That's not what I heard?!
July 5, 2012 8:20 AM   Subscribe

Not sure how to address the problem of over-embellishment/editing of conversations and situations by a close relative in which I am present and recall things differently (more details inside)

Ok, this has been bothering me for at least ten years, and I've avoided the problem long enough that I think I need to get some help.

My sister has always had a propensity to exaggerate certain aspects of a situations; when I'm present during which she is narrating what has transpired (either when she is on the phone, or explaining something to other people), I'm often bothered when she'll (purposely?) add information or pieces of dialogue that didn't actually transpire. Sometimes maybe she just doesn't get the details down correctly (carelessness happens to us all I know)--for example, she will explain a joke/funny situation that was told a day ago by my father, but will get the gender of certain people mixed up, as well as who actually said what.

At first, I thought I was having trouble recalling the identical situation myself; I also tried to rationalize her retelling of events by thinking that she's just trying to spice things up to a given story, etc. (As a kid, I would make jabs at her by (rudely) suggesting that any number she mentioned in a story should be divided by 3.) But I'm getting increasingly worried and bothered over time because it hasn't gone away. I'm afraid that this may cause inadvertently cause misunderstandings if a the "facts" of a crucial situation are someone conveyed in error. Moreover, I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable divulging anything to her.

Other relevant details: She's in her thirties. She's a caring older sister who runs on a short fuse sometimes, but I'm 70-80% certain that she doesn't do this out of malice or to manipulate others...I'm just not sure she's aware of what transpires when she does this.

Am I being paranoid? What can I do to help her (or myself)? I've considered calling her out on this, but I'm not sure if she's doing this purposely or she's completely unaware of her behavior. Making accusations like this could really damage our relations. I've shared my thoughts only to two close relatives, but they are at a loss of what to do as well. Thanks for any suggestions.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
or example, she will explain a joke/funny situation that was told a day ago by my father, but will get the gender of certain people mixed up, as well as who actually said what.

The only example you've provided is utterly harmless, so I'm unclear as to what exactly you'd be accusing her of when you "make accusations like this that could really damage our relations." Is it just that she's an unreliable narrator? That she embellishes or exaggerates for better story telling effect? Because these are pretty normal traits in many humans.

I know this question is Anon but I think it would help if you could clarify through a mod or a sock puppet.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:25 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why do you care? It is probably best to just ignore it. If you must, you might mention to her that frequently it seems that your memories of events are far less exciting than her stories of them or something like that.
posted by caddis at 8:26 AM on July 5, 2012

I have a friend like that - who, by the way, is extremely popular and sociable. Continuously adding suspicious details to every narrative. She once told me such a preposterous story (involving her own childhood memories) that I just said "You must be exaggerating, surely."

She just replied "But darling, if I didn't exaggerate the story would be soooo boring."

Maybe your sister is just a great storyteller. Enjoy it.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 8:28 AM on July 5, 2012 [18 favorites]

She's gotten to her thirties without any major disasters, so I'm not sure what you're worried about. If you're around and you find she does alter some crucial detail that actually matters, you should just correct her.
posted by Think_Long at 8:29 AM on July 5, 2012

I'm just not sure she's aware of what transpires when she does this.

What does transpire, other than your annoyance? Let it go.
posted by desjardins at 8:31 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

...Does she write? Stephen King once said in an interview that some writers have a bad habit of story embellishment like that -- it's some kind of underlying drive to make it a good story ("okay, yeah, it didn't happen exactly like this but it would make it a better story if it did"). I admit that I do this very thing sometimes, for that exact reason. So that may explain why she was doing that as a kid.

But the example you give - mixing up the genders of people involved -- just sounds like random flakiness, which also isn't too much of a problem either. So either she's got some kind of storyteller's drive coming out or she's a little flaky; I wouldn't assume anything deliberately malicious, or any neurological thing going on. (I mean, if she starts turning stories about you and her running into your high school teacher into you and her running into Captain America or something, then I'd worry.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:32 AM on July 5, 2012

Why do you care? The point of telling a story is rarely to give an historically accurate chronicle of events.
posted by empath at 8:36 AM on July 5, 2012

This is really quite common. With my mother, we all jokingly refer to "Mom's 20%" -- just like you said, we know to adjust any numbers (people at a party, price of a house, speed of a car) by about 20%. Even she herself now makes the adjustment -- "He bought that house in 1992 for $75,000! Well, actually, you know me, so it was probably really $90,000." With my wife's sister, we basically do not assume any story she tells is accurate until we hear it confirmed by a third party.

