad friend. But like anything else, there are pros and cons.

I can remember telling a white lie to a friend. I didn't love a gift they gave me and tried to act like I did. But the outcome was more uncomfortable than the discomfort I was trying to avoid. My friend could tell I wasn't being sincere, and that led to a whole new conflict that could have been avoided.

When she noticed I wasn’t satisfied with the gift, we ended up debating whether or not she knew me well enough. She was hurt by that discussion, and eventually told me I should have just been honest to begin with. She was right, of course. But it's often not easy to see things clearly in the moment when our emotions are running high.

Though my advice to someone I care about would always be to strive to tell the truth, I know we’re all human. No one is perfect. Like I just mentioned, I’ve been there myself! So, what can you do in this situation? If you’re unsure about how to move forward with a tough conversation, I think it's best to consider the outcomes of both withholding and telling the truth. Here are some things I've learned over the years about telling white lies. I hope they can help you find a way to move forward with a clear conscience.

Not Telling Someone the Truth Could Harm Them

It’s human nature to want to avoid conflict with people we care about, especially if it seems like a small thing that could be avoided if we didn't say how we really felt. But, as happened with my friend and me, choosing to tell a white lie to protect someone's feelings might actually hurt them instead.

Think of it this way, your friends know you well. So, they can probably tell if you're dissatisfied or troubled anyway. Beyond hurting their feelings and keeping them from having a more meaningful relationship with you, hiding the truth may actually be keeping your loved one from learning and growing.

For example, let's say you have a friend who only talks about their problems, and you hardly get a chance to confide in them. You have a great time together, but when you really need someone to talk to, they end up taking over those conversations with their own issues. If you truly care about this friend and want to continue the friendship, it's essential that you let them know it bothers you when you feel you're there for them during their troubles, but they aren't there for you the way you need them to be.

Of course, you’ll want to try your best to be sensitive to how they will receive this news, but typically the sooner you can have this conversation, the better. Let them know you're saying this out of respect and love for the friendship and you know that if you have these tough conversations now, you can be friends for years to come. Hopefully then they will see that you’re only saying what you mean in honor of your relationship.

This Could Become a Toxic Pattern

Lies, even white lies, have to be maintained in order to "work". That means that what started as one "little white lie" to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or confrontation, could become a series of lies that you have to keep up over a period of time.

Even if you feel like you've never let on, you're not being truthful, odds are good your friend, family member, or significant other will figure it out. The more white lies you tell, the harder it will become to pretend you're okay, or to keep track of all the half-truths you've told along the way. You may find it much more freeing to have one slightly uncomfortable conversation when something happens, than to have one very uncomfortable conversation later, when lots of "little white lies" have piled up to become a bigger problem. Your friend, family member, or partner could also interpret the lies as disrespectful or even feel they can't trust you as much. Isn't telling the truth in the moment easier than all of these possible outcomes? You can avoid getting into this toxic relationship pattern by reminding yourself that it may not feel great in the moment to tell the truth, but you'll feel a lot less bogged down later by the pressure of keeping your feelings hidden.

You Can Be Honest and Still Be Sensitive

One of the things that have helped me to avoid telling white lies to people I care about is to remember that, while honesty strengthens a relationship, "brutal honesty" isn't necessary. You can be honest with people you care about, and still protect your relationship, and their feelings, from unnecessary harm.

For example, instead of replying "I'm sick of how you always talk about yourself in our conversations" when a friend asks what's bothering you, you could say "I have some stuff on my mind I've been wanting to talk about, and I'm bummed I haven't felt like I can talk about those things with you."

This is honest, it puts your feelings out there, but it's neither overtly unkind nor unproductive to the conversation. If you're wondering how to phrase something, I find it helps to be:

  • Clear: Tell them what the issue is that you have a problem with or dislike: “I didn’t enjoy that restaurant we went to the other day as much as I’d hoped.”
  • Kind: Frame it in terms of your feelings, without attacking them or being needlessly harsh: “I’d feel better going somewhere less expensive next time, since I need to save money.”
  • Patient: Remember that this may be hard for your loved one to hear. Give them time to process and be prepared for the possibility that they could be uncomfortable or upset: “I know it’s one of your favorite places. I’m sorry if this is uncomfortable to hear.”
  • Caring: Express that you care about them as part of this conversation: “What’s most important to me is us spending quality time together. I think we’ll have a great time, even if we go somewhere else next time.”

Telling the Truth Builds Trust

If white lies get found out by people we care about, they may find it more difficult to trust us moving forward. But telling the truth builds trust. It shows that,

  • You and your friend trust each other to be truthful, and to be kind when you tell the truth
  • You can be trusted to tell each other what's most helpful, rather than what's the easiest or most comfortable
  • Your friendship is strong enough to get through uncomfortable conversations that have to happen from time to time

If you're worried about white lies you've told someone you care about, I understand. But if you're burdened with guilt or shame, telling your loved one could help free you from that. They may be upset, but they love you. Together, you can work on rebuilding trust, gentle honesty, and forgiveness.

When I'm having trouble forgiving myself, or I’m worried that a loved one will never forgive me, it helps me to remember that God forgives me of everything. If you're open to thinking about God, I hope it comforts you to know that He forgives you for the times you've struggled to be honest. He doesn't expect you to be perfect, and He loves you no matter what.

Honesty Helps You Be True to Yourself

One of the most important things to remember is that our loved ones are never the only ones impacted when we don’t tell the whole truth. Telling white lies eventually wears on us. In your heart of hearts, you may feel guilt and shame about not being totally upfront with someone, or you may always be worried they’re going to figure out you weren’t totally honest.

Being upfront and clear about your feelings means you’re being true to yourself and your conscience. It frees you from the burden of having to hide part of how you feel, and it creates room for growth in your relationships.

But even if you want to avoid telling white lies to your loved ones, it’s not always easy. Sometimes, you might need extra support and guidance to know how to say what you really think, or how you really feel, without causing unnecessary harm or friction.

Lying hurts because it takes us into a vicious cycle of mistrust. Read my blog on how lying hurts you for more help with lying. Remember, once you tell a lie, you usually have to lie again to cover up the first lie.

Dawson McAllister
Dawson McAllister, also known as America's youth pastor, was an author, radio host, speaker, and founder of TheHopeLine. McAllister attended Bethel College in Minnesota for undergraduate work where he graduated in 1968, began graduate studies at Talbot School of Theology in California, and received an honorary doctorate from Biola University.
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