A few recent events in my barely bloggable life, plus a discussion on the ELT World Forum provided the inspiration for this post. It's about lying, and whether or not the notion of a lie can be culturally bound. In Turkey, foreigners often run into situations where they are lied to, and are left with the feeling that, as a whole, this is a culture that doesn't value honesty very much, and that people will happily hand you a load of bullshit to keep you from getting upset with them or to serve their own ends. In the schools where many of us work, we quickly learn that being honest gets you screwed and the teachers who are comfortable with dishonesty are rewarded.
But despite having been bullshitted or lied to repeatedly here by my husband, his family, public servants, and other workers at various establishments, I'm hesitant to indict the entire culture as liars. I'm less hesitant to question the character of the people who have lied to me, while at the same time I recognize that they themselves don't view what they're doing as lying per se, at least not the way that I think of as lying. I'm more inclined to think that, growing up in the US, the rules I have learned about what is lying and what is morally wrong apply very differently here.
Here's an example of a small lie anybody is likely to encounter here that perhaps demonstrates a bigger picture of one aspect of lying in Turkey. You are looking for a place and ask someone for directions. He doesn't have the faintest idea where the place is, yet enthusiastically gives you very detailed directions that send you well out of your way. To me, this is a lie. If the guy doesn't know, he should just say 'I don't know.' But in Turkish culture, people tend to want to avoid giving bad news. Not knowing where something is counts as bad news, so a lot of people will just pretend they know where it is. To me, I'd just rather be given the bad news and go ask someone else. Turkish people know about this bad news thing, and so will rarely ask just one person for directions. They'll stop, ask one person, go a few blocks and ask another, and go a few blocks more and confirm it with a third person. That American notion that it's shameful for a man to ask directions absolutely doesn't exist here, which, given the unreliable street signs and even more unreliable directions people give, is a very, very good thing.
Some of the lies I've come across recently show a person trying to avoid giving bad news. It's just that as a foreigner, I'm not always clear on what constitutes bad news, and, where a Turkish person can easily understand he's being lied to, I'm not very good at guessing when the person is lying. Also, unlike the Turkish person, I get really pissed off when I realize I've been lied to. But it's not just to avoid giving bad news that people lie, I find. Another big reason for lying is to keep someone from getting upset with you. This pisses me off too, when someone just looks me in the face and tells me something I know is absolutely untrue. It makes me feel like they think I'm stupid or that they have no respect for me at all. Turkish people are mixed in their reactions to these kinds of lies. Sometimes they get mad, while other times they appreciate the gesture of someone trying to avoid upsetting them (I should note that when I talk about lying to keep someone from getting upset with you, I'm not talking about the white lies that are acceptable in American culture, like the kind we tell to avoid hurting someone's feelings. I'm talking about lies people tell so you won't get angry with them, which to me is a big difference). The third kind of lie, the kind people tell in order to achieve some sort of personal gain, makes everyone angry. You can get these lies from complete strangers (like produce sellers who assure you something is organic), but more often they come from employers, friends, neighbors, and people you trusted and thought you knew relatively well. I find these kinds of lies are a lot more prevalent here than in my social circle at home.
Also more prevalent here is academic dishonesty and plagiarism. While most people seem to have the notion that it's 'bad,' no one really bats an eyelid about it. My students generally believed that the only people who didn't cheat were the ones who were so smart they didn't need to, and the ones who were too stupid to think of cheating. I was always pretty shocked by the amount of cheating that went on, and even more shocked by the administrations' total lack of response to cheating. Everyone cheating in school is another reason I prefer going to doctors who were educated outside of Turkey-- I'd rather not be operated on or diagnosed by someone who cheated on all of his exams and plagiarized his research. In Turkey, cheating is acceptable because no one gets punished for it, or at least the punishments aren't severe enough for anyone to care. But this also got me wondering, wouldn't more American students cheat if the consequences for it weren't so serious? And if that's true, wouldn't we also tell a lot more lies if we knew we'd get away with it without very much trouble?
I'm going to give some examples of situations I've come across recently, and I'll leave it to my dear readers in their various cultural contexts to decide whether or not it was lying, or if the lying was somehow justifiable.
1) One Saturday, your in-laws ask you to drive across town so they can look at your baby. After you've sat in traffic for an hour and a half to get there, they look at the baby for ten minutes then announce they're taking the car (which you share with them) to go to a wedding in another part of town that's a half hour away in no traffic, and as much as two hours in traffic. You are angry with them because you'd made plans with people, and you hadn't counted on spending a whole Saturday sitting at your in-laws watching TV. Your mother-in-law assures you they will only be gone an hour, which, unless they are planning to teleport to the wedding, is absolutely impossible.
2) Your husband phones to tell you he's going to his parents' for dinner. Knowing this usually includes meeting his old neighborhood friends for a late night out drinking, you ask him what time he's going to be home. Your husband has plans to meet some of these friends in a restaurant after dinner, but he doesn't mention this and tells you he'll be home at nine or ten. Around ten, you remember you need something from the market, so you call your husband to ask him to pick it up on his way home. He tells you he's at a restaurant and they're waiting on the check. At 11:45, you've gotten a little worried so you call again to make sure he's okay, and he tells you he's on his way home when you can hear that he's in fact sitting in his car with his friends drinking beer. When he arrives home drunk at 1:30 and you're ready kill him, he is very taken aback that you're accusing him of lying.
3) An old family friend proposes going into business together. The initial investment is pretty small-- a few thousand dollars-- and you assume he has this cash ready because he approached you with the proposal and because it's not a huge amount of money. The money is needed to buy materials, and this family friend knows you have good relationships and good credit with people who sell these materials. You order the materials and have them shipped, at which point the friend tells you he doesn't have enough money to pay for them. He expects that you will pay your part up front and he repeatedly promises to send a post-dated check (these are big here, checks post-dated for months in the future) which never materializes.
4) The ATM machine eats your card. You go into the bank and find out it was eaten because it was expired. You want to order a new ATM card. The teller knows he can't do this from his branch because it can only be done at the branch where you opened the account. Nonetheless, he takes down your address and assures you the new card will arrive in 7-10 business days.
5) You sign a one-year contract with a school. Shortly before you begin work, they find that not enough students have enrolled and they don't need you after all, not right away. Because you're on contract, they ask you to re-write their placement exams. The director explains their current exams are out of date and poorly done, so he wants the new ones to be completely different. You gather materials and show the director what you plan to do, and he tells you it's great and wonderful. A week later, you give him the finished work and he tells you it's not what he had in mind at all because it's nothing like the old exams. You do not get paid for the work.
Of course, every culture has its notions of morality and what is right and wrong. Some of these notions are the same the world over, while others have their various shades of acceptability. All of the lies I mentioned above would not be worth telling to any American I know because they'd get so angry and upset with you it could ruin the relationship and/or your reputation. To me, some of the above lies are merely annoying, while others are very insulting, and still others are downright unethical and might even be worth a little civil suit to recoup your losses. Americans, to be sure, are used to other kinds of lying, like insurance companies who promise to cover certain types of care or infomercials for products that promise to grow hair or make you thin. It's not that we think these things are right, but we accept their limited veracity and don't feel very surprised by them. We also accept that no one is going to punish the insurance company for not keeping a promise, and that anyone who believes a pill can make them lose 50 pounds in a week is probably too stupid to not get ripped off. And there are probably still other types of lies in everyday American culture that I'm not even aware of but that a foreigner in America would pick up on and be upset by.
It's funny to me, funny-strange I mean, how we tend to think of lies and truth as absolutes, when in fact even this isn't exactly true at all.