My advice is to continue to have a bit of a laugh about it, and correct her when the facts really matter. It is about the only thing you can do that does not involve a painful confrontation with her.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:37 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

My dad told me a really funny story the other day about something that had happened in his childhood. The problem was it happened to me, not him. My mum often gives him grief for embellishing or changing certain bits of stories.

Nobody dies, gets injured or slandered. The world is just the same place it was before he told the story. It is arguably annoying for people who like things to be told the way they actually happened but on the other hand there are people like my dad who just like telling a good story and the preamble of going back through the facts rigorously before starting to tell it isn't that important.

In short: I'd worry about this if this if there is a material impact other than you just getting annoyed.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:40 AM on July 5, 2012

Does it affect you personally? Like is she lying/exaggerating about you? Because I can tell you, the more you tell stories, the more tempted you get to make the story better by embellishing it slightly. I have to stop myself from doing this frequently, and even still, my facebook updates are only 75% true.
posted by deanc at 8:44 AM on July 5, 2012

My siblings and I do this all the time in the name of a "better story". Your sister is most likely aware of this propensity to exaggeration, and know when it is and isn't appropriate. Let it go.
posted by nickhb at 8:44 AM on July 5, 2012

Shrug, chuckle, cheerfully say, "Well, that's one version!" and move along.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:47 AM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do get how this can be annoying - a week or two ago I was talking with someone and she brought up an anecdote from a book we had both read and she got it wrong and it bugged the heck out of me. But like the other posters, I'm having trouble seeing what makes this so harmful. Lots of people exaggerate, and probably even more people get relatively unimportant details wrong. I didn't correct the woman I was talking to because it just didn't make any difference.

The only thing I think you should even consider doing is correcting her details that actually matter (like, is someone going to be hurt or inconvenienced by what she's saying?). If she says something that is untrue about *you*, and you are uncomfortable with that information being out there about you, then say, "Oh, no, I didn't graduate Summa Cum Laude, I just made the Dean's List two semesters," or "I didn't *total* the car, sis," or whatever.

Otherwise, just ignore it. It is not worth the trouble, and probably everyone else knows to take her stories with a grain of salt, just as you do.
posted by mskyle at 8:48 AM on July 5, 2012

If it's as innocuous as your example, you could just laughingly say 'that's not *exactly* how I remember it' or 'well, sorta' or say nothing.

But it kind of seems like in your head, you have some deeper scenario going on that the example you gave, so maybe you could describe a little bit the repercussions you're imagining, or that might actually happen?

Because on the surface, in this telling, it's kind of a quirk she has that everybody probably knows about and isn't too worked up about.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:48 AM on July 5, 2012

On preview, what mskyle said - if you know this about her, most other people in her life probably know it as well.

If there's a particularly sensitive subject, maybe avoid discussing it with her.

I guess I'm not sure what harm this is causing you, or could cause you. But I don't think you're going to be able to help her not do this, for plenty of reasons but maybe most importantly because she probably doesn't have any desire to change. It won't help you to get frustrated with it - I'd say just take her as she is and do your best to limit what material you give her to retell and other than that just smile and shrug your shoulders when you hear something she has distorted.
posted by mrs. taters at 8:54 AM on July 5, 2012

A lot of people are saying that this kind of storytelling doesn't affect you ... but it does. I have a good friend from college who used to be prone to this kind of thing. I remember being regaled by her stories about a friend at band camp who stole a car and went joyriding, then freaked out while being fingerprinted and left handprints all over the police station. I thought it was hilarious until I was laughing about the story with a more sensible classmate who asked whether I'd ever been in a police station. I said no, not really, and he said, "They don't just let people roam around like that."

Well, that got me thinking that my friend was basically a liar. If the police station story was false, what about the time she had sex at a particular party? How about the time she teased me about someone who had a crush on me but didn't think they were my type?

I ended up with a big dose of mistrust for someone who was honestly a really good friend. Casual lying like this is really destructive.

I'm not sure how you can really confront someone about this kind of thing, particularly if it's a relative. But you might have to come to accept that this person is less truthful than you think, and you might have to temper your trust of her.

Which is awful.
posted by Occula at 8:59 AM on July 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

My father does this all the time. If we want the actual story, we speak to someone else. If we want the better story, we ask him.

