Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Lying mofo liars and the lovers that love them

This weekend I’m in LA with a handful of skeptical friends celebrating Surly Amy’s birthday. It’s been fun… and exhausting.

The best part was that she didn’t know any of us were coming. The look on her face when we arrived was epic.

Planning a huge surprise like this takes work… and a whole lot of lying. The thing is, I hate lies. I hate lying and I hate liars. My family does not do Santa because I’m too uncomfortable with the lying part.

But then there’s the lying-to-surprise lying. And I’m not sure why, but surprise-lying is totally cool with me. It kind of bothers me that it’s so cool with me.  I have a hard time explaining why lying to my friend for a month and the elaborate hoax that went into planning this whole event is okay… but lying about Santa is not.

How do you feel about lying? When is it okay to lie? When is it not okay to lie? And isn’t Surly Amy the BEST BEST BEST?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. The only time lying is not okay is when it is calculated to hurt someone. The rest of the time lying is fine so long as you can accept the consequences of being found out.

  2. Hi there!

    Wow! This is exactly what I just went through two weeks ago. We threw a surprise party for my Wifey, and it involved a metric buttload of lying to her for months on end.

    I am really bad at lying. I mean REALLY bad. I’ve loved magic for a long time now, and still but tricks from various magic sources, but I hesitate to actually perform them in public, because I give away the deception with my mannerisms before I even get to the reveal.

    Now with Wifey, this whole “lying” thing is even more stressful. This was a problem early on in the marriage, when I thought that I COULD lie to her to save her feelings. I discovered that as the little white lies escalate, it becomes easier to lie about the big things. “Oh no, I really LOVE your noodle casserole” slowly turns to: “Really, that hot goth chick and I were just dancing the other night. Nothing more than that”. Lying started to become the lesser of evils. But KEEPING the secret is still just as difficult for me. We eventually got to the point where we agreed just to not lie to each other anymore, not even for the little things

    So for the past few months, I was walking on eggshells trying to keep her party a secret. Any time she asked me a question involving future plans, I’d have to THINK about it. I worried what would happen if she caught me thinking. Normally when she asks: “What do you want to do this weekend”, my answer is: “Psh, whatever”. So … if I come up with a discrete answer, would she suspect something? If I seemed overly nonchalant about it, would she suspect something? If I didn’t make eye contact with her when she asked me about the weekend, would she suspect something? All of these contigencies would run through my head every time she so much as spoke to me. I started getting headaches it was so stressful.

    And of course the fully thing is, I KNEW that it wasn’t a BAD sort of lying. I knew that when she started seeing the guests arrive, she’d be happy and smiling and everything would be wonderful. And I must have done a good job, because that’s exactly what happened.

    But the lying part was still really rough on my mental state. Especially to her. :(

    — Craig

  3. I don’t like lying and I think it should be avoided when at all possible. A little white lie to prevent someone from being hurt is okay in principle, but maybe you suck at judging what’s “little”, and any lie that’s found out hurts your credibility and could hurt the recipient in multiple ways.

    Short term lies to be funny are okay though, even when you’re the only one who finds them amusing. “Yes, we’re having a test today. Surprise! No, not really.”

  4. Surly Amy is a liar. As I pointed out on the Bad Astronomy blog when Phil Plait linked to an interview she did with John Smith about Cassini tour planning, she isn’t the least bit surly. If it’s okay that half her name is a lie, then lying is okay when it’s not done to hurt some one. See also the discussion of Casablanca in Camille

  5. Perhaps it’s because the lie has a definite, predetermined expiry date? There is less of an intent to deceive, and more of an attempt to delay revealing a truth.

  6. I lie like a rug. I consider it a way of helping people sharpen their critical thinking skills.

  7. I would agree that it’s wrong to lie if it’s intended to hurt someone, but I would also make a note to include the liar in that mix. I find that most lies are going to hurt the liar as well.

    Plus I suck at lying. Even when I’m telling the truth I don’t seem to be convincing enough.

  8. Who exactly are surprise parties for anyway? Isn’t half the fun in the prep? And the lucky victim is left out. I HATE surprise parties and feel they actually humiliate the “honoree.” So no surprise parties/no lying is my vote there. I bowed to social pressure and tried Santa and the Tooth Fairy but I sucked at it. And the worst lies are the ones my in laws stoop to…..they withhold bad news (disease, death, broken pipes)because they don’t want to ruin your vacation or birthday or whatever. Oh my Darwin! Give me some credit. I can handle it. Just plain insulting.

  9. I just listened to Sam Harris talk on his book, ” The Moral Landscape : How Science Can Determine Human Values ” and I agree with him, mostly.
    Questions like, ” Are there Jews in your basement ? “, or ” Do you know where the rest of that Hutu family are ? “, beg for lying in its purest form.
    On a lighter note, ” does my bum look big in these jeans ?” is every mans dilemma, and should be answered according to the outcome desired.

  10. @Buzz Parsec: I’m sorry thats COTW.

    I think we have to lie from time to time just to keep the peace, to be pleasnt to those complete gits who you would like to see slowey being dipped into molten lava, feet first (or is that just me?) As their the people who can make your life very difficult.

  11. @davo_301: Thanks, I think. :-)

    Anyway, I just realized Surly Amy’s name is an oxymoron, since “Amy” is from the same Latin root as “amiable”, meaning friendly or lovable. Or did everyone else get this joke from day one? Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

    P.S. Happy Birthday!

