Monday, February 22, 2010

Two Truths and a Lie: A Truth about a Lie

I am not a very good liar. Sure, I can keep a secret, but I am a terrible liar.

When I was a kid, I lied for attention. I told stories about witnessing bad guys commit crimes or flowers that granted wishes. I made up stories, and as I grew up, those kinds of lies turned into fiction and poetry.

As a teenager, I lied to get out of trouble. I didn’t know who broke the picture frame, or I had no idea that I had gotten home so late past curfew. It never worked.

So, as an adult, I rarely lied to begin with. When I did, it was for the sake of someone else, to save them the embarrassment, or to play along with a game. But even then, I couldn't hold a straight face, and I utterly failed at games like "Two Truths and a Lie." I just didn’t lie for myself anymore; at least, that's what I told myself.

Once, in college, several classmates of mine were discussing immigration and border control. These classmates were well educated, but what began as a political debate quickly turned into an outright attack on immigrants. Annoyed and insulted, I interrupted their conversation and self-righteously told them, “You know, my dad immigrated here to start a new life.”

Oh, how the backpedaling began: “We didn’t mean people like you! No, we meant those other, illegal aliens.”

It was a total lie. While it was true that my great-grandfather immigrated here from Italy, and I have cousins in Puerto Rico, my dad was born in America—and wasn’t I being just as awful by creating this false history of a father who risked his life to travel across Latin America to start a new life for his children? I appropriated the story of a man I knew to teach a lesson I wasn’t qualified to teach, and I felt awful.

But they believed me.

I let it go on for a little while until I couldn’t listen to the backpedaling anymore, and I confessed that my family was Italian-American, but three generations ago, they were immigrants, too, and people hated them for it then. I thought they might have seen the point I was trying to make, but there was no moment of inspiration, no epiphany, no magical, after-school-special moment: my classmates were pissed.

One of the girls didn’t speak to me for an entire day, which doesn’t sound like much, but she was my roommate at the time, too. Later, she would pull this story up as an example as to why I was a terrible friend to her. She remembers it because she was embarrassed; I remember it because I felt awful for the lie.

I can forgive a lie, but I do my best not to tell them. Even with the best intentions--or the most misguided ones--lies won’t solve anything. I wanted to teach my classmates a lesson. Instead, I looked like an idiot, and they didn’t learn anything.

It applies to PR, too. You might have your client’s best interests in mind, but the whitest of white lies still isn’t a solution. Eventually, the truth will come out, and regardless to what that truth is, people will wonder why you lied in the first place.

So maybe it’s for the best that I’m not a very good liar. Not telling the truth just isn’t an option in PR, and it shouldn’t be.

That all said, I am a little curious: What is the worst (or best) lie you ever told? Anonymous comments are turned on, so keep your real name a secret of you'd like, but tell me your untruth.

[In the spirit of truths and lies, here's some full disclosure for you: This post is for the Athenos Two Truths and a Lie Party in Atlanta, where they're giving away lots of cool stuff, including a free trip to South Beach! I'm going, so if you're local and thinking about attending, RSVP here.]

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