Mail Bag: What Is Something That Is an Instant Deal Breaker for You?

Joshua,

What is a trait or behavior that is an instant deal breaker for you or that can cause you to reevaluate a person negatively?

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For better or worse, each of us is influenced to some degree by our childhoods.  No matter how much you change, no matter how far you travel or how differently your own life turns out, some elements remain a part of the fabric that makes you who you are.  I’m no exception.

If you’ve been around the blog for a few years, you know I grew up in small town America, in an insular bubble within which protestant Christianity was ingrained in the fabric of our day-to-day experience; Christian school, twice-a-week Church, nightly Bible readings, Christian movies, Christian sermons-on-tape that constantly played throughout the house, office, and car, Christian music, prayer before every meal, prayer before going to bed every night, prayer before we left for class in the morning, tithing 10% of your income, Christenings, Baptisms.  My parents were (and are) devout in every sense of the word.  They believe that God entrusted their children to them; that their obligation to Him was to prepare us for life as best they knew how and in a way that would honor Him so we walked around as representatives of Heaven itself, our conduct being a testimony to those we didn’t even know were watching.

In my parents’ home, for the oldest three children (given the age difference, we effectively grew up in a different household than our youngest sister) there was one rule that superseded all other rules.  It’d go so far as to say it was THE rule.  In other areas, you could negotiate or compromise.  Not here.  It was not to be violated under any circumstance save life or death necessity, even if it led to personal ruin or the end of relationships.  It was absolute in its tyranny and the consequences severe if violated.  You could fail a class.  You could destroy a car in a wreck.  You could get fired from a job.  As long as you learned the lesson from it, they may not be happy about it, and would try to get you to understand what you did wrong, but there wasn’t punishment in the traditional sense because they considered it part of growing up and learning how to be an adult; how to deal with the ramifications of your choices.  If you broke this rule, though, all bets were off.

The rule: Do not lie.

You do not lie for social lubrication.  You do not lie to make someone feel better.  You do not lie to avoid conflict.  You do not lie for the sake of efficiency.  You do not give false compliments.  You do not say something you don’t mean.  In all things, at all times unless it will lead to death or a potentially catastrophic outcome (something that will rarely, if ever, happen in your life if you are setting the bar high enough), be truthful.  “There is no such thing as a white lie” my mother used to remind us.  When you lie to someone, even with good intentions, you are treating them with a lack of respect; as if you don’t think they are good enough or capable enough to handle your honest opinion.  You are failing to respect yourself by thinking your opinion isn’t worthy of being heard.  It allows you to be lazy to avoid dealing with things that need to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

It was tied to a broader lesson on integrity, which is my dad’s most cherished issue.  He drilled it into us constantly that we should make active choices in life and then own those choices even if they turn out to be a mistake.  If you’re going to do something, you should have the conviction and respect for yourself to acknowledge that you are doing it, to accept the consequences, and make no apologies for your behavior unless you genuinely wish you would have changed your conduct upon retrospection or reflection.

All of this was wrapped up in theology; part and parcel, largely inseparable from scripture.  “You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie to one another”, Leviticus 19:11.  “I hate and abhor lying: but your law do I love.” Psalms 119:163.  “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but they that deal truly are his delight.”  Proverbs 12:22.  “A righteous man hates lying, but a wicked man is loathsome and comes to shame.”  Proverbs 13:5.  “A faithful witness will not lie but a false witness will utter lies.”  Proverbs 14:5.  “Excellent speech becomes not a fool much less do lying lips a prince.”  Proverbs 17:7.  “Let no corrupt speech proceed from your mouth but that which is good and edifying that it may minister grace to those who hear it”, Ephesians 4:29.  “Do not lie to one another seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds”, Colossians 3:9.  “You shall not bear false witness”, repeated in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.  Even acts of lying; e.g., “The Lord hates false scales, but he loves accurate weights.”, Proverbs 11:1.

Along with this, we were also taught that we had a right to our personal space, including privacy.  It’s okay to say, “It’s none of your business,” or refuse to comment.  It is not your obligation to correct the idle gossip, misunderstandings, assumptions, mistakes, or erroneous conclusions of others provided you aren’t actively encouraging them (e.g., the Berkshire Hathaway policy of refusing to address rumors or correct statements others have made which aren’t accurate under the theory if you start that practice, later on, silence becomes confirmation).  If anything, information asymmetry can sometimes work heavily in your favor.  It’s also okay to legitimately change your mind if additional information becomes available or you’ve had a chance to reflect on something.  “You do you” can best sum up the philosophy.  If that bothers or offends people, too bad.  You cannot live your life held hostage to their emotions.  You have a right to arrange your life how you want as long as you aren’t harming others.

