Telling Lies

It’s dawned on me that one of the fundamental tropes of human communication is trying to convince your interlocutor that you’re not telling lies. Getting dressed in a public changing room this morning, I happened to overhear (not by choice) a conversation between two women that involved one of them trying to convince the other of an amazing new product she had recently discovered (some form of packaged, cut, fresh fruit, without preservatives):

Woman 1: “It’s fantastic, and so convenient!”

Woman 2: “But how can there be no preservatives if it’s fresh fruit?”

Woman 1: “I promise you, it’s all fresh!”

Woman 2: “So you can take it on picnics, send it with the kids to school…??”

Woman 1: “I promise you, it’s one of the best things! It’s almost changed my life!”

(I know excessive exclamation marks are irritating, but they only begin to approximate the sound of Woman 1’s voice and intonation).

And so on, including (from Woman 1), “it’s fantastic for throwing together fruit salads too!”.

Fortunately Woman 2 was quite the cynic, and after going along – for some time – with the half-question/half-amazement factor, she finally tried to put an end to the ridiculousness by asking, “So, what’s so great about a fruit salad, anyway?” When Woman 1 tried to protest, no. 2 just ingnored her and kept looking at herself in the mirror as she put the final touches to her lipstick: “I mean, fruit salads can be pretty shit if you ask me”.

So, Woman 2, in the end, wasn’t convinced.

But that’s really what we’re doing all the time, isn’t it; trying to convince other people of things. Take what should be the most meaningful words in our armoury: “I love you”. What do we say? “Really?”

That may be an extreme example, and even a false one, because that’s a case of rhetoric in the service of response. You ask the question to indicate not so much disbelief as (hopefully) some emotional movement.

But it’s still interesting that incredulity should be the soundest way to express conviction.

Maybe that’s as it should be, and the fact that it’s rhetoric now – “Did you hear that Owen Wilson tried to commit suicide?” “You laaah-yi! [sic]” – can be a disturbing reminder that people don’t ask enough real questions anymore, meaning that all those who really are telling lies just get away with it.

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