Lying and withholding information as adaptive traits in minorities?
June 1, 2018 12:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm fumbling with my words a bit because I've never had to explain this out loud, but I'm looking for resources or advice for convincing a very mainstream person that people from more marginalized populations often need to lie or withhold information in order to operate smoothly in mainstream society.

My fiancee is a white woman from an upper middle class family in the US Midwest, and I am not. I think this is a key factor in our disagreements about honesty and openness.

I learned pretty early on that a lot of my everyday life is interesting, strange, or alarming to most people I talk to. Sometimes it's innocuous stuff, like I mention a passing detail in a larger story and this becomes the focus because it's so weird. So I'll say we visited my grandmother over the weekend, and not mention that she's dead and we made a burnt offering at her grave.

Sometimes it's more serious. If the writing prompt asks about my breakfast, I'll answer as if I had had oatmeal, because when I admit to having had cold rice in water with pickles on top the teacher becomes concerned that my parents are neglecting me.

I expect we'll need to teach our kids to be careful in the same way, and I expect that my fiancee will object that this is dishonest, secretive, and immoral. I'm looking for resources (papers, personal stories, self-help books?) that argue convincingly that this is ethical and necessary.
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Human Relations (52 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should first look to establish if it is common for minorities to "lie and withhold information" before trying to convince your partner to bring up a child that way. Certainly in my experience of modern, diverse cities other cultures are celebrated and their traditions openly practiced, not hidden. It sounds like you had bad experiences with prejudice when younger but don't assume that's always the case now. When I was at school we spent a lot of time learning about and appreciating differences in people's food and practices etc.
posted by JonB at 1:26 AM on June 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

Hmm, I think you might get somewhere with keywords like 'assimilation'? Some news pieces I found:

This piece talks about changing food preferences to look more American

This piece talks about hiding racial clues in your background to get job interviews
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:32 AM on June 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

Sounds really similar to the kind of conditioning that children of abuse are taught in order to cover their abusers asses.
I doubt you'll find arguments supporting the "ethics" of this.
posted by OnefortheLast at 1:44 AM on June 1, 2018 [14 favorites]

Is this maybe akin to “passing” in some ways in order to avoid stigma? I am a white woman with the attendent priviledge. I dated a Japanese guy in high school who ate Japanese food for breakfast, which seemed super odd to me then. I grew up poor, so I absolutely lied at times to hide that fact. You may want to consider learning about appropriate boundaries and teaching those to any children you have. As kids, we often feel forced to lie but as adults we have many more choices. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:54 AM on June 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

I expect we'll need to teach our kids to be careful in the same way

Ponder carefully the question of how much of what you've needed to learn in order to adapt yourself to your world came from your parents, and how much came from your own experience.

As a new parent, I frequently found a need to remind myself that although some of what ended up troubling my kids had also troubled me when I was their age, and that some of the adaptations I have available for dealing with that stuff would also be useful for my kids, a great deal of it either couldn't be taught or wasn't applicable in the first place, and that the best thing I could do for my kids was provide them with emotional support as they worked most of these things out for themselves.

You and your partner are simply not going to agree 100%, up front, on everything about the right way to raise your kids. Both of you need to be OK with that. The main thing to avoid is sabotaging each other in front of the kids as you work these things out. If you have disagreements about appropriate ways for the kids to be dealing with difficult experiences, you can and should work those out between you; some of that in private, some in family discussions around the dinner table. The good part is that because this will always involve dealing with specific and concrete present issues, it will be a hell of a lot easier to find consensus positions on than up-front policy stemming from either of your own pasts.
posted by flabdablet at 2:00 AM on June 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Sent you a MeMail.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:00 AM on June 1, 2018

Did your parents actually teach you that or did you figure out on your own that there were some things that you didn't talk about with your playmates?

I spent much of my childhood as a foreigner in other countries. I'm pretty sure my parents never taught me to hide things about myself when I was among foreign children. I do remember very early on, at age 7 or so, figuring out that mentioning my religion was not a good idea. It wasn't assimilating, maybe because I knew we were not staying, it was just adapting.

However, I did eventually come to the realization that if people thought I was weird they were lacking in imagination and curiosity and openness and acceptance of difference. If your fiancee's friends and family think that way it's their problem.
posted by mareli at 2:42 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Isn't this codeswitching?
posted by janey47 at 2:48 AM on June 1, 2018 [32 favorites]

I'm looking for resources (papers, personal stories, self-help books?) that argue convincingly that this is ethical and necessary.

You may find it useful to first have a conversation with your fiancée on where you both stand on the general ethics of lying. For example, is it permissible to lie to save a life? At the other end of the spectrum, is it permissible to lie in order to get a benefit from someone that they would otherwise withhold (what most of us would call fraud)?

Assuming that you agree about these extreme cases (she saying yes to the lifesaving example, and you saying no to the fraud example), you may find it useful to explore more nuanced examples and only then think about how minority experiences of risking exclusion or harm play into the question. For example, you may want to talk about whether lying to save oneself from minor social embarrassment is okay, and how that compares to the various risks of real hardship (social ostracism, being bullied at work, losing a job, your parents’ rights to parent being challenged, physical threats to yourself or your family).

