On Lying

Lying is, in its various shapes and forms, part and parcel of life and especially professional life, something I’ve always found difficult to cope with. It fascinates me though. I suppose that makes me a daughter of Eve, the first victim of deception in the history of mankind.

One of my former bosses once exhorted me to ‘stop being myself’ at work. His advice was that I should assume an alternative personality when coming to the office and take it off like a crumpled shirt at the end of the day. He was probably right. I could never do it. The French have a word for it: I am ‘entière’. It means ‘uncompromising’ in English but also ‘whole’. I prefer the latter.

In chapter two and three of Tasting Notes everyone lies at some point. Why? Because there is a crisis, a quality issue on a high volume wine. I have unfortunately experienced several of those in my career and the initial reactions have systematically been the same: attempts at cover-up, blame shifting, evasion, half-truths and barefaced lies. Ultimately all a waste of time and energy.

Blatant lies drive me up the wall but I find lying by omission, failing to do or say what one should equally, if not more baffling and frustrating. Many years ago, when I was working for a British agent, our principal in Argentina failed to receive a crucial first order I had secured from a large supermarket chain. I only found out because I had a catch-up with their export director.

I was on a team building trip in Burgundy at the time and immediately summoned the team members involved. My assistant confirmed she’d received the order and passed it on to the order department. The guy from the order department confirmed he’d received it.  We sat in puzzled silence for a few minutes.

‘How come the winery claims they’ve never received it?’ I asked, ready to blame some poor sod in Argentina.

‘I didn’t pass the order on,’ the guy from the order department said.

I looked at him uncomprehendingly. His answer didn’t make sense to me.

‘It’s not in my job description to process orders from your department,’ he added somewhat unhelpfully.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said. Actually I think I screeched the end of that sentence. I remember my assistant gripping my arm and holding me back. She knew me well. I was so angry. The fact that the guy hadn’t done what he was paid to do because of petty internal issues wasn’t what drove me mad. The fact he’d sat on it, not even bothering to let me know was unconceivable to me.

I remember once asking my father for his own take on lying and deception. He died just over a year ago so this is an opportunity to share his wisdom.

‘Lies create ambiguity in a situation that is unambiguous initially. Remember that what people say or do is never independent of their reference system or their agenda,’ he told me. ‘Whether you call it the truth or a lie depends on the compatibility of your reference system and agenda with theirs.

Lying is the root of all evil. It plays an essential part in warfare: fake but credible news start many wars. Military action cannot operate entirely within the truth anyway. Otherwise how do you justify sending troops to a certain death to save others, or bombing civilians to win a war as the British and the Americans did, not only in Germany and Japan, but in France, a country they were allied with, during the Second Word War?

Deception is intrinsic to business life too and its hotbed within a company is often the HR department, claiming to put employees first when they’re serving the company’s interest first and foremost.

Conversely lying can be a force for good. Medicine relies on lies up to a point. Telling a patient they’re going to get better is a way to boost their immune system and optimise their survival chances. The use of placebo in research is also a form of lie.’

One of his favourite saying was, ‘Il faut toujours faire son thème en deux façons.’ which means, one should always look at opposing points of view and use different resources and means to reach one’s goal.

I miss my father and his brilliant mind.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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