As a mediator, I’m obligated to sit in a room, virtual or otherwise, and listen to complete strangers relate the circumstances of their dispute in ways they hope will be compelling and convincing. Occasionally they embellish those stories. Occasionally they lie. How do we, as professional neutrals, discern the truth from the…untruth? Why do we find it so hard to determine when someone is lying to us?
In Malcom Gladwell’s provocative book TALKING TO STRANGERS (Little Brown & Co. 2019), he describes the general public as being incapable of believing when someone is dissembling. He calls it “default to truth”. He describes the length of time it took to believe that one of the best agents in the CIA was actually a Cuban spy in spite of the plethora of warning signs, how incapable most people were of believing Amanda Knox was innocent even after the Italian authorities had badly botched their investigation, of how long it took to believe that Jerry Sandusky was guilty of gross and prolonged child abuse, because most people would rather believe what we’re told by those whom we are conditioned to believe must be telling us the truth.
During my previous life, as a continuation high school English teacher, I was lied to all the time. Well, not exactly lied to. More like I was told whatever would work at the time. If it happened to be a lie, if it worked, best not to let morality get in the way. It was more a matter of survival, not cunning. I had asked my students on one assignment to write an original love poem, making sure to include certain specific rhetorical and literary devices. What they didn’t know was that if anything in their writing appeared to be written by someone else, it was a relatively simple process, using the computer, to establish their plagiarism. Nevertheless, they tried. In one, rather artful attempt, I discovered, in a couple of minutes, his beautiful poem was nothing more than a badly constructed amalgamation of the lyrics from several songs of that student’s favorite band. He was a really good student, so it was difficult for me to accept that he had cheated, even though I had the proof in front of me. I asked him how long it had taken him to write his masterpiece, to which he replied, in badly faked exhaustion, that he had been up all night with no one awake to help him. I had by this time, without his knowing, constructed a chart on my computer with lines running between the lyrics and his poem.
After a while I asked the student to join me in my “office” which was a bench outside my classroom, which he duly did, traipsing resignedly out the door before me where I met him a few minutes later, whereupon I asked him again if he really had written it all by himself. He responded this time with an enthusiastic and vigorous nodding of his head, while my spirits were simultaneously plummeting because I had to admit to myself that he was, indeed, lying. I then cut to the chase and asked him point blank if he hadn’t copied his lines word for word from the band’s lyrics, to which he made the sound, I knew by this time, that was the eternal ‘tell’ of any student caught in a lie. He said “Huh?”, followed predictably by a massive display of indignation and fury at having been accused of such duplicity. He was bigger than me, so I had to stay calm even as he continued to loudly protest his innocence right through my having informed him that I was going to fail him for the assignment.
There were many, many more situations when I had to make the hard decision that the nicest, sweetest, kindest students in my class were inveterate liars. We are conditioned by our culture, upbringing, and experiences, as Gladwell so eloquently explains, to believe innocence in the face of overwhelming guilt. As mediators, it helps to acknowledge these blind spots before we enter the arena.