As we grew older, particularly in our twenties, we learned to couple this truthfulness with political sophistication; to mix kindness and humor with total honesty so it wasn’t offensive (anyone who tells you that always being truthful requires being mean-spirited or acting like a jerk is either looking for a justification to be cruel or they are not particularly bright).  People respond to the spirit and tone of your words just as much as they do the content of them.  It was a bumpy road sometimes, especially when we each went out into the world on our own leaving the safety of the nest but that’s part of growing up and becoming an adult.

I didn’t realize until the past few years how radical – truly, radical in its total departure from cultural norms – our upbringing was in this regard; that people lie all the time about the smallest, most insignificant things.  Realizing how frequently people do it was a hard thing for me to internalize to the point it caused emotional pain because I didn’t want to believe it.

Even though I understand the arguments from evolutionary psychology – a field that requires you take the theories with more than a few grains of salt compared to the harder sciences as much of it is still glorified guesswork compare to something like physics or chemistry – stating deception was an adaptive advantage that allowed greater survival under certain circumstances, and know that the only reason I feel this way is because I was brought up with the luxury of an environment where we weren’t punished for telling the truth (e.g., how would I feel if I had a parent that burned me with cigarettes if I did something wrong and admitted it?), I still sometimes have a hard time internally accepting that people can behave this way even though evidence has demonstrated it time and time again: There are a not-insignificant percentage of people who lie simply because they can.  They lie so frequently, they don’t even realize they are doing it.  To them, it’s like breathing air.

You’ve seen it.

They are sitting in a restaurant and answer their phone, “Oh, sorry, can’t talk right now because I’m in traffic”.

They were sneaking out for a break and when you ask where they were, “Coming back from the restroom”.

They compliment someone on their outfit then talk about how terrible it was when they are out of earshot.

They applaud someone’s work rather than their work ethic when a lot of time went into an end product that is clearly subpar.

They praise a dish when they didn’t like the flavors or execution.

They tell you they like a perfume when they can’t stand it.

When I witness it in someone, even if it is intended to be polite or inconsequential, it is as if an impenetrable metal wall instantly slams up in my heart and my head like some scene in a Science Fiction movie when the alarms are sounded.  They’re most likely never getting in because I can’t trust them.  I may dine with them.  I make joke with them.  I may be friendly with them.  They’re never entering my internal orbit.  Aside from losing respect for them, I can’t help but feel that they are effectively saying, “I don’t trust or respect you enough to be honest with you.  I don’t value myself to stand up for my opinion.  I’m not clever or intelligent enough to be honest in a way that won’t offend you so I’m taking the lazy way out of this.”  It is visceral; something that happens in the deepest core of who I am.  Even if I inclined to change it, I’m not sure I could overcome the response.  My parents managed to get it in the BIOS.

I even find harmless lying repulsive despite knowing most people give it no thought, rather turning it into a click-whirr thing.  Case in point: Earlier tonight, there was a series of comments on Reddit with thousands of aggregate upvotes about how the only acceptable answer to if someone asks, “How are you?” is “Fine”, even if you have been mauled by a tiger.  That’s nonsense.  It is as if it genuinely doesn’t occur to people you can either communicate your honest answer without giving a speech (“Great!”, “Tired”, “Trying to make it through the day”, “Relieved”) or dodge the question entirely with a, “Nice to see you” or even a non-sequitur (most people won’t notice) such as, “Looking forward to seeing the new Bond movie.”  Lying cheapens you.  It’s lazy.  By not going on autopilot, you also practice your political skills, your mental adeptness, and a host of other things tied to social interaction.  Do not lie.  Refuse to do it.  Be better.  Choose better.

The crazy thing is, people who are addicted to this sort of casual lying, who do it without even consciously thinking about it, often believe that everybody else is lying, too.  It’s as if it doesn’t occur to them it’s a choice and they don’t have to do it.  It’s bizarre.

