The Ninth Commandment: Don’t Lie

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Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (Exodus 20:16)

This is simply translated as “Don’t Lie”, although it really means, “Don’t say someone did something they didn’t do, or vice versa.”

There are several ways in which we may lie:

  1. By deliberately misrepresenting what we know to be true so that people understand something other than the truth.
  2. By unintentionally misrepresenting what we know to be true with the same result.
  3. By speaking out of ignorance, or pretending to know something we don’t actually know.
  4. By promising to do something we don’t do, or promising not to do something we do do.

The first is the worst kind of lie. It’s the kind of lie that means we simply can’t trust anything you say anymore.

The second is just as bad of a lie although the motivation was different. It’s important that we learn to speak in a way that people understand. I feel terrible when I learn that people have misunderstood what I have said, and I go to great lengths to ensure that it is corrected.

The third is also bad, almost equivalent to the first. If we don’t know, we have to say, “I don’t know.” If we are guessing, we have to say, “I am guessing.”

The fourth is a different kind of lie, but still a lie. When we promise to do something, and don’t do it, or vice-versa, we make ourselves a liar. This is no less true if we promise that someone else will do or not do something, and they violate that promise.

The word “trust” is important. If our language doesn’t match reality, then people cannot trust what we have to say. It this is a general problem in society, then the natural default will be to not trust anyone until we have reason to trust them. Sadly, this is the state of affairs in our society because lying has become so rampant.

There is a real cost to distrust. Imagine two partners who absolutely trust each other. How much overhead is spent verifying each other’s claims? Very little, if any. Because this overhead is gone, they are tremendously productive.

Compare this with two business partners who cannot trust each other at all. Their entire time is consumed by verifying each other’s claims. In the end, why bother speaking to each other at all? Eventually, the partnership will be dissolved, and whatever productivity there could have been is lost.

If we are to build a society where trust can flourish, we need to be trustworthy ourselves. Not just some of the time, all of the time. And not just with important things, but little things as well.

When my wife says, “Do I look fat?” I tell her the truth. Of course, my job is easier than other husbands, since my wife is not fat. But as long as I am honest with her, she will trust what I have to say. I would hate for my words of encouragement to be met with distrust because I have been insincere in the past.

At my job, the importance of data and hard facts is a constant theme. We don’t tell each other things we don’t know. We don’t make decisions based on guesses when data is available. And we certainly ensure that we meet the promises we’ve made. This has led to a certain level of trust within the company. If a team promises something, I know they are being sincere and will likely deliver on that promise by the promised date. I can’t imagine working in a company where everyone wasn’t as honest as they should be with each other.

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