Quote: “Kids learn two messages: ‘Always tell the truth,’ and the other is, ‘Not really.’” Robert Feldman, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, quoted in the Washington Post.
Figure of Speech: equivocation (e-quiv-o-CA-tion), the figure of lying but not really. From the Latin, meaning “to call equal.”
Dr. Feldman claims that your average person tells a lie every 5 minutes. The most popular people fib every 50 seconds. How can that be? Figaro has an answer.
The psychologist’s syntax may be a little dicey, but much of what he describes counts as equivocation, a figure of circumlocution — the art of speaking around a subject. Kids learn this pretty early. “Parents venerate Washington and Lincoln,” Feldman says, “but also tell their children there are instances you should not be honest: ‘Tell your grandmother you like the gift even though you really don’t.’ “
Now, your brighter kid will try to split the difference by equivocating — saying something technically true in a way that’s meant to deceive. Is this lying? That depends on what your definition of is is.
Figaro expects that those noble sorts who lie the least tend to focus on the past and present, where the truth sits unassailable. Arguments that use these tenses are the most susceptible to anger, because they focus on blame (“Who used up the toothpaste?”) and values (“A good wife doesn’t let the toothpaste run out.”)
As Figaro explains in his book, the most productive arguments — and the most popular people — focus on the future. (“How are we going to keep the toothpaste from running out?”) Since we can only guess what will happen in the future, the truth lacks the high standing that it has in the other tenses.
We would never encourage you to lie, of course. But taking a short detour around the truth now and then (say, every 50 seconds) can lead to happy marriages and well-ordered nations.
Snappy Answer: “Figaro has never told a lie. Except for this one.”