There is a nursery-school of thought which advocates that people should be sincere: that they should be constantly expressing what’s on their minds. Creeping Sloppiness, the philosophy of the unruly class, holds ‘sincerity’, ‘spontaneity’ and ‘candour’ in great esteem; but in fact the usual results of practicing these pseudo-virtues is confusion, misunderstanding and hurt feelings. In my experience most so-called ‘truths’ are emotional in their base and far more unreliable than a lie. How many times has ‘I love you’ been whispered in the evening only to turn into ‘I can’t stand you’ by the morning? Truth-telling has an inflated reputation in our culture: every time the word ‘truth’ is spoken one practically hears a heavenly choir of philosophers and theologians singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Yet if we constantly told people exactly what we felt at any given moment there would be nothing but incivil chaos. A woman boarding a bus would say to the driver, ‘Well, it’s about time you got here you fat slob.’ And he would reply, ‘Oh shut up you old bag.’ A teenager sitting nearby would exclaim aloud, ‘I hope I don’t look like you ugly toads when I get older.’ And a woman sitting next to him would say, ‘Have you had a bath lately?’ And so on down the aisle until, goaded and gouged, everyone’s adrenalin flows and blood flows after it. Telling ‘the truth’ is an activity that generally pleases only one person and even then it is likely that the pain of it pleases him. But a well-mannered lie soothes and massages both parties so that the surface of their social relations is as smooth as a glassy sea.
Whenever someone says to me, ‘but what do you really think about me [him, her, it]?’ what I really think is that it’s time to go. To say what we think to our superiors would be inexpedient; to say what we think to our equals would be ill mannered and to say what we think to an inferior is unkind. Good manners occupy the terrain between fear and pity.
Photo by Inge Morath: Saul Steinberg Masks (c. 1960)