The biggest problem was that, until I was older than I want to admit, I believed him when he told me stories -- like the one where he told me that while he was dating my mother, he was dating some other woman at the same time, and before he proposed to my mother, he had to decide who to propose to, my mother, whom he loved, or "Binka", who was really hot. It took me years to work out that other than the part where he was dating my mother and eventually proposed to her, that story was entirely fictional.

But you know, he also more or less knows what things not to joke about, and he's charming and makes friends all the time and it all ties into his propensity for exaggeration.
posted by jeather at 9:03 AM on July 5, 2012

Do you know if she's doing it on purpose? I have the worst damn memory ever and do that kind of thing all the time. Mixing up stories, forgetting who was involved, adding dialogue from other stories to the one I'm telling. It's not out of a malicious desire to mislead people or to embellish, it's because I have terrible recall and when I'm in the middle of a story and forgetting details I get anxious and mess things up even more.
posted by schroedinger at 9:23 AM on July 5, 2012

I think that for me it really would depend on the context of the embellishment - what kind of story/what it was about. If it's just a random story and I felt the detail really mattered, I would probably just correct her - "oh wait, wasn't it ___?"

Both of my parents do this, and not just in the "making a good story more gooder" way. More in the "everyone remembers this [often times] serious event differently than you" way. My parents are both incredibly unreliable narrators, often manipulative, and because of it, I don't trust them/their version of events. It's part of the reason I'm estranged from my family, because no matter what they will not budge from their version and how dare you question it, and the details don't really matter anyway because the point is xyz. That did and still does deeply bother me. It doesn't really sound like that's what you're dealing with, but I hope you'll come back and clarify for us.
posted by sm1tten at 9:24 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

My how family is like this (except my mom). It's pretty obvious to everyone to take stories with a grain of salt. I'm sure friends and family are aware that your sister is like this.
posted by KogeLiz at 9:38 AM on July 5, 2012

The rule of thumb is that pathological liars only hurt themselves in the end.

I'm not sure you consider your sister a pathological liar, though, and it's unclear that anyone else does. If she's just embellishing stories, smile and enjoy the stories. If she says something about you that you dislike, laugh and say something like "My shorts were NOT half off!"
posted by dhartung at 9:44 AM on July 5, 2012

You almost certainly do this as well without realizing it.

We're always so certain that our memories are 100% accurate. But that's just not the case. Every time we remember and event we recreate the memory, and every time we do this it has the potential to change. Here is just one of many explanations of this phenomenon as it relates to eyewitness testimony, which is so unreliable that it's responsible for 75% of false convictions. As the novelist David Mitchell put it, "an act of memory is an act of ghostwriting."
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:44 AM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Occula: "A lot of people are saying that this kind of storytelling doesn't affect you ... but it does. ... Well, that got me thinking that my friend was basically a liar. "

I have a family member like this. I call her [in my head] The Great Exaggerator. I pretty much can't believe anything she says, which is a shame, because she is a nice person otherwise.

Can you point out to your sister that you really can't trust her words? And that not being able to trust someone's words isn't really funny.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:45 AM on July 5, 2012

I've considered calling her out on this, but I'm not sure if she's doing this purposely or she's completely unaware of her behavior.

I don't blame you for wanting to call her out. Go ahead and express your skepticism whenever she's exaggerating. "Really? I have to say your numbers there sound a bit too good to be true."

Don't expect anything to change, though. As you can see from the other responses in this thread, your sister gets away with it because most people who notice, actually tolerate this kind of nonsense. So the exaggerators mistakenly think their lies are undetectable.

The fact is, it hurts her credibility not only with you, but with anyone else who notices it. The only action to take is to continue discounting her claims. Let her know--once in a while--that she's not fooling you.
posted by General Tonic at 9:50 AM on July 5, 2012

I am really glad Ragged Richard brought up the point that memory--all memory-- is really unreliable, and I wish more people knew this. There is a lot of good advice in this thread to laugh off or refuse to be bothered by your sister's manner of recounting her narrative. Memory, your memory [pdf], my memory, the memory of everyone in this thread, is far less reliable than we think it is.
posted by oflinkey at 10:20 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have a relative who does this. Everything that could remotely reflect well on him gets magnified and everything otherwise is trivialized. When he is jobless he conjures up explanations of some grand consulting project and he just generally lives in a world of his own making and doesn't give it a second thought that his inner dialog slips out into words. He does it, I believe, because he is dreadfully insecure. On one hand it is interesting to see him spin a tale but he is fundamentally dishonest.

