How Much of the Truth do We Owe to Others?

Today someone told me I was evil. It wasn’t a joke — the person meant it — and I had no response to that.

Being called an evil woman sounds much more romantic than what I am — someone who’s doing the best she can in a world gone awry. I admit my efforts sometimes fall flat, and once in a great while I make a given situation worse rather than better, especially when my loyalties are divided. As do we all. But that’s not being evil. That’s being human.

I don’t believe I’m evil, but the reason I couldn’t find a response to the accusation is that it made me wonder: If I am evil, would I know?

Think of all the wars begun in the name of God. Think of all the prejudice fomented by religious folk who adhered too closely to the dictates of the Old Testament. Think of all the pregnant teenagers thrown out into the snow by self-righteous parents. Think of all the people who have harmed others in the name of doing the “right” thing. Did any of these people believe they were evil? Of course not. I’m sure the devil wouldn’t even consider himself (or herself) evil. Like all villains, he/she is the hero of his/her own story. In his/her mind, he/she is the true force of the universe, while God is the evil one.

UntitledgThis person who believes I am evil based the assessment of me partly on lies I supposedly told, though I have no idea what those lies are. They can’t mean much in the big scheme of things, because I never lie for malicious purposes, though I do occasionally lie to protect me or someone else. And anyway, how much of the truth do we owe others? For example, if someone asks our weight, do we owe him/her the truth? If the person asking is a doctor or a health insurance company, of course, we owe them the truth, just as they owe us the truth about our medical condition, but otherwise divulging information about our weight is not a requirement. Offering a lie, perhaps giving a weight we are comfortable acknowledging, is usually more tactful and much easier than a direct refusal to answer.

We often lie without thinking about it, such as exaggerating our accomplishments a bit so that we come across both to ourselves and to others as being better than we are, but so often these lies are nothing more than hopes verbalized. Sometimes we downplay our accomplishments in the name of modesty. And sometimes we “fudge” the truth, not telling the truth, but not telling a direct lie, either, though the result is the same — a deception.

When it comes to friendship and other relationships, we do owe a certain amount of truth, especially the truth of who we are, but we don’t owe that truth to strangers or to those who don’t have our best interests at heart. In a perfect world, perhaps, we could tell everyone the truth, but in our particular world, divulging too much about ourselves is risky. And it’s especially risky when the person who is asking for our truth is not willing to give up any of his or her truth.

And then there are those who tell us the truth, or at least the truth as they see it, for only one reason, to cause pain.

Which brings me back to my evilness and the lies I supposedly told. I wish I could apologize for these unknown lies and whatever else led to this belief that I am evil, but it is impossible to talk to someone who will not listen. So I’m doing what I always do, dumping my worries and my wonderings onto this blog.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly FireandDaughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

On Writing: The Body Doesn’t Lie. Or Does It?

Body language is as important in writing as it is in real life. If you don’t want to explain what your character is feeling or doing, the best way to show it is by their body language.

For example, a person who is lying will often rub an eye, touch gently beneath an eye, put a hand up to the mouth, touch the nose or lips with a finger. Sometimes a liar will tug at an ear, scratch the neck, pull at his collar, jiggle a foot, blink more than normal. People tend not to look in the eyes of the person being lied to. And they hide their palms.

Showing the palms is a way of saying that someone has nothing to hide, and it is a gesture that we all subconsciously react to. But the gesture can be faked, and so can looking someone in the eyes. If you want to show that a character is lying, you can have your liar look another character in the eyes while showing the palms. By mentioning these two signals together, they become important, and can show that the first character is purposely lying. Of course, they can also show what they normally do, that the character is telling the truth.

That’s the problem with body language: it is ambiguous. Scratching the head can mean that a person is thinking or is confused, but it can also mean the person has dandruff. Rubbing an eye or covering the mouth can show that a person is hiding something, but that thing can be as innocent as hiding sleepiness or a yawn. Folding the arms across the chest can mean a person is defensive; it can also mean the person is cold.

Certain signals are subtle in real life, but when used in a scene, they can telegraph the truth. A person generally crosses their legs toward a person they like and away from a person they are not interested in. If you write that a character smiled and crossed her legs away from him, it’s obvious what is going on, even though in life we seldom catch on as quickly.

The same is true of pointing a foot toward the door. It’s a signal that the person wants to leave, and that seldom-noticed signal becomes obvious when written.

Another bit of body language that works well in print is mirroring. A subordinate mirrors the body language of a leader, so your band of characters might have a nominal leader, but their true leader is the one they ape. Interestingly, team members who works well together have the same posture and body language, which shows the rapport of the group.

The best way of learning body language is simply to watch people. Look at their hands and feet when they talk. Have friends purposely lie to you and see how they act when they do. Pay attention to your own gestures, and try to keep them at a minimum. Not only will you be harder to read, the fewer the gestures, the more intelligent and refined you will seem.