The Casual Rhythm of Lying
It was Friday. I had taken the day off and had little to do but lay in bed and worry about what was going on at work without me. I was antsy not doing anything, so I decided to take a walk and buy some boxers. As I put my shoes on, I winced at the thought of spending my day off buying underwear. I mean, there is really nothing more mundane in life then going to buy underwear in the middle of the afternoon, but I had needed them for awhile and it was a pleasant walk that took me through Gilham Park, past the Nelson and into the Plaza.
At the store I examined the wide selection of stripes, checks and polka dots then picked out four pair. The young woman at the counter wrung me up and placed them in a shiny blue bag. I walked back with the bag the same way I had come, holding it by the strings as it casually bounced against my leg.
By the time I got to Gilham park I had given up on holding the bag by its string and was clutching the actual plastic making it look much smaller. I looked at my phone. 12:01.
There was a middle aged woman sitting on a bench smiling at me as I walked toward her.
"Lunch time?" she asked rather buoyantly.
I smiled and responded "Oh yeah," trying to match her upbeat tone.
I was now walking past the bench where she sat.
"Did your wife pack your lunch?"
In a split second I realized that she had assumed that the blue bag I was carrying was my lunch. Not wanting to stop and explain things I suddenly found myself answering, "Yes."
"What did she pack you?"
I struggled for another second and then replied "A sandwich."
I was now moving away from her to the point I had to look back to answer.
"Are you eating your lunch in the park?" she joyfully asked with anticipation.
I was now much further away, but still could recognize the happiness this question seemed to bring her, and so I answered, "Yes."
"That's the way to do it!" she said beaming and gave me a big thumbs up.
I returned the smile and continued to walk on. The whole exchange took about 20 seconds, but as I walked, I contemplated each step of it and tried to make sense of how so easily she had have turned me into such a liar.
She initially asked a question that was relatively straightforward. 'Is it lunch time?' I had primed myself by looking at my watch to answer the question literally. It was noon. People eat lunch at noon. It was lunch time. In doing so I committed myself to a statement that meant two different things to two different people. In my mind it meant the time of day and in her mind it meant 'my lunch time'.
We both made a number of assumptions in a matter of seconds. Not only did she assume I was eating lunch, possibly taking off work from my job she assumed that I had, but that I had a wife who was nice enough to pack my lunch for me. And she did this all so ecstatically. She pulled me in with her buoyant jubilation. She was happy to engage me in conversation, more happy that it was lunch time and even more happy that my wife had packed my lunch.
The next question, "What did she pack you?" strained something inside me. My first decision had been to pasively let the misunderstanding go uncorrected, but now I had to do actual cognitive work. Now I had to creatively imagine an answer for what my imaginary lunch should be, and for some reason I answered, "A sandwich."
I think I did this for a number of reasons, or rather, I think there were 5 specific pressures that pushed me toward this answer. I don't feel as if I chose to say "a sandwich". Rather, it just kind of came out, almost as if I was eavesdropping on someone else's conversation.
So the first pressure involved here is that I did not want to do any cognitive work. I just didn't want to think about this that hard. Throughout the exchange I was looking for the easiest answer that had the least amount of effort behind it. This path of least resistance led me to lie, because it was so much easier than having to go back through and properly explain what had actually happened.
There was the pressure of maintaining pleasant conversational rhythm, which is partly a time constraint problem. Just like musical notes must fall on beat, a reply to a question has a certain response time that when drawn out feels as if it builds pressure. To alleviate this pressure all anyone has to do is come up with an answer, regardless of whether it is true or not. A misplaced note is then somehow better than the enduring absence of any note at all.
There was a compounded time pressure in that I was an object in motion moving away from an object at rest. I knew given my trajectory down the path that I had a small window of time to actually engage with this person. Given that small amount of time I tried to keep my answers short, as my motion took precedence over having a more in-depth exchange. I had no particular place to be, but for some reason, in that moment, I felt compelled to not stop moving, and so my answers to her questions were constrained.
Because the exchange seemed rather minor, and the stakes were rather low, I didn't especially want to sort out with this woman what the truth of the situation really was. The value that I put on this exchange (minor) affected the way I handled it. Had I given it an importance of (major) I might've responded much differently. The fact that I thought of it as unimportant then informed how much work I was going to put towards this, which we have already established was low. I probably wasn't going to ever see this woman again, and this brief exchange probably wasn't going to have any great impact on either of our lives. An assumption, I know, but one I felt confident in making at the time.
Finally, there was the pressure that I consciously saw that my answers were making her happy. Each time I answered it seemed to please her more and more and the final answer to her question of whether I was eating in the park was answered with a "thumbs up". Because she so visibly expressed a certain amount of joy at my answers, I was pulled along with the thought that agreeing with her is the best possible path. It made her genuinely happy to believe that a man took some time out of his day to eat lunch in the park, and on top of that, a lunch that his wife had packed him. That seemed to validate some desires she had about how things were supposed to work, as is evidence in her expression, "That's the way to do it!" There was obviously some kind of romantic connotation to be eating lunch in the park, and as she was also in the park in the middle of the day sitting on a bench, it might've been a connection that she formed with me however briefly, something like "Here's another person that enjoys the beauty of parks!"
She was also being made happy by my answers because I was continually affirming her intuitions. It made her happy to think that she could not only understand the world, but was able to predict small things before she had adequate knowledge of them. I affirmed her intuition that I had a lunch in my bag, that I had a wife who packed it, and that I was eating it in the park. All three instances, caused a little bit of joy, because it validated her assumptions, and it gave her the tiny pleasure of being right.
I thought about this exchange for a long time after it had happened and wondered whether I had done the right thing, and also, whether I had any choice in the matter. Did I at any point have a conscious will that could've intervened and decided to divert this exchange down a different path? If I did, then I didn't see it. Not in this situation. Perhaps if the stakes were higher, if I had given it a higher value, I would've taken a more conscious approach to my answers and strained against my initial intuitions. Maybe. I don't know.