People lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.
“How are you today?”
“Fine, how are you?”
I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.
That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.
Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.
I’ve heard a lot of white person scripts lately. And you know, I think they all boil down to that same first example: how are you today? Fine. You have to be fine. I can’t handle it if you’re not fine. I don’t want to hear it if you’re not fine.
A lot of these scripts are excuses. They’re things we repeat to explain why, when faced with how very obviously not fine people are, it’s their fault.
For example, have you heard that if you just work hard and don’t spend money on drugs or cigarettes or booze, you can raise yourself out of poverty? Because it has to be your fault if you can’t, because then you’re not fine, and then I might have to do something about it. I might have to look at what kind of system makes that “true” for me and not for you.
Or have you heard that race doesn’t matter and hiring should focus on the most competent people? Because then if you can’t get the job, or you’re always losing it to the white kid, it’s your fault for not being competent. Because then you’re not fine, and then I have to look at what kind of system things race doesn’t matter except white people are more competent.
Or have you heard that if you get pulled over by the police, you should just cooperate and stay calm and it will be fine? You’ll be fine, and you won’t end up like Sandra Bland or Eric Garner or any of the long list of people who must have done something wrong, they really must have, because if they didn’t, they weren’t fine, and we’d have to admit that. We’d have to acknowledge that by the time you’re talking to the police, doing it right is no guarantee of anything. We’d have to acknowledge that you lose control of what happens to you at the point when you are talking to the police in the first place, and we’d have to acknowledge that that means you never had any control. And then we’d have to ask what kind of system decides that cops should disproportionately spend their time in black communities and on black men and women. And then we’d have to ask how we can use words like “minority” to describe black Americans when the people in our prisons are, by a vast majority, black. And then we’d have to admit that no, you’re not fine.
By and large, we don’t want to do that. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s not a white experience, so if you’re white, it’s easy to tell yourself it isn’t anyone’s experience. That the people who say otherwise must be wrong or lying. Because they’re not following the script. They’re not fine.
So, how are you today?
Do you really want to know?
Or would you prefer a white lie?
Image Credit: Daniel Gies
I am white and yet I have found myself in the position of those not ‘fine’. Why? Because the experiences I’ve been through as a woman growing up in a poor and dysfunctional family offend some people’s sensibilities! I have been treated like a rape victim trying to explain that, “No, I didn’t ask for it or like it”. Who are these culprits that minimize a persons suffering because they can’t handle it? Usually a spouse who doesn’t want to ‘hear it’. Or maybe it’s the neighbor who doesn’t want his or her impression of the neighborhood tainted in anyway! Perhaps someone identifies too strongly with what you might be sharing and doesn’t ‘want to go there’II think the best weapon against this coldness of scripting is to just be open to listen. No one has to listen to someone’s life story but a listening ear and a kind heart can do wonders for the hurting person. Acknowledging injustice does not imply guilt, just compassion. If there is guilt, than perhaps that is a gentle nudge in the direction of doing something more than talking about it. Too bad this is so ingrained to lie about the state of affairs but sometimes its better to be silent about one’s difficulties rather than spoiling the mood. I’m not saying this is always the best course. But discretion has to be used and discernment present. Next time someone asks how you are doing, you don’t have to lie. Just to honest in your heart and decide to answer truthfully but with discretion.