We’ve been taught since early childhood that lying is bad. However, it seems that there appears to be a gray area when “white lies” are involved.
Newsweek spoke to several psychologists and experts on why people tell ‘white lies’, how to recognize them and whether or not they’re really as harmless as they claim to be.
What is a ‘white lie’?
According to Barbara Santini, psychologist, sex therapist and relationship adviser at Dimepiece LA, white lies are untrue statements that people use to avoid trouble or causing emotional damage to other people. “[It’s] a harmless lie from a psychologist’s standpoint,” she told Newsweek.
“We mostly tell the white lie to help others without fearing for our well-being,” Santini said. “The tune is different with “standard” lies, where the goal is to benefit ourselves.”
Dr. Candice Jimmyns, therapist at SupportRoom and lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, shared that the definition of a white lie is somewhat ambiguous.
“White lies are commonly viewed as an innocuous means to a perceived beneficial outcome for others with a possible self-sacrifice on the teller’s part,” she said. “Conversely to big lies, it’s mostly motivated by altruism.”
Jimmyns also referenced a study of 2980 participants that was conducted in 2014, which found that most indicated that they were honest most of the time while also admitting to telling more ‘white lies’ than ‘big lies’.
Psychology Today noted that the first documented definition of a white lie was presented in a 1741 article in a British publication called The Gentleman’s Magazine, defining the term as nothing more than “harmless fibs”:
“A white lie is that, which is not intended to injure anybody in his fortune, interest, or reputation, but only to gratify a garrulous disposition and the itch of amusing people by telling them wonderful stories.”
Why do people tell ‘white lies’?
Dr. Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic in London, England, told Newsweek that white lies differ from other types of lies in the sense that they “tend to be harmless and about more trivial things and therefore are not concealing some significant aspect of the truth from another person.”
Touroni highlighted that this phenomenon tends to arise in situations when someone doesn’t want to upset the other person, so they might perceive it to be easier to tell a white lie. “People who tell a lot of white lies usually have difficulties with being direct and/or expressing their feelings,” she added.
While most people will tell a white lie at some point in their life, Touroni shared that this behavior tends to start very early on in a person’s life and is therefore often observed in young children. “It really depends on the personality of the child,” she said. “Some children appear to find it easier to lie than others. It is often connected to a relationship they have with a parent.”
“There are many reasons why people lie,” said Caron Barruw, a qualified psychotherapist based in London, England. “It is often related to self esteem issues, such as wanting to be liked and saying what you think others want to hear.”
Barruw emphasized that the severity of a lie often depends on whether or not it causes harm. “For example, telling someone you enjoyed their cooking when you did not will not cause harm”, she said. “However, telling someone you like them can hurt them if this is in fact not true. It is topic and consequences related.”
How can you spot a ‘white lie’?
To identify when someone may be telling you a white lie, Santini recommends watching out for the person’s tone and facial expressions. “If a person is telling a white lie, they are more likely to use a higher or lower tone,” she said.
“Bonus tip? Keep an eye on their sentence structure. White lie-telling alters the person’s normal sentence structure, making them talk rapidly or slowly,” Santini added.
“I wouldn’t say it is particularly easy to spot a white lie,” said Touroni. “There are some people who are well versed in telling white lies, likely because it was modeled to them growing up and it is a familiar coping strategy. So in that sense, you wouldn’t necessarily observe anything.”
At the same time, Touroni doesn’t believe that there’s necessarily a link between telling white lies and becoming a pathological liar. “The underlying vulnerabilities are usually radically different and so it wouldn’t be a natural progression,” she highlighted. “A pathological liar is usually someone who deliberately tries to create a different version of their life for other people.”
Instead, Tourini highlights that lying turns into a habit when it happens consistently and becomes a regular form of communication. “If it happens persistently in a relationship, it can create distance,” she said. “When we’re not being our authentic selves, it erodes trust in the person who’s being lied to.”
While Santini believes that white lie-telling can still sabotage even the healthiest relationship, she echoed Tourini’s belief that the problem only tends to arise when the lying is constant. “If you realize someone you are close with constantly tells white lies, have an open and honest dialogue with them about the potential effects of white lie telling affects their authenticity and relationships,” she recommended.