Polite Fiction

At times, ethics and morals seem to give way to politeness.  This is not to say that ethical and moral people are not polite, but rather that these ideals do not always coexist in harmony.  Have we become so focused on not hurting each other that we turn a blind eye to blatant disregard for moral fortitude?  Spouses pretend one is not unfaithful because it might upset the children.  Families ignore one’s alcoholism because it’s too awkward to bring up.  Co-workers keep secrets to avoid incrimination.  So, which is worse – the polite fiction, or admitting the truth?

Although some of the subject matter may have changed, the idea of unfolding a polite lie is not new.  It was identified, named and explored in sociological studies in the early 1950s.  It was a major point in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, when Atticus Finch was arguing with others over “preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life.”  What is the line of acceptable fiction for the sake of safeguarding another’s emotions?

Let’s face it, polite fiction is a lie dressed up in ornamental words.  We tell our children that lying is not tolerable behavior.  We make promises, spoken and implicit, to spouses, bosses and friends that we will not lie to them.  Yet, who has gone a week with only truth from their lips? 

  • ·  Do you answer “fine”, no matter how you really feel, when someone asks “how are you doing”?
  • ·  Have you complimented people when you don’t really mean it?
  • ·  Do you sometimes tell people you did something that you forgot about, and then do it after?
  • ·  Have you ever said “it’s a pleasure to meet you”?

These are polite fiction.  They are relatively harmless.  Does the casual acquaintance really want to know how you are feeling in detail?   Do people want to know that you think their award is trivial, their tie is ugly, or those jeans do make their butt look big?  Does someone you’ve just met want to wait while you talk with them for 60-90 minutes to determine if you think it really is a pleasure to meet them, or just a waste of your time?  Probably – NO.  To keep life moving along and avoid long, useless conversation, we employ polite fiction.  Society has made lying acceptable, even commonplace.

What happens when the lies are not harmless?  The family who struggles with one member’s addiction, yet won’t talk about it, is playing a dangerous game.   An addictive personality can be strong, defensive, even abusive.  Bringing up a delicate subject matter such as this can be like standing in a field during a tornado and asking the storm to move a little to the left.  Often, friends and family are left dancing around the real issue, turning a blind eye, and praying silently.  But, what if keeping silent leads to tragic consequences?

How do you look at someone you love and point out their biggest flaws to their face?  Does it matter if it’s alcoholism, or weight-gain, or bad fashion sense, or poor grammar, or infidelity?  Where are the lines, what are the rules?  We someone need to understand all the moral and ethical components of an issue from every possible angle.  Do we somehow measure the degree of possible emotional injury against the probability of physical harm?  How do we decide when a fiction is polite?

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