(On a related note, if you want people to be honest with you, you have to create an atmosphere that makes it possible.  People respond to incentives and if you make them uncomfortable, or attack them, whenever they say something you don’t like, you’re only harming yourself in the long-run.  If you ask for someone’s opinion on something, and they give it in a genuine way, don’t react negatively if you don’t like it.  They are giving you a gift; a different set of eyes and experiences through which you can evaluate something before deciding whether or not you want to discard it or adapt it in whole or part.  In some cases, it may simply be a matter of “de gustibus non est disputandum” and all of that, which is perfectly fine.  Not everything is everyone’s cup of tea.  You may decide they are wrong or that you don’t want to modify whatever it is you asked about in the first place, which is your prerogative.)

Of course, as with all things in life, there is a downside: When you adapt this, making the choice to lie becomes almost unbearable because it’s a willful violation of your dearest principles.  You remember each transgression.  Even when it’s justified by an analysis of the facts, it doesn’t sit quite right.  In my own case, I’ve lied only a handful of times in my life (I really don’t think those of you who didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist religious environment can fathom how ingrained some of these lessons were in every facet of daily experience – the stories I could tell about how my parents hammered it in even in unexpected ways) and virtually every one of them was to protect Aaron and myself before people knew we were together; a conscious, calculated decision to guard against outcomes that could have destroyed us during a period when the country was much more hostile.  Even knowing that if I went back in time, I’d likely have to make the same choice again to protect us as we amassed assets and cash generators – the world was a very, very different place.  You already know that when we went off to college, our relationship was literally a crime in 13 states, including part of Missouri, that could have resulted in jail time and/or fines because the Supreme Court had not yet handed down Lawrence v. Texas and something like the Obergefell decision wasn’t even a thing you could allow yourself to hope. – I hate that it happened.  I absolutely hate it.  However, I made a choice and have to live with that choice.  It was rational.  It was optimal.  It was necessary.  It still wasn’t right.  It will most likely always bother me.  It’s something I accept.

If any of you are members of the casual lying club, I want you to do something for me.  Seriously, I want you to try this.  Right now, decide that you are no longer going to lie.  Make a choice that you will not say anything that is not true, no matter how tiny it is.  Whenever you catch yourself doing it, immediately apologize on the spot and say, “I just lied to you because ______ [insert honest reason why you lied]. Here’s what I should’ve said _____.”  (Don’t give yourself an out on this because the disutility of the social shame can make adapting the new habit a lot easier.)  Keep track of each day you get through without lying, even once, and mark it off on a calendar.  Your objective is to avoid “breaking the chain” – to never have a day where you fail to get another link the long line of “X”‘s you’ve made.

It may be painful at first but it can substantially improve your life in the long-run.  You never have to keep track of your story.  You never have to worry about someone discovering you’ve deceived them.  You learn to think more quickly and be more diplomatic.  You also get two other dividends: 1. You eliminate a lot of low-quality people from your life because the fact you won’t cover for their bad behavior or look the other way makes them avoid you like the plague.  2. You attract a lot of high-quality people of integrity into your life.  It’s a better, less stressful way to live.

But, yeah … the lying thing, I don’t like it.  At all.  If I were working with someone, even if they were great at their job and I otherwise thought highly of them, it’d be extremely difficult for me to ever put any trust in them if I saw them engaging in casual lying, no matter how small.  If you’re going to lie about something so insignificant, how can I believe in your integrity on the big stuff?  You’ve already demonstrated your threshold for deception is practically non-existent.  I realize it’s weird.  I realize that almost nobody else seems bothered by it.  Perhaps it’s even a bit of an unfair standard since the behavior is so ubiquitous but it’s certainly served me well as a screening tool.

Another thing is how people treat those who they think are beneath them, such as talking down to a waiter, salesperson or janitor.  If someone is earning an honest living, doing good work, and you think they are somehow beneath you because you make more money, I’m probably never going to be able to overlook it because it strikes me as a deep, perhaps even intractable, character flaw.  You’re going to eat the food they bring you and enjoy the clean facilities they provide then think they are somehow less than you?  No.  It’s an instantaneous aversion.  Then again, my parents and the religious upbringing were responsible for this, too.  “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to to the least of my brethren, you did it to Me.”, Matthew 25:40.  “… God is no respecter of persons”, Acts 10:34.  If God Himself weren’t making a distinction between the Chairman of the Board and the immigrant scrubbing the toilet, seeing them both as equal in His eyes, who were we to behave differently?

It’s funny … the stuff that stays with you; the things you don’t even fully realize how much they become a part of who you are and how you see the world.