The Art of the Little White Lie: How to Avoid Big Repercussions

There's a time and a place.

Oftentimes a white lie can seem the perfect tool to keep the world around you balanced. “Do I look OK in this outfit?” The answer should always be yes, we’re told. “Do you want to meet up for drinks tonight?” When we’re reluctant, we deliver a cover up story—”I’m behind on work!” or “I’m not feeling well”—because it avoids hurt feelings.

But while it feels helpful in the moment, in many situations we aren’t thinking of the impact it can have long-term. So how do we decipher when and why it’s okay to tell a white lie, and when it’s doing you more harm than good?

White Lies and Their Potential to Damage

Before we jump too far in, let’s first define the white lie. According to Merriam-Webster, a white lie is “a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” The inherent dilemma, though, is that what’s supposed to be a one-off to avoid hurt feelings can spiral into a set of lies with which you then have to stay on top of.

“The biggest problem with white lies is that we often need to continue to create more and more lies to cover the tracks of our original lies,” said Devon MacDermott, a NYC-based psychologist who specializes in relationship repair. “If I say that I can’t come to your birthday dinner because I already have plans, I then often need to remember that I lied and continue to lie when you ask me about it later. This can cause a huge, and often totally unnecessary, strain. White lies have their place, but we tell them too often.”

Further, white lies can end up hurting you.

“We often lie to control how others feel,” explained psychologist Brad Reedy, co-owner and the clinical director of Evoke Therapy Programs. “It can be harmless, but if the pattern persists or deepens, then the one lying will repress his or her needs.”

4 Circumstances When You Should Always Tell the Truth

Leaning on the white lie to control how others feel, and to prevent any discomfort we may cause ourselves, isn’t always a terrible thing. But how do we determine when, and how, to use the white lie to everyone’s advantage? Many of your relationships, explained MacDermott, can actually withstand more honesty. If they can’t, it’s time for a deeper look into that relationship.

Ultimately, any time a white lie will require additional white lies, or when it’s hindering the expression of your personal needs, you should tell the truth. Also note that you don’t have to be callous when telling the truth—you can deliver honesty with a side of gentleness.

Below are four examples (which are by no means exhaustive) for when you should always tell the truth.

When You Don’t Want to Go

“If you give the expectation that you want to attend, but just can’t, then that person is going to keep asking you and you are going to have to keep making excuses,” sayid MacDermott.

In this case, it’s best to be clear about why you don’t want to go. Maybe that means it’s time for an honest discussion about problems you have with that person or someone else attending, or that you’ve been feeling depressed, or are feeling overwhelmed with obligations.

If you’re being invited to events regularly by this person, he or she is invested in you to some degree and can likely handle an honest answer. Plus, if they don’t know what the problem is, they can’t help or adjust their actions so as not to put you in a pace where you feel the need to manipulate the truth.

When Your Needs Aren’t Being Met

You must be able to express your needs in a relationship—professional, romantic, familial and friendship included.

“Can we be honest and authentic and still be loved? And why is someone not safe for us to tell the truth?” asked Reedy. “If this game of asking for opinions and lying is consistent, then the deeper issue is that the pair is not really communicating. That is, their metacommunication—what is meant—is not matching their overt messages.”

If you consistently find yourself in this situation, it’s time to peel back the layers and fix it.

When You Want to End a Relationship

Honesty is the best policy for all involved here—even if the results are painful.

“If you want a relationship (romantic or otherwise) to end, it’s best to just say so,” said MacDermott. “You are not helping the other person by prolonging the situation. It’s often much, much easier to cope with bad news than it is to wonder what the problem is and doubt the security of the relationship.”

When You’re Telling Someone What They Want to Hear

This is an opportunity for you to help someone else. Again, you don’t have to be callous about it. “No, that dress looks terrible on you!” isn’t the appropriate response, but a “That color makes your skin look amazing, but what about a different silhouette to accentuate your waistline?” is helpful and kind.

Take this basic example and apply it to your everyday life: Does the report I wrote up look OK? Do you think my presentation went well? Does it seem like Julie is as invested in this relationship as I am?

“They want your help and they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t want it,” said MacDermott. “If a friend, coworker or family member is soliciting your opinion or advice, there’s a good chance they actually want to hear what you think. If you tell them what they want to hear, it’s not offering them any help.”

The Appropriate Time to Whip Out the Little White Lie 

That being said. There are still circumstances where there is some wiggle room for a little white lie:

  • Social niceties, especially with people you’re not very close to: It’s great to see you! I’m doing well! Keep in touch! These polite phrases usually don’t have much meaning behind them, but they are often expected in professional settings and every day exchanges, said MacDermott. “To not say them risks more discomfort than honesty rewards.”
  • To avoid harsh punishment: If you’re late to work because you got distracted at home—and it’s a one-off versus habit—making an excuse about traffic will serve you better.

It may be uncomfortable to reexamine how, and how often, you’re utilizing the white lie, but it may prove extremely beneficial for your own mental health a dwell as your relationships. Keep a journal, for just a day, and track every instance where a lie leaves your lips, however small it may be. Then ask yourself how beneficial that white lie was to you and the other party, and what positivity could have come from telling the truth instead. This small experiment may surprise you, and it may force you to think about your relationships more deeply, as well.