My own sense is that there are some cases where you will be able to agree that your instinctive reaction to lie is no longer needed—you may find that no one now can make your life significantly harder by their puzzlement at what you had for breakfast—and other cases where your fiancée may be persuaded there is real risk (eg disclosing non-mainstream religious beliefs to a very bigoted boss at the risk of being fired etc). But I think what you need is not so much data to give her about minority experience but a shared conversation about ethics.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:51 AM on June 1, 2018 [17 favorites]

I can anecdotally support you that this was a real phenomenon for myself right down to rice in cold water with pickles for breakfast - are you by chance also Korean? But I didn't lie about my breakfasts because I thought my parents would be accused of abuse, I lied because I didn't want to be labeled a weirdo amongst my peers and feared getting teased. When the topic of favorite foods ever came up I would answer "pizza" even though it's really stanky ass kimchee soup.

Although I can verify this experience, I would like to gently challenge the notion that it is ethical or necessary, particular in current times, to encourage and teach this behaviour to your children.

When I reflect on my childhood, I am sure this all stemmed from self-imposed shame. I lied because as a child of first generation immigrants, my parents didn't equip me properly with the right tools to be able to embrace my culture openly and honestly.

As I think about my own future family, this topic has weighed on my mind and I would like for them to experience the full plethora of cultures and practices. My goal is not only that they are not ashamed of their own mixed culture (they'll be a combination of American, Brit, Scottish, Korean), but just as importantly, by embracing their own unique heritage I hope they can learn to appreciate and respect those of other people.

I apologise profusely for not answering your question directly as you asked for resources supporting your stance (and mods please delete if you think I've overstepped). But honestly, I related to your question so much and your premise makes me sad.
posted by like_neon at 2:52 AM on June 1, 2018 [78 favorites]

I also wondered how far your desire to withhold information that makes you vulnerable—a desire I completely understand and empathise with, as someone with similar experiences of being a minority kid in an unsympathetic environment—is affecting what you are saying to your fiancée, and your desire to give her an abstract argument for this behaviour? To actually persuade her, I think you may need to tell her in more depth about your own experience and feelings—this may make more of a difference than providing articles and resources—and that may require overcoming the desire to withhold uncomfortable truths, at least within the safe space of your relationship.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:57 AM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

No, this is not code-switching.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:05 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is this not somewhat dissimilar to someone I know who put Billy Maaruf on his resumes when his name is Bilal Al-Fatah bin Maaruf (not actual full name)? He also sometimes introduces himself as Billy to white, right-leaning-seeming persons to make himself seem more western and less “terrorist”.

I don’t know if the above example is the same as OP’s, but that’s what I would think of when I think about how some minorities misrepresent the truth to protect themselves against… racism? Ignorance? I lived in England for several years, well into my adulthood, and I do remember misrepresenting myself to make myself seem more western and less developing-country Asian. Was it ethical? I don’t think so, but I did it to socially survive in a predominantly white society. Was it necessary? Perhaps flimsily, as I did it mainly for social reasons. I did also make my name sound less ethnic on my resumes and it did help me get a job then.

I am back in my home country and like OP I am marrying a white middle-class person. I probably won’t teach my future kids to lie about their culture but I do plan to raise them with a somewhat Western way so they’d be easily assimilated if we do ever plan to move back to England.

Sorry that I couldn’t provide resources for this phenomena. But like someone said above, this question resonated with me and I wanted to validate in that yes this happened to me when I was a minority and it probably happens to a lot of minorities.
posted by milque at 3:27 AM on June 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

Since there seems to be some disbelief that this is a thing, I do it too. Possibly because I'm white, it tends to be more in the form of remaining silent about my life/experiences or not correcting people's assumptions than needing to fabricate things outright, though I'm sure I've done that, too. It was something I learned from experience rather than something I was taught at home. I don't necessarily think this is a healthy strategy, or it feeds my anxiety anyway, but I do think it's a necessary strategy. (Someone said it's not codeswitching, and it isn't, but for me, codeswitching can be a strategy for achieving the same thing. I wonder if googling minority stress might get you somewhere, as we're really talking about a coping mechanism for that class of stressors.)

In thinking about it, I don't think the disconnect with your fiancee is necessarily about honesty as such, but that she's not able (or not conveying that she's able) to imagine the "do I bother explaining or do I just give them what they want" calculation. How you explain that to her, I don't know.* On your side, you may also want to ask yourself whether this reflex is ingrained to a degree that it comes out in situations where it isn't necessary (it does for me).

*I'm assuming you're both straight. Otherwise, this is very much the "who do I tell I'm queer and when" question.
posted by hoyland at 4:19 AM on June 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yeah, if you take minorities to mean, well, all minorities, rather than merely ethnic minorities, it is absolutely common. Expecting a queer or trans person, for example, to be completely open and honest with everyone all the time is clearly unreasonable on its face. I don't see why that should be different along any other axes of marginalisation.
posted by Dysk at 4:29 AM on June 1, 2018 [36 favorites]

For what it's worth, some U.S. schools are already installing facial recognition systems that will monitor students, ostensibly as a measure to improve response time in the case of school shooting incidents. So by the time you guys are married, have kids, and they're in school, society may be doing enough to compel honesty and openness on its own that your SO won't need to worry about them ending up too secretive or too willing to conceal information about themselves.

