Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Moral compass

Where do you stand on the subject of lying?

This is really one for discussion rather than just a blog.

I find that I have a clear idea on what is right and wrong in this area, and I know some people have slight variations on this one way or the other. i think I am saying what I do correctly, but obviously it is selective memory, self justified and confirmation biased, so I can't be sure either way.

Personally, I don't like lying - however, for me, saying something that is actually true but just has some omissions is not actually a lie as such. Some people will consider that unacceptable. Others will be happy to say things that are not quite true. Some people are happy to blatantly lie for their own gain.

Outright stating something that is not true really winds me up and I won't do it. Well, I try not to - it hits my conscience if I do something as simple as telling a kid there is a Tooth Fairy. Of course this is an area some people are more than happy with if it is a white lie with no real consequences and not for some sort of gain in any way. I understand the logic but I would rather say nothing and leave someone else to tell a white lie. Not correcting them is about as far as I will usually go.

Then there is deliberately constructing something that is technically true, but you know damn well that someone will mis-read what you are saying. This is an area I find very close to the line and not that keen on - but just the "OK" side of it. My tolerance of this is very much based on marketing and adverts - where they appear to be allowed to make technically true statements and get away with it. However, my cynical side assumes this to be the case and I always look for what has not been said but could, or should, have been said. Someone says "up to 100% more shine" or something and I immediately hear "anything from 0% to 100%" - I think about what it actually means if what is said is just about technically correct and assume the worse. I suspect that makes me a cynic.

In general I think that in most cases leaving out details that could have some negative impact is probably still just the right side of "OK" - even in business contracts. In business you expect someone to ask the questions, and state what they want. Consumers, on the other hand, have to be hand-held a lot more and you have to say things that seem obvious, even if they are negative, in order to avoid any misunderstandings later. As a result we have a lot of things on our web site spelling out the limitations on some services as well as the benefits. This is "doing the right thing".

Simply leaving out details because they do not matter is clearly "OK", IMHO. You have to be slightly autistic I suspect to worry about not including every single detail and rigorously tell the truth and the whole truth all the time. This is where you get in to the area of  "does this make me look fat?" and the answer "yes, hideous!", which usually loses friends and alienates people...

Of course there are some grey areas where people think what they are saying is true. If you really believe it, then that is not really lying - I think generally you have to know you are saying something wrong to be lying. Somewhere in between you get the situation with people saying what they do not know is true or not, but could be, so they will say it anyway because they don't know it is wrong for sure (i.e. bullshit). This is the area where I start accusing our favourite telco of lying though. I would rather people said they do not know than make stuff up.

So, am I odd?
(OK, I know I am odd, but in this particular matter?)


  1. If you are odd, then so am I. I can't lie to save my life, I go bright red, I find it 'wrong' to say or type something I know to be wrong, so I don't. I has put me in a pickle now and again, 'Yes you do look fat in that' but hey if no one else says it someone else is thinking it. Give me 100% the truth and let me make my own decision, if there is doubt in the statement tell me, if your not sure tell me, let the persone being impacted (me) decide. One of the many reasons I like AAISP is the no BS 100% straight talking owner and staff....


  2. No bullshit is a big thing with us - that is just wrong. Thanks for the comments.

  3. Yes you are odd, but a lot of your customers come to you and stay because of it! :-)

    IMHO, lying is basically wrong. If it's designed to produce a benefit to the liar, then it's very wrong! If it's to protect the feelings of another, then it's a lot more justifiable ("Does my bum look fat in this?", "Is there a Father Christmas?" etc).
    I once had someone working for me who turned out to be a habitual liar - he would lie about something that was so obvious to everyone that he couldn't possibly expect anyone to believe him, but he did it anyway. He didn't last long, luckily, because it's impossible to work with someone like that.
    Lying in advertising seems to be increasingly accepted, and I think this is a Bad Thing. Using meaningless phrases like "up to 100% faster" should be outlawed, because it is using weasly phrases that look like they mean something that they don't (and leads to people complaining that they aren't getting "the improvement they are paying for") so I think it counts as misleading to Joe Public, even though people like you and I who are trained in logic know that "up to" means <= and has no lower limit!
    So my attitude is that out-and-out lying is wrong and should be punished, and advertising designed to mislead (it isn't all, is it???) should be stopped.

    Keep it honest, RevK, it's why I, for one, am here! :-)


  4. I think good technical people are generally, (and be warned, a huge generalisation coming here) due to the training of the discipline, less comfortable with lying. They prefer to be "correct" rather than "incorrect". Also "incorrect" rarely works in a technical sense, so why would it in a social context?
    It's jarring when something is wrong, and we have an inner voice that says "fix it!" :)

    (this is also why technical people are not sales people) :)

  5. There's also telling something quite truthful, knowing that your target audience will misunderstand that to mean something else. Like "Britains fastest wireless broadband" - the broadband is the same speed as every other ISP but it comes with a router that offers a faster wireless connection that very few PCs can take advantage of and won't make the broadband any faster anyway.

  6. @Dan Quite

    I'm quite happy to tell a customer If I think the solution that's being proposed has a limitation they might run into. I'm sure our sales team hate me for it.

  7. Is it lying when you're telling the honest technical truth and you *know* that the person you are speaking to won't understand it and, because of that, will come away with a completely different impression of how things are?

    "Lying" becomes so much more difficult to both "do" and "not do" when you start talking to someone with a different background, training or culture. Is it up to the speaker to compensate for that or is it up to the listener to be modest?

    I guess it comes down to a social version of the Robustness Principle "Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send." --

    Are analogies, similes and metaphors lies? Most people would say not because they're culturally understood to have a certain scope and falseness.
    How do you explain something technical to a non-technical person? Normally with omissions and abstractions. If, as a listener, you don't understand those abstractions, but repeat them to someone else anyway, then that's bullshit. As a speaker, how much responsibility do you have to choose the correct abstractions that are appropriate for the listener? How much scope is there to abuse that?