LIES, LIARS AND UNDERGRADUATES: The Most Interesting Article You Will Ever Read

Scott Winfield Sublett

Calvin Innes created 8 cartoons especially for the book

My dear, darling Pendery Weekes recently stepped down as Managing Editor of The New Art Examiner. She wanted more time for her unusual habit of swimming year-round in the freezing ocean off Cornwall, wearing only a bathing suit and a smile. My new boss, Pendery said, would be Daniel Nanavati, the European Editor. Naturally, I called Daniel to say how thrilled I was to be rid of that awful Weekes woman who was running the place into the ground, which was a lie but he’s my new boss and I know on which side my bread is buttered. 

Then, I Googled Nanavati. I Google every single person with whom I come into any kind of contact and if you send me hate mail about that because you think it’s “an invasion of privacy” I’ll put a “Google Alert” on your name and when you’re arrested for pedophilia, I’ll be the first to know. According to the World Wide Web, my new editor is not a pedophile or even a seditionist. However, he is suspiciously interested in dishonesty, having penned A Brief History of Lies: The Most Brilliant Book Ever Written (a subtitle that is not quite as big a whopper as when Dave Eggers called his novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—heartbreaking, sure, but did you stagger?).

Daniel’s lying book had many interesting things to say. The takeaway: pretty much everyone lies, including you—yes, reader, you—and if you doubt it, try this experiment for three days: record every untruth you tell, count them up, calculate a daily average, and don’t tell me the tally because I’m not interested in your lies. 

There are certain things that people lie about a lot. For example, if you’re a man, you lie to your doctor about your drinking, but he’s onto you. My doctor says doctors automatically multiply drinks by four. “The police,” says my doctor, “when they pull you over, multiply by two, because they aren’t people people, like us.” According to Daniel’s book, your friends lie in about 20 per cent of their social interactions, probably to spare your feelings because let’s face it, you look fat in those pants. As the divinely sensible Quentin Crisp once said, later to be quoted by Daniel, “The lie is the basic building block of good manners. That may seem mildly shocking to a moralist—but then what isn’t?” 

In life and French farce, people frequently lie about sex and sexual orientation. I have a Middle Eastern friend who says that if he came out of the closet, his brother-in-law would divorce his sister instantly. I’d don’t know about you, but in his position, I’d lie, too. Sociable extroverts are “slightly” more likely to lie, according to the book, and it will surprise no one to learn that confident, attractive people lie more convincingly. Children of average intelligence start lying at age four, but really smart children start at three. This reminds me of something my father said regarding Robert McNamara, one of the early architects of the Vietnam War and dubbed one of “the best and brightest”: “Never trust those super-intelligent people.” I was a teen-ager, so what really took me aback was his underlying assumption that I was not going to be among the super-intelligent.

College students lie more than anybody—particularly to their mothers: “in one out of two conversations.”  Presumably they do it so Mom won’t bother them with a lot of fretting. Noel Coward’s mother was a terrible fretter, so he’d write things like, “I haven’t had a day’s illness since I left England except for my usual frightful heart attacks and lumbago, varicose veins and that dreadful hacking cough that never stops but everyone is very kind and my eyesight is returning.” 

On the News-You-Can-Use front, Daniel includes a chapter on spotting lies. Here are some highlights: 1) Liars are expressionless. 2) They avoid eye contact. 3) They touch their face, throat and mouth. 4) Displays of emotion are delayed, then held longer than natural. 4) They start the sentence with “uh,” presumably to buy time. 5) They get defensive when challenged. 6) They don’t like facing the person to whom they lie. 7) They repeat your question back to you. 8) They add unnecessary details. 9) They don’t use contractions. 10) When they’re done lying, they want to get out of the room as quickly as possible.

We seldom really know when people are lying, but if you’re a university professor you hear lots of excuses as to why students don’t have their assignments completed when due, and I saw somewhere that fully 80 per cent of those excuses are lies, or maybe it was 70 per cent, but it was a lot. I teach screenwriting, and one semester an undergraduate, a member of the football team (American football, not what we Yanks call “soccer”), submitted a script that I knew was plagiarized because he had skipped or faked all the preparatory work of the first half of the semester, and because the script had the cold, crystalline, meretricious glare that professional “spec” screenplays had back when people were selling them for a million dollars (all that’s over, by the way, so retire that dream). The script, a western, opened with the obvious “star part,” a macho man, sitting in dusty sunshine with his back against a wall, under a latticed window, his face obscured by a sombrero, and on his finger: a Masonic ring.

The football player knocked on my office door and I showed him to his seat. 

“What’s a Masonic ring?” I asked.

“A what?”

“A Masonic ring.”

“How should I know?” he demanded defensively.

“I only ask,” purred Professor Cat to the unsuspecting mouse, “because there’s one mentioned on the first page of your screenplay.”

“Oh,” he said, changing his tone with impressive agility. 

“A Masonic ring. ‘What is a Masonic ring,’” he said, repeating the question I had just asked, without contractions. Then, he brightened. “It’s a kind of ring they had back in the day.”

“I see,” I said. “What’s a latticed window?”

“A what?”

Again, articulating harder: “A latticed window.” 

“Uh,” he said, touching his face, throat and mouth, “a kind of window they had back in the day.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” I said, with the firmness of a basically pompous man who’s holding all the cards. “We’re going to pretend you never turned in this screenplay. I’m going to give you a five-day extension, and you’re going to give me a completely different screenplay, written by you.”

“OK,” he said, snatching the script from my hands and getting out of the room as quickly as possible, as one does when finished lying. 

Most lies, of course, are small, many of them designed simply to spare people’s feelings or survive in an oppressive world. Other lies destroy lives and even planets. Daniel quotes Adolph Hitler as saying, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” Here in the US we now have what we call The Big Lie: that Trump won. Europeans don’t realize how precariously we teetered on the brink of a fascist dictatorship, and it could still happen. “Just tell them you won,” was Rudy Giuliani’s legal advice to Trump. A lot of us are surprised Trump didn’t do just that. I wondered aloud to a friend, a New York theatrical producer, why The Donald didn’t just refuse to leave office, and she said, “He’s too lazy to run a coup.” Maybe, but then again, maybe he’s smarter than people think and knows when a jig is up.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois, caught out for pretending to be younger than she is, declares, “I didn’t lie in my heart,” which implies she knew she was fibbing but, like an artist, she wanted magic, romance, the lie that tells the truth, or at least makes life more beautiful. Her point was that she meant no harm. And one takes away from A Brief History of Lies the feeling that what matters is not the lie, but the intention behind it—the thing that’s in your heart.

 

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