How do I or you deal with it? You learn to not take it seriously and intervene only when it really affects you. For my part, I had to speak up when for some reason this person started to describe my role in my workplace as being more important/profound than it was. I had to rebuke that pretty firmly, but I don't have time, patience or energy to police his white lies to other people.
posted by dgran at 11:02 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know and love several people like this. Think of Big Fish. In all cases I know, these people publicly acknowledge that they love to tell a good, interesting story and they are willing to "improve" it with exaggerations.

In other situations, like the one in the comments, it's more compulsive lying rather than hunger for a good story.
posted by Tarumba at 12:55 PM on July 5, 2012

Casual lying like this is really destructive.

This is really, really a YMMV thing. I don't personally find it destructive; I do it, I assume other people do, and I greatly enjoy the company of those people.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:24 PM on July 5, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for the responses so far. I think I need to elaborate a bit because the example I gave probably wasn't most ideal in illustrating the difficulties I'm having with trust and credibility issues. Memory is indeed malleable, and I'm definitely aware that this applies to me, that's why for a lot of cases involving my sister, I've let things go, or have tried to ignore the more trivial, flavor adding embellishments.

But let's say you have a situation where she creates dialogue for people in situations where it was plausible someone COULD have said something, but they actually didn't. Example: If she has an argument with my mother about something (where I'm in the same room), she'll explain the events quite differently to other people later. I'm not saying she's paraphrasing dialogue (we all do that to an extent), but rather she's added dialogue...things that my mother did not bring up, sentences she has made up, things that nobody in the room actually accused her of doing, etc. And so, when she brings up similar situations to me about difficult co-workers, situations with students at her university, I'm always compelled to take them with a huge grain of salt. And it sucks, because she's my sister, I want to be able to a good listener in our conversations and be able to relate without having to be always thinking in the back of my mind: did this really happen?

When things are a bit too drastic enough to bother me, I will interject a conversation with "I don't think that's what X said", or "really? I don't remember that..." and depending on the situation, she'll weather these interjections/objections and just continue onwards as if nothing happened ("No, but it's like..."; "Yeah, but you know that what X meant")

sm1tten : It doesn't bother me when it's embellishment about numbers ("oh there were like 50 people waiting in line", "i was there waiting for an hour"); it's more about narrations where dialogue that could have been said by Party A IS said to have occurred. Her version of events almost always puts me on edge because my brain goes into an automatic mode of "ok, I wonder which part of this story is actually true, and which parts I need to discount"

Hope this elaborates my dilemma a bit more clearly.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 3:46 PM on July 5, 2012

You have my sympathy. I run a community service organization and one of the most enthusiastic volunteers does this. Most people aren't around her enough to notice it, but it really has come to bother me. It holds her back a bit, too, because she doesn't get unqualified rave reviews for her hard work like she would if she were more accurate more of the time.

I'm at a loss for what to do with her in the organization, too. She's insightful, but...

I would not dream of broaching this with her because it isn't the most pressing feedback I'd have for her. She recently found a mentor in our group, so I can only hope this other more mature person notices and works on it with her. If I encounter another example, I may talk about it with her mentor.

One time, I witnessed her flat-out lying and I had to tell the person she lied to what the real story was. It seems like she tells herself a narrative in her head to explain the world and sooner or later her own narrative became more crisp to her than an actual objective assessment of events.

Is there anyone your sister takes advice from? Maybe you could talk to them and see if they've noticed it.

This person is not a relative in my case, but I feel your pain. She's already contributed to chasing off at least three people from our group!
posted by rw at 5:30 PM on July 5, 2012

OP, thanks for the clarification. For whatever it's worth, with the "No, but it's like..."; "Yeah, but you know that what X meant" stories, your sister is giving an emotional rather than a factual recounting of events. She's less telling you what happened and more telling you how she experienced what happened. That's what she's asking you to relate to; that's what it is important to her to convey.

If you feel like you need clarity, you can say "Wait, did she actually say that?!?" or "Wow, did Mom actually say that out loud or is that just what it felt like she was saying?" or "Hold up, tell me the actual words he used because that's crazy!" If you're only doing that occasionally, you can feel free to do it often - it's a pretty conversational way to engage with hyperbolic story tellers.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:47 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

At work I often talk to some excited people and I struggle to get to the bottom of what actually transpired versus what it felt like to them. I think DarlingBri explained this distinction well.

