When Are Little White Lies Okay?

My friends at “Psychology Today” completed a survey that claims ninety-five percent of Americans cannot go an entire week without telling a lie. That result strikes me as harsh, but let’s review the definition of a lie.


The simplest explanation I found is “to not tell the truth.” The Bible confirms this definition in Exodus 20:16, number nine of the ten commandments. Specifically, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (English Standard Version Bible, 2001. ESV Online, https://esv.literalword.com). 


If we go by Merriam-Webster and the Good Book, then most of us do fall within that ninety-five percent. Because here in the South (I can’t speak for the North—maybe that’s where the five percent reside), we toss around our fair share of what we like to call “little white lies”.


The definition of “little white lie” varies of course, but the first documented explanation was in 1741. “The Gentleman’s Magazine,” a British publication, tells us, “A white lie is that which is not intended to injure anybody in his fortune, interest, or reputation, but only to gratify a garrulous disposition and the itch of amusing people by telling them wonderful stories.” 


Huh? Let’s skip down in the “Psychology Today” article a bit…oh, here we go. “People characterize white lies as nothing more than harmless fibs told to enhance stories.” Oh, that makes more sense! 


The addition of the adjective “white” came about to distinguish a lie from other more harmful ones. The color white was often associated with purity and goodness, while black was connected to darkness and evil. From the beginning, the term “little white lie” has carried the identity of a smaller or lesser lie that was free from the moral burden and retribution of “real” lies.


So little white lies are harmless, right? Possibly. Today we use white lies to censor the truth, conceal information we consider harmful. In fact, people who tell the complete and honest truth are labeled socially awkward, hurtful, or just plain mean. When Aunt Faye asks if that’s the best potato salad you’ve ever tasted, should you be honest? Should you inform your sweet aunt that the potato salad at Buc-ee’s is so much better, and give her the address to the closest location? 


Sometimes it is better to avoid the harsh truth and spare feelings. We love Aunt Faye, and we’ll keep eating her potato salad, even though everyone in the South knows you use mustard instead of mayonnaise…ah, but that’s a subject for another article. Or maybe we’ll ask our dear aunt to bring baked beans next time.


In my humble opinion it’s okay to tell little white lies, but we should treat them like the good china—pull them out only for special occasions and use them with care.


By the way, I looked up the definition of garrulous and discovered it means “tiresomely talkative.” I’m going to keep that cool word in my back pocket for later conversation. But first I’ll need to review how to pronounce it.


Speaking of pockets, little white lies can be marriage savers. The next time I ask John, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” he’s going to reach deep into his pockets and pull out a little white lie. And I love him for that.


Jann Goar Franklin graduated Russellville High School in 1989. You can reach her at jann@jannfranklin.com