You're Only as Good As Your Word

You're Only as Good As Your Word

I say this to my son a lot…

Son, a man is only as good as his word.

One of my favorite bloggers is Sebastian Marshall. He writes a lot about self improvement and entrepreneurship. When you read his writings, you feel a sense of integrity from Sebastian. That’s why when I read one of his recent posts Let’s Be Honest About Lying, Shall We?, I felt a bit let down.

Sebastian writes:

A couple days ago, I told a Nigerian engineer to “Work online. Use freelancing sites. Lie about the country you’re in. […] There’s a big stigma against Nigeria. That’s just reality, and you need to deal with it.”

Most people don’t own up to the fact that they lie, yet almost everyone does so. A lot, actually.

I think that he’s right on his assertion that a lot of people lie. In my own anecdotal experience, I’ve found that most people lie and find white lies acceptable. Because most people do this, does that make it acceptable? [I realize that Sebastian is not arguing this point. I wanted YOU to think about it though.]

Sebastian goes on to point to study that finds that a lot of people lie, and that these lies aren’t evil vicious lies, but pro-social lies.

Sebastian then quotes a comment by Nostradeamons on Hacker News that’s worth posting the whole comment:

Common sense is nothing more or less than tacit knowledge that you learn implicitly through observing your peers within a culture. If there’s nobody in your peer group with that knowledge, that sense won’t be very common.

Here’s an example from the startup world. Imagine that you have this great idea and you’re desperate for funding. You’re approached by a key investor, and they ask you “Is anybody else interested in your startup? Have you been talking to other investors?” Nobody else has expressed interest, and you haven’t been talking to any other investors. How do you respond?

If you spend any amount of time with successful entrepreneurs, the answer is common sense: you lie and say “Oh yes, we’re talking to a bunch of people and everyone’s pretty excited.” This is the answer the investor expects you to give: it shows that you know how to drum up interest in your product from nothing, and if you can’t do that with him, you probably can’t do it with anyone and you’ve just disqualified yourself in his eyes.

But if you grew up with a typical middle-class upbringing, this advice will seem very strange, even evil. Because you’re lying. And more than that, you’re lying to a powerful person about a business deal that directly concerns him. What would your mother think?

It’s even more complicated because there’re specific, unwritten rules about what you can lie about, and nobody ever explains this. If a journalist asks you “Are you working on X?” and you are, you’re perfectly within your rights to lie and flat out say “No.” If you lie about how interested people are in your product, that’s fine, and people even expect that. But if you fudge the numbers in a due diligence audit, you’re guilty of securities fraud and can go to jail for that. It’s an awfully fine tight-rope with no clear guidebook.

Sebastian then writes in regard to the commentary:

Indeed. Pro-social lies (niceties, tact, spreading the credit around, highlighting people’s good points) are not just tolerated, but mandated by society. There’s also a class of lies, especially during adversarial situations, that you’re expected to make. When I’m in a city for only one day, I sure as hell don’t say that to someone selling me something. If they ask if I’m a tourist, I’ll often say “No” or “No, I work here” or “I used to live here” – even if it’s a bit of a stretch (see? I say “even if it’s a bit of a stretch,” not “even if it’s a lie” – nobody wants to own it when they do it, myself included).

Then there’s the “kind of lies we find most detestable are those with a malicious intent of some kind: lies designed to swindle or hoodwink us, lies that will cause us some pain down the road” – that’s the securities fraud type stuff. You don’t want to do that.

Sebastian then codifies lying from a societal perspective:

​1. Expected and demanded in pro-social situations.

​2. Tolerated and understood in adversarial situations.

​3. Despised and punished when done maliciously outside of an adversarial situation.

Phew, that was a bit long.

My take…

Let’s first address lying from #3. It is indeed wrong to lie in an attempt to deceive someone for malicious reasons. I don’t think most would disagree with this.