For example, a person will call and say they're having a problem with Company. They claim they called Company and asked them for an explanation of the charges on their bill and the call centre rep "wouldn't tell them anything, no matter how many times they asked"

I used to get mad about this kind of statement because it's not literally incorrect. (There is no way they called Company and asked the same question dozens of times and heard only dead air for minutes on end.)

When I asked extra questions, the caller would immediately backpeddle and clarify that they did get a response, they just didn't like it, or it was unclear, or they didn't trust the rep knew their stuff, etc.

Maybe asking follow-up questions like DarlingBri mentioned will help you get to the bottom of what happened. You could ask, "Did so-and-so actually say those words? She looked at you and then told you you were worthless in those words?"

After a couple back-peddles/clarifications you could point out (with humour) that the story she told you involved a screaming fistfight with multiple arrests and court appearances but the reality was closer to a mild disagreement. I think as long as you say it with some levity (easier said than done) you can point out to her that her version of events is pretty far off the mark.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:58 AM on July 6, 2012

Hope this elaborates my dilemma a bit more clearly.

Is your dilemma that you want to give you more moral support, but you can't because the things she's coming to you with clearly aren't true, and that's she's in part upset about things that didn't actually happen, and wants you to back her up?

This is a tough one-- I mean, she's your sister. I don't know if there's much you can do-- my advice would be to avoid getting emotionally invested in her problems, since they're of dubious provenance, anyway. And at least come to the defense of your mom when your sister says stuff that didn't happen.

And try to avoid drama with your sister in the future because eventually you are going to be the subject of those exaggerated stories.
posted by deanc at 9:53 AM on July 6, 2012

Yes, OP, if your dilemma is that you want to be an active listener and provide her with support but feel like you can't because you are unsure of the accuracy, etc. -- I do understand. With my parents, it was rarely something ridiculously fantastical that could not have happened. Rather it was usually something that could have happend but probably did not. Sometimes it involved serious accusations, or serious omissions/denial but this would happen with relating even fairly basic things.

With my mother, I just don't get very emotionally involved anymore. I try to avoid being involved, period, beyond a sympathetic ear to bend. If she questions it [because the thing she's relating is something that I should have a more emotional reaction to] I usually just point out that I wasn't there and I only have one side of the story, etc. Doesn't really mollify her, but saves us from going down the rabbit hole of pointing out that she habitually bends the truth and therefore is an unreliable narrator as well as from feeding whatever it is that is going on - I don't want to help escalate any situations where her credibility is in question, and she is often just venting anyway.

Of course, because I don't interact with any of the people she's speaking about, it's much easier for me to stay out of it. YMMV.
posted by sm1tten at 10:14 AM on July 6, 2012

I'm coming to this late, but it struck a chord with me.

I used to have a friend who did this - she would exaggerate and distort the story of something that happened until I couldn't recognise events that I was present for - and she would sneer at me for that. I also heard her stories grow over the years (the first time I heard about this injury during a race, she broke a hip and didn't notice; by five years later, she'd broken a hip and three toes and dislocated a shoulder, but didn't notice and kept running...). Everything she said or blogged was either amazingly great (and led to a chorus of "you're so awesome!") or devastatingly awful (cue chorus of "poor you, your life is so hard!").

It was very destabilising; it started to feel like gaslighting in its way, because it meant as you say that I couldn't trust that what she was telling me was the truth. (I also wondered what sort of stories she was telling about me when I wasn't around - some worrying things got back to me.)

It came to feel like a play for sympathy/adulation. And since she didn't react well to being questioned or contradicted, I felt like I had to watch what I said if I didn't want to be accused of forgetting things or torn down for disagreeing with her memory of events.

I have other friends - most of whom are creative writers, in line with other comments above - who own that things are always amazing or terrible in their lives, with no middle ground, because they like the stories that gives them. I can use that honesty to react to the exaggerated versions of their lives. But when someone treats their tale as the truth, you may have to take steps to protect yourself - whether that's sitting down and teling them that you're worried because you don't know how to support them when you can't be sure they're telling you what actually happened, seeking out confirmation/other perspectives on anything that involves people you know, being careful about what you tell them, or something else.

Ultimately, I withdrew from my unreliable narrator friend to protect myself (this may not be an option with your sister, I know), and eventually we drifted apart. I found that our realities were too different, and this interfered with how we related to each other. I'd rather celebrate the stories of life on a humbler but more honest scale, while she preferred the excitement of the bigger, brighter version.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 2:17 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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