Ever Tell a Harmless White Lie Just to Keep a Conversation Going? Here’s Why

Photo: Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt
“You’ve watched Paris, Texas, right?” “Did you see the latest Cardi B rant?” "Can you even believe what's going on in Washington today?" Flash back to the last conversation you had with an acquaintance who referenced something about which you really have no idea and certainly can't offer intelligent opinions regarding. There's a good chance you still cosigned the thought, though—because fake it till you make it, right? This is the agreeable fib, AKA a knee-jerk harmless little white lie that's probably the most innocuous, unnecessary, and weirdly embarrassing strain of deception. So why do we do it? Why risk getting into a deep, 10-minute conversation hole where the only way out is to admit you don't even know who Cardi B is?

Despite the negative connotation of deceit, the reason is surprisingly wholesome: feeling insecure and just wanting just to fit in.

“Given that we're gregarious creatures who crave to be liked and included, we often provide a 'white-lie' response as a primitive response designed to increase a sense of safety,” says clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “Although a white-lie response isn’t generally ideal, such instinctive replies often stem from an often-unconscious desire for inclusion.”

“Although a white-lie response isn’t generally ideal, such instinctive replies often stem from an often-unconscious desire for inclusion.” —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD

Yeah, this checks out, especially when you consider that the agreeable fib is generally called upon when we’re dealing with someone unfamiliar, like a first date or a friend of a friend. One small 2002 study found that 60 percent of people can’t go 10 minutes without lying at least once. If you think that sounds like a lie, think of how many times you've answered, “Good” to “How are you?” when your life really is that dog in a burning house meme.

To strangers especially, the goal is to come across as pleasant, as it'll make striking a connection much simpler. That's why when someone in the Brooklyn music scene (which I've been sitting on the fringes of for years) asks if listened to a certain band, I pretty much always say the same thing: “I’ve heard of them.” Because the real answer—that I only listen to The Velvet Underground, bands that sound like The Velvet Underground, and songs that I’ve scraped off Netflix’s You with Shazam—is less likely to form that basic bond that begets longer, effortless conversation. And then what will we talk about?

“When we feel included as part of the group or tribe, we feel less anxious and stressed,” Dr. Manly says. "Of course, knee-jerk lies often arise when an individual is uninformed on a topic and isn’t confident enough to admit the lack of knowledge. In situations such as this, a white lie temporarily eases the sense of insecurity.”

Emphasis on temporary, because an agreeable fib can seriously backfire when you say that you’ve listened to a band or whatever and then you get quizzed on their discography. Nevertheless, if you get caught in a white lie, even one as harmless as this, it’ll ultimately make people question whether you’re trustworthy.

Although that automatic "yes!" can feel hard to hold back, it’s something you can work on to be your best and most authentic self. Dr. Manly advises that you pause before you speak (“you really don’t need to have a response to everything”) and accept that it’s only human to not be all knowing. “Practice saying in the mirror, 'I don’t know, but I’d like to learn more. Can you tell me about that,’” she says. That sounds like an honest-to-goodness way to open up a conversation anyway.

Now that white lies are settled, here's everything you need to know about serial cheaters. And for good measure, here are five tips to avoid infidelity.

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