(The above link may also be the sort of thing you're asking for in the OP, as it proposes that this surveillance may exacerbate racial disparities in school discipline.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:34 AM on June 1, 2018

(I should also stress that I don't mean to imply that it isn't common amongst ethnic minorities - I just wouldn't know, and suspect that the analogy to queerness makes the point about what is at stake clearer to a white person like myself. I could be way off base, of course, and if so I apologise.)
posted by Dysk at 4:57 AM on June 1, 2018

This thread of tweets talks about situations when women might be less than honest because they are (among other things) concerned for their safety, so it might help your fiancée relate.
posted by exogenous at 5:09 AM on June 1, 2018 [12 favorites]

As the white American woman in this marriage, let me assure you 10,000 ways you will undermine all trust and happiness in your relationship if you continue with this maladaptive notion.

While it may have worked for you as a child is undeniable, but it is a child's solution. Also, society has changed since we were kids. Or maybe society is the same, and we have changed? It's your job to evolve and grow. Being discreet or discerning is not the same thing as lying. You're talking about lying, or you're so close to the line of lying that it fundamentally will not matter in the relationship pressure cooker that is marriage and parenting.

Therapy for you and couples counseling together, don't get married with this unresolved. Go find out why what you are advocating is maladaptive and will crush trust in all areas within an intimate relationship. Evolve. I get 100% why you did this as a child, but you have better tools as an adult. Go get those tools, especially so you can teach them to your future children.
posted by jbenben at 5:31 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

So like, to be clear OP, you're defending lying to other people who are only tangentially in your life, not your immediate family, right? Because the former will lead to different responses than the latter.
posted by Dysk at 5:41 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is an important conversation to have as it centers on openness and expectations of how you will relate to the task of child rearing - which can be a very culturally specific thing. My wife and I met in NYC and had a NYC life (whatever that might mean) before kids. Post kids we moved to Germany and suddenly there were lots and lots of, "But of course we do *this* *this way* how could you ever imagine otherwise?" It would have benefited us both if we had worked out a lot of these issues first, or even recognized them, or known to recognize them.

As a foreigner, I definitely make myself various shades of bland to people I'm speaking to. The better I know them the more, or less, I open up - but I don't see this as duplicitous, it's merely being selective about sharing information. Which is reasonable. If the issue is your partner not understanding why you would do that - then explaining to them that people look at you 'different' is the topic. (I was dis-invited from a group for no reason that I can imagine other than that I'm not german. And I'm not, so, fine - but still it's a bit of a fuck you. Explaining this to my -german- spouse, the ambiguity and the real possibility that it's because I was cramping the german vibe, was a hard conversation that we still had to have. I'm a foreigner, always will be here. She has a hard time accepting that, I don't but also I'm mostly fine with it - the ways I'm biased against are damn small and petty in the scope of what happens to other people I know.) But sort this out, with yourself and your wife. It's do-able and will make everything much easier.
posted by From Bklyn at 5:44 AM on June 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

(And as a grown-ass queer trans adult, I should stress that I do this all the fucking time and so does every single queer and trans person I know. This is absolutely not a child's tool, or a tool whose time has passed. Thinking the world is friendly enough to be fundamentally trusted with your vulnerabilities is a position of extreme privilege.)
posted by Dysk at 5:52 AM on June 1, 2018 [78 favorites]

I’m bit surprised to see so many people telling you this is always unethical or somehow unnecessary. Certainly lying/omitting can be unethical, but omission to strangers and minor acquaintances is always fine in my book.

I also agree that many marginalized groups do this to cope in the USA- POC, but also the poor, queer, and women. It is not code switching but I do think it is analogous. Also related to passing, but not quite the same.

On the angle of teaching this vs. kids learning it: I do think most learn it on their own, but we live in a world where black families explaining to their children that they may have to modify their behavior around police as a survival tool is sitcom fodder.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:05 AM on June 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

I'm an Eastern European living in the UK, in a same-sex marriage so ticking at least two of the "minority" boxes. Yes, you could call it lying by omission, you could call it "passing" but being careful about how I talk about myself and what I reveal has been a life-long survival strategy. What about looking at material around "unconscious bias" and "white privilege", maybe that could be another way to explain to your fiance? And definitely share your own experiences and explain what this means to you on a personal level.
posted by coffee_monster at 6:10 AM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

The OP's question seems to be specific around their experiences as an ethnic minority.

I agree that there are real situations where people have needed to and continue to need to lie to protect themselves from danger, but reading into your question, I think it's broader than this. Or at least, it's not as specific as that kind of situation.

I think it's highly dependent on context and situation. There's no blanket approach to it. I think there's a broad spectrum between "I lie about this because I was ashamed" vs "I lie about this because the other person could pose a threat if they knew the truth". And the OP saying that they