  12. If she wasn’t all surly about it, I’d be disappointed. (But maybe I just don’t Amy well enough.)

    @Buzz: Oh; I didn’t know that until I read it in your post. (Amy = “amiable”) It happens that the same it true for my real name: “Jeffrey” is French for peace, “Grigg” is an old English war cry. “Peace be with you! (In the afterlife, as I crush thou heathen skull. ;-)” >;->

  13. Elyse, I believe you should be fine with lying any time you feel like it.


    No, really. Honest.

  14. I’m a bit hardcore on this one… I don’t like being lied to, and I absolutely loathe having to lie myself.

    I’m not too wild about surprise parties, either…. I never was (as an Aspie, I don’t handle sudden changes in context too well), but the kicker was the last big surprise party I attended, for my Dad’s 60th birthday. It was the attendees who got a nasty surprise, when they showed up to learn that Dad had dropped dead while dressing for “dinner”! (While I was en route to the party, yet.)

  15. I think it’s really important for surprises to be done only for those you’re pretty confident will like them. I LOVE surprises. I like surprise parties, surprise gifts, surprise little notes from someone saying “hi!” and all of that.

    I think that the reason I don’t mind surprise related lies is that you do them KNOWING the truth will out. In fact, the honest part coming out is the whole point.

  16. Grew up lying. It was a survival strategy and it worked.
    Now that I’m in a very different environment it has taken me a pathetic number of years to realize that the survival strategy of my childhood does not work for me as an adult.
    Things just go better when you stick to the truth.
    Of course, truth is tricky and there are many versions of it that are just as bad as lying, but in general if you use compassion and a little intelligence, the truth just works better.
    Except, of course, for surprise parties.
    I think the deal there is you are lying with 1) a specific goal 2) a specific end time and 3) an expectation of being found out.
    Any lie without all three of those criteria is bound to create more issues than it solves.
    For an adult, in a relatively safe and safe environment choose truth.

  17. Hello Elyse,

    I agree with you about the Santa thing. It was Tom Flynn that got me to first examine the Santa phenomenon closely. We went the full monty and don’t bother with Christmas in the tiniest bit, for the same reasons.

    No, I don’t suffer liars, and I won’t do it to others. It makes a lot of things in life much simpler.

  18. I had a reputation growing up that I always told the truth, which was an exaggeration. I just had trouble thinking up plausible lies quickly. The only one that ever worked for me was “I have no memory of that at this time, Senator.” No one can prove that you do remember (unless you slip up, and then you can always claim “I do have some vague memories of it now, but no details.”)

    All in all, lies are usually impractical, because you can’t just test them against reality, so it’s really hard to keep them logically consistent. “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” W.S.

    “The plural of anecdote is not data. It is lies.” B.P.

  19. Perhaps lying and deception are somewhat different things. We all tell little white lies or try to deceive others all the time. We lie about our weight, age, IQ, and we put on makeup and dye our hair to deceive others. We put our best foot forward when meeting new people or interviewing for a job; and many people omit jobs and brief or incomplete educational experiences from their resumes. I’m not that bothered by any or all of the above because I think its accepted or not untypical behavior. For me maintaining a deception for a surprise party is nothing more than good fun. Maintaining the same kind of deception to hide your second wife and family in another town is another matter all together. I guess I’m saying the whole lying thing is relative and/or contextual; and the definition as to what is in fact a lie is often ambiguous. As far as when is lying acceptable, it would depend on a number of things from ethical and moral considerations to value assessments as to what would be gained or lost if you lied or told the truth. And being honest has no relation to simply choosing not to answer a question in my book.

  20. And isn’t Surly Amy the BEST BEST BEST?

    Well,sure if you say so…but then,now that you are an admittedly successful liar,can we really trust you? ;)

  21. Like danarra, I was raised in an environment where lying was a survival skill. Granted, lying isn’t good. OTOH, niether is being raised by an alcoholic parent. The lesser of two evils?

    I try to stay truthful as much as possible. I do think that a certain amount of “white lying” are necessary for human society to function, in a way similar to good manners. I try to remember what Mark Twain said about lying…

  22. @James Fox: “We lie about our weight, age, IQ, and we put on makeup and dye our hair to deceive others.”

    Maybe you do, Mr Fox (if that is your real name!), but I feel no shame about being a six and a half feet tall, svelte 24-year old with fabulous hair and see no reason to lie about it!

  23. @Buzz Parsec: Yeah, basically COTW. I’ve never met Amy, but I own some of her jewelry and I read her blog posts, and the evidence so far indicates that she is not surly and definitely the BEST BEST BEST BESTEST!!!

  24. Okay, seriously… “Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other sins are inverted nonsense.” (Heinlein) Not an all-encompassing rule but certainly a good guide for whether one lies or tells the truth.

    If you increase happiness overall by lying, as in “do these jeans make my butt look fat?” is that not good? The person wearing the jeans thinks she looks good, the one answering the question doesn’t have to sleep on the sofa, and others are highly unlikely to be affected in any significant fashion.

  25. Amy is BEST BEST BEST and I’m really glad that I got to be a part of the celebrations this weekend. I didn’t have to lie though. No one asked if I was going to be at Part 2 of the festivities.

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