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Strictly Good Advice

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Strictly Good Advice,

I have no plans this summer, but people keep asking me what I’m doing. How do I give them an answer?

Thanks,

E.

Hello E., and thank you for your question. I’ll get right to the advice.

I suspect, because you’re asking and unsure, that telling the truth is not (on its own) an option. For whatever good enough reason, you’re up against an inquisitive party that won’t take “nothing” for an answer. It might be that you are unwilling to face the truth directly because it makes you upset, or because you are waiting on some things in your life to line up and that situation is hard to explain, or whatever. I don’t know you, and so I won’t make assumptions. Rather than look for a complicated way to effectively countenance, internalize, and communicate the truth of your situation, I will do my best instead to lay out guidelines so you can offer an untruth that gets the job done. If you’re nervous about lying, try patching your belief in what is right or wrong with a useful auxiliary; maybe lying isn’t always bad, or not every falsehood is a lie, or something isn’t a lie if you don’t want the other person to believe it’s true, etc.

Readers, be aware that I don’t in general condone lying just because it is advantageous or easy. But the demands placed by health and comfort seem, in E.’s case, to have gotten in the way of E.’s ability to be true to others and to herself. In situations like this, I first address pragmatic constraints. If context doesn’t demand honesty or trust, if instead managing expectations or unloading stress take priority, I think there are legitimate applications of fiction as fact. Consider an illustrative example.

Bo and Beau are identical twin siblings who share a bunk bed. Usually, Bo sleeps on top and Beau takes the bottom bunk. Each morning, Bo and Beau are woken up by their father, Baugh. Unfortunately neither Bo nor Beau is allowed to play with toys, keep friends, or otherwise savor the fleeting pleasures of childhood before it’s too late. So, to satisfy their penchant for juvenile mischief, every third Thursday Bo and Beau will switch bunks, i.e., Bo will take Beau’s spot on the top bunk and vice versa. This way, when Baugh comes into the room to commence the daily wakefulness by calling one phonetic “Bo” to attention, they can have a laugh at his trivialized expense. It doesn’t make a difference to Baugh whether Bo or Beau has descended from the top bunk so long as everyone gets to school on time, but the kids really get a kick out of it. This example should provide some evidence that, sometimes, you can give someone a lie and enjoy it, absent of negative consequences.

Once you’ve adjusted your moral compass in whatever suitable way, it’s time to package and present your harmless lie. Your answer should be boring enough that the listener is uncompelled toward follow-up questions, and vague enough that the listener will be blindsided in any attempt to connect your words and those things in the world to which your words look like they refer. Use your knowledge of the audience to  adjust these parameters optimally. Don’t tell a gastroenterologist you’ve just taken a two-month internship inside someone’s colon, because a gastroenterologist will continue to inquire about your exact responsibilities in and around the gut, if the position is paid, where and in which variety of digestive machinery the work takes place, etc. Avoid situations like this.

The last ingredient in crafting a useful, purposeful lie is a significant measure of detachment on your part. Whatever fudged summer plans you choose to put on display shouldn’t be your childhood dream, a job you wanted and didn’t get, or an exciting vacation. Too much investment in the world that sits around your lie will make living in it less comfortable and maybe even painful. Remember that your original aim was to spare yourself another person’s unwanted concern to reduce your net unproductive emotional burden; adding to this burden is antithetical to the advice.  

I will use these – brief, not exhaustive – criteria to give an example of a bad lie and a good lie. First will come the bad lie, then, hopefully, a better one. The difference should be clear, and once it is apparent, you will be better suited to address the rain of unexpected questions about your future from people who didn’t even seem so genuinely interested in your present.

“This summer I will be conducting college-funded independent research into the dietary behaviors of common American raccoons. Every night I will paint up my face and put on a carefully tailored raccoon suit, which is made of environmentally and ethically permissible furlike materials and join my furry friends (a band of 11 raccoons I have started calling “my furry friends”) in their nightly hunt through local suburban trash. For eight weeks I will feed only on whatever bits of garbage I can grab with my little paws (hands that I have started calling “my little paws”), and observe closely the changes to my naturally human, socially raccoon constitution. Various means of statistical analysis will follow to isolate important trends in the data. When the semester starts, I’ll present the interpreted findings on a trifold poster.”

“This summer I will be with a private group that works on various projects, but I’m not too sure exactly what I’ll be doing there.”

 

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