Monday, April 21, 2008

Pants On Fire

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.


rebecca said...

Oh how many times have I said 'liar liar pants on fire' here!

I think the Turkish version of honesty can be summed up in this little story:
Before we were married my husband and I took a trip by bus along part of the south coast. We started in Alanya and went on to Antalya. Somewhere between Antalya and Fethiye (if I remember correctly) my husband's cousin called him and asked his whereabouts, 'Ankara' my husband replied!

I asked him indignantly why he had lied and he was genuinely surprised. 'Well if I tell him where we really are and all the places we are visiting, he won't believe me but if I say 'Ankara' he will.' In other words it is much more important to appear truthful than to be truthful....

Have you noticed that Western people also start lying after they have been here long enough? The HR manager where I work (in other words a teacher who hung around long enough to rise to some position in management) is a consumate liar. He recently got wind of my opinion on this and called a meeting with me just to assure me he did not tell lies. I think he has started to believe them himself.

Stranger said...

Yeah, a very everyday lie, like a 30 year-old man saying on the phone to his mother who invariably has to know what he's doing at all times 'Hi Mother, I'm at home,' when background noise would indicate he's clearly in a crowded disco, or when my husband has just crawled out of bed and his father calls to see why he's not at work yet and he says in a voice clogged with sleep, 'I'm on my way, I'll be there in 15 minutes,' when he couldn't possibly be there in less than an hour. In both cases the one lied to doesn't seem to care.

I agree with you about many Westerners starting this too-- at the first school where I worked, it was the British DOS who told the most lies and mislead everyone that we would eventually be paid, keeping right up with the Turkish manager giving the same assurances...

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm, perhaps this paper coupled with your experience (esp. in business dealings) might provide some insight into why this country is not as rich as it could be.

siobhan said...

Interesting post and interesting observations. I've often had the impression that I'm being lied to but have never thought too much about it because that would mean admitting that all kinds of people I should trust are BIG FAT LIARS. Of course it's just a cultural difference and vive la difference as they say. I have to say though that I don't know whether to laugh or get angry when certain people give me such over the top compliments on my appearence. They are so exaggerated that I'd have a hard time swallowing them even if I didn't look like I'd been dragged through a hedge backwards wearing tramp's clothes most of the time. Back home you'd think people were being sarcastic but no it's really intended as an ego-boost, fortunately my ego and my appearance cut ties around week 32 of my pregnancy and haven't managed to reconcile things yet.

Stranger said...

Bülent, as usual you are a wealth of interesting links. Thanks for that one!

I tried to respond sooner, but was foiled by a sudden power cut. I've heard the frequency of power cuts here is due, in part, to the unknown number of people who are stealing their electricity and the strain on the grid this causes. I'm just saying is all...

In my post, I didn't really get into the rampant corruption, bribery, nepotism and cronyism that seems endemic to every system and institution in Turkey. I find this one of the most frustrating and demoralizing things about living here (though I suppose I wouldn't feel this so much if I had more money or the contacts to work the system), and it just drives me insane how people just accept it even when they're the ones getting screwed. So that paper did indeed cast a very interesting light on the apparent stagnation of Turkey's economy...

And before I'm accused of taking the moral American high ground, I think it's possible to say America's faltering economy and place in the world could also be related to ethics losing intrinsic value, at least in terms of domestic policy. But maybe I'm just getting old and feeling nostalgic for a past that never was.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

I've heard the frequency of power cuts here is due, in part, to the unknown number of people who are stealing their electricity and the strain on the grid this causes.

I don't think that's it. Have you noticed how nobody in a position of power ever apologises here after they fail to keep these services operational? There's no theft in internet connectivity but that goes down also, and I don't see anyone uttering a couple of magic words expressing their ackowledgement of their accountability. This might simply be how monopolies behave when they also happen to be the government (which has a long long history here and wasn't always of the sort that would be answerable to anyone, domestic or foreign).

I can tie this in to the main idea of that paper. Since the people you pay for your electricity appear unwilling to be fussy about uninterrupted service, you end up sinking capital into uninterruptable power supplies, back-up generators, water tanks etc. This is a cost that a computer guy working from home in the US doesn't have to shoulder, but I (while living in Istanbul) have to. It is inefficient of course, and I suspect there are many such inefficiencies everywhere. I hate to quote Friedman on this but I think he nails it when he says:

This is America's real edge. Sure Bangalore has a lot of engineering schools, but the local government is rife with corruption; half the city has no sidewalks; there are constant electricity blackouts; the rivers are choked with pollution; the public school system is dysfunctional; beggars dart in and out of the traffic, which is in constant gridlock; and the whole infrastructure is falling apart. The big high-tech firms here reside on beautiful, walled campuses, because they maintain their own water, electricity and communications systems. They thrive by defying their political-economic environment, not by emerging from it. (emphasis mine)

Turkey is no India of course, but the same idea appears to be applicable.

...and it just drives me insane how people just accept it even when they're the ones getting screwed.

