Yesterday I got a text from a friend asking whether I had a copy of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I do. ‘I thought you probably would,’ he replied. ‘My brother-in-law gave me a copy for Christmas and he was so pleased to have chosen it I didn’t have the heart to tell him I already had it.’
My family does not understand these social mores. On Christmas Day the Impster rips open a present to discover a book she already has. Her face falls.
‘Well I've already got that one,’ she says. ‘We must tell Aunty Katy and she can get me something else.’
Tricky lesson number one: always tell the truth, but not necessarily at Christmas.
K and I discuss and differ.
Him: Lying is never right.
Me: Of course it's the right thing to do if it spares somebody's feelings. It’s called diplomacy and basic good manners.
Him: There’s never any need to tell a white lie. Anyway, who are you lying to? Either you're with a friend who should want to know the truth, or you’re with people who aren't your friends so it doesn't matter if you tell them the truth. In any case, people almost never ask for a direct opinion.
(Just shows he doesn’t work in publishing. I’m paid to say what I think of people’s writing every day. Perhaps that explains why I’m so preoccupied with the problem of kind rejections. Bat them away with enough force that they’ll never come back, but so softly they don’t feel the blow.)
Me: What about work colleagues?
Him: They can know the truth.
Me: And your boss?
Him: Definitely, that's what he's paying me for.
(Here’s a man who has never worried about his employment. For a heartbeat I am proud. Then somewhat nervous.)
Me: What about your mother's friends then?
Him: Avoid talking to them! You don't want to put yourself in a difficult situation, now do you?
He is direct in manner but with a tendency to skirt around tricky issues. Yes, K – like many men - has perfected the art of the tactful omission. I cottoned onto this about twelve years ago with the result that these days I’m more interested in what I’m not being told. So generally, it doesn’t work out quite as well for him as it used to.
But it does beg the question: what is the difference between telling only part of the truth and telling a white lie? If someone gives you a present you already have and you say, ‘How thoughtfully chosen,’ is this a white lie? It’s partly true, but what you really mean is that they’ve thought about it and have got it so right it’s wrong.
I believe in white lies, as much as white Christmases. As if proof of their value were needed, a friend gave the Impster a coat. It was a bit small. She is a very good friend, and the words of my beloved were still ringing in my ears. So I told her the truth and said that we loved it, but if she still had the receipt the next size would get more wear. She didn’t have the receipt and instead bought another coat. I now feel like the biggest ingrate the world has ever seen. I should have had enough heart for a little white lie, or at least to tactfully omit the truth.