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The four colors of lying

When the term "white lies" appeared in news reports a couple weeks ago, I was briefly mesmerized. I had not heard the term said aloud since I was quite young.

It prompted me to recall times my mother had asked, “Did you brush your teeth” or “Did you finish your homework?” and I would say “yes, mother.” But it was not necessarily true.

I tend to overthink these kinds of things, but I cannot resist reflecting on the fact that if I had always said "yes” to the tooth-brushing question and the truth was consistently the opposite, one result would have involved enormous dental bills for our family, which may have left little money for college tuition. Although, it is also fairly certain that if I had told a lot of white lies about finishing my homework, I would not have needed that tuition.

Lies of any color have consequence. And there are, in fact, four colors that can be attributed to lying.

The little white lie is defined as a “harmless or trivial untruth” told typically told to avoid hurting another’s feelings.

Gray lies, according to an online article titled “The Four Colors of Lies,” are the untruths we might tell to help a friend — or help ourselves out of trouble. As illustration, “Officer, I was only speeding because a bug unexpectedly flew into my eye and prompted me to press harder on the gas pedal.” I used that line once and avoided a speeding ticket as a result. My husband and our son were in the car at the time and could barely stifle their laughter. The officer did, in fact, smile a little too, as I recall.

A black lie is sometimes considered the worst kind of lying. It is defined as “callous selfishness” and malevolence. The dictionary says it’s a “deliberate misrepresentation of facts in order to deceive.” The only purpose is to get oneself out of trouble or gain some benefit not felt to be otherwise possible. It badly bruises relationships and erodes trust over time. Sadly, there are loads of examples of this kind of lying in the pubic square these days; I will let you conjure up your own illustrations.

A red lie is reportedly about “spite and revenge.” These lies are “driven by the motive to harm others” even when it produces detrimental expense to self and situation. These are the kind of lies, I suspect, that may have the greatest consequence. They often layer upon themselves and spill over into the atmosphere causing personal and collective distress and, ultimately, permanently broken trust.

A white lie is usually fairly innocent and considered defensible by many. With older adults, white lies such as, “You look nice today, Aunt Agnes” — even though her blouse is covered with stains and her lipstick extends well beyond the boundaries of her lips — are sometimes called “geriatric fiblets.” They are useful in redirecting the behavior of someone with dementia. I have used them many times. I probably will again.

But, that said, truth be told, it’s a slippery slope, this business of lying.

— Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus at Oregon State University and the author of a forthcoming book: “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations about Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org