Well they do produce literature. This is not new, it goes back to the time of Fuzuli (of the "I saluted them, but they wouldn't acknowlede it since it wasn't a bribe" fame) at least. We were just talking about his elsewhere and I linked in a few more modern and profane versions that express very much the same frustrations.

And before I'm accused of taking the moral American high ground, I think it's possible to say America's faltering economy and place in the world could also be related to ethics losing intrinsic value, at least in terms of domestic policy.

I am not really knowledgeable in this, obviously, but I will attempt to opine. In the US you do have "Rule of Law" and it does work at least in its plain juridical sense. Even though that kind of a working system makes life a lot simpler for folks blessed with the gift of literacy, it also opens the door for the introduction of legal and systemic biases that can in themselves be corrupt and corrupting. While being actors in and effectively causing the recent woes, people were simply being their law-abiding contract-honoring profit-seeking hard-working ethical selves. It was simply that the playing field was warped by their political and finance establishments also acting perfectly within the law -- if not following it as in the case of the FED. To screw up like this requires adherence to the law in unison and everybody doing their job as dictated by the rules. You couldn't get people here to behave like that by a set of written rules unless it was backed up by or based on tradition and "Turkish psyche" (eg we do manage to get our army to work despite its huge size). It is higly likely that we'd corrupt such institutions in petty ways way before they could work to do their systemic damage.

Observations of this kind of contrast between systems that work as intended and systems that don't work but produce a culture that manages to survive is beginning to get currency among the (secular) 'doomer' kind of fringe groups. I must say some of the more academic-oriented ones are begining to look somewhat less kooky with the recent trends and volatility in equity, commodity and housing markets. Orlov has an interesting comparison between the SU and the US that made its rounds in such circles.

But maybe I'm just getting old and feeling nostalgic for a past that never was.

Oh it was as you remember, alright. At least, I think so. I myself was there to witness it being its wonderful self. It isn't altogether clear that's been lost either. Of course, I know I'm getting old and feeling nostalgic, but if even a snooty Turk thinks highly of a country and her people there just might be something special about that place.

Anonymous said...

I own a small tome by Harry G. Frankfurt, a retired Princeton professor of philsophy entitled, "On Bullshit." It's a reprint of an essay he wrote and is important to this discussion.

With all the anecdotes and interpretations of Turkish lies, bullshit has to enter into the discussion. While bullshit is a form of untruth, it is not a lie. To quote from the essay:

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correrspondinly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true or of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all,as the lies of the honest man and the liar are..."

In other words, a major difference between a lie and bullshit is that the liar knows what the truth is, while the bullshitter couldn't care less about it. I prefer a liar over a bullshitter any day.

An aside: I sell real estate and I continue to be stunned at how most real estate sales people believe salesmen who are so clearly bullshitting them.

But as regards Turkey, I'm really interested in the distinction between bullshit and lying. As I read through everyone's stories, it strikes me that Turks involved are bullshitting more than lying. I kind of think many Americans are more annoyed with bullshit than lies, which is why we give our political leaders a pass when it turns out they bullshitted instead of lied (Example: "Freedom is on the march in Iraq," vs. "I did not have sex with that woman."

Stranger said...

Lack of accountability is, of course, another problem with the system here. Why bother doing your job when you get paid either way, and no one will take you to task for not doing it? Americans, I'm sure, would be just as lackluster in their work and ethics if there weren't so many controls in place to keep us from lying and stealing, but the fact that we have these controls, that everyone more or less accepts them, and that totally corrupt behavior is the exception rather than the norm probably shows that the culture somehow values ethical behavior.

That Orlov link was really interesting. I don't know how to do the hyperlink thing in comments, but I recently read this article ( which is what got me thinking that corruption and lack of ethics in America are, in fact, becoming the norm, though I can't decide if economic collapse is a cause or a symptom. Maybe both. It seems there was a time we used to care about the poor and downtrodden, sort of, at least enough to keep them well and happy enough to do their menial jobs, but those safety nets have almost completely unraveled, the middle class is shrinking, and a class of super-rich is emerging. And it's certainly true that Americans can no longer expect their government to provide them with disaster relief or a strong infrastructure that would help prevent/mitigate disasters, let alone things like decent public education and social welfare. Interesting that the article I mentioned above is also excerpted here (, on an investor's website posting it as a hot tip for getting in on disaster capitalism on the ground floor.

I've also recently read 'On Bullshit,' and I read it with Turkey in mind, or rather, thinking about whether Frankfurt's essay really applies in this culture. It does, as Anonymous points out, but in a different way, I think. Here, bullshit and lies are often one and the same, and of course people do get angry at some lies, and they get angry at some bullshit while accepting other bullshit, just as Americans do. In everyday life, however, people are happier to accept outright lies ("I'm going to Ankara," "I'll be there in 15 minutes," "You look so fabulous,") because of their social value-- people tell these lies to make other people happy, and the one lied to recognises this even as he or she recognises the lie. An American, however, would regard these lies as insults or a breach of trust.