How about white lies? Where do they fit? Perhaps they belong under pro-social situations? Let’s say that you’re running late to work because you woke up late because you were out partying all night long. You get to work and your boss asks you why you were late - you respond that you got a flat tire. Is that wrong? Does society “demand” (as Sebastian writes) that you do this?

What about if your friend asks you if you like their new haircut? Do you tell them that you do, even if you think that they look like Nick Nolte after he got arrested for his DUI? [Pictured above.]

How about in the case of the Nigerian engineer? Should he lie to potential prospects about being from Nigeria? Sebastian’s response was that he should. Then Sebastian says that after a working relationship has developed, you should reveal the truth. Admittedly, I may be an outlier on this perspective, but I’d consider this wrong. If I were the client, I’d feel that if the person couldn’t be honest about his location then perhaps the stigmas about Nigeria are true: maybe they are all dishonest? At the very least, this thought would be running through my brain.

See, I think that the Nigerian engineer should start coding like a mad man. Build up a repository of projects and make a name for himself. Leave location out of the equation. If asked, be honest about it. Be honest about your realization of the reputation of the country of Nigeria, and that you’re trying to be the one who changes people’s perspective about Nigeria. This engineer would build a lot of credibility by doing such a thing.

How about the case of the entrepreneur seeking investment? Should he lie to the potential investor if asked about other interested investors? I’d say no that he shouldn’t. The entrepreneur should optimistically claim that he’s trying to seek out interested investors. Hell, reframe the situation in a positive way!

“Mr. Investor. We are looking to build a relationship with interested investors. We think that you might be a good fit (Only say this if it’s true) and would be honored if you’d consider this… blah blah blah.”

Naive of me to think? Maybe. But, I believe that we are to live and strive to the highest of standards. If you do this, people will take notice. You’ll earn respect.

In short, I think pro-social lies are wrong, whether they are white lies or not.

How about adversarial situational lies? This is where I do agree with Sebastian. Let’s take the classic proposed case of you living in Nazi Germany. You just happen to be hiding some of your Jewish friends in your basement. Nazis knock on your door and ask if you’re hiding any Jews. You can fully anticipate their intent. How do you respond?

Some would say that it’s intrinsically evil and wrong to lie. That you should be silent, or that you could use wide mental reservation and say something clever like “they are not at home” - implying the Jews’ home. To quote the British: bollocks! In this situation, I think that it’s OK to lie to the Nazis. You are potentially saving the life of your Jewish friends.

OK, how about cases that don’t have as drastic of consequences? Sebastian mentions a scenario where maybe you’re traveling and you’re asked if you’re from around the area. You retort back that you are because you might question your safety if you respond differently. I think this perspective is sound.

Let’s codify whether a lie is morally permissible or not. I borrow this completely from the Catholic Catechism pre 1997 [Catechism changed their wording after 1997, could change the interpreted outcome].

Borrowed from Eric Sammons:

  1. “Speak or act against the truth”: In other words, the words or actions have to be not true.
  2. “In order to lead into error”: A misspoken word or erroneous statement said in ignorance is not a lie.
  3. “Someone who as the right to know the truth”

#3 is the key point in regard to the adversarial situational lies. The Nazis didn’t need to know whether their were Jews in your home or not, you knew their intent. Same thing with a shady stranger who might question you if you travel.

Does this also apply to the interested investor or the Nigerian engineer? I’m sure some of you would argue that it does. I think that in those cases, the questioner could arguably have a right to know.

If you want to read a fascinating exchange on the morality of lying, I’d encourage that you read this post. It’s not his conclusion that is important, a conclusion that I disagree with, it’s the dialogue between the commenters that can help you to determine your moral integrity framework for discerning what you find acceptable to lie about.

In summary, I think that you should avoid lying at most costs. Especially in the pro-social/white lie situation. Challenge yourself to be a better person. People will notice your honesty and you will gain respect. Trust me! :p

You might also enjoy:

  1. Metaphors and Marketing
  2. 51 Hours to Live
  3. Positivity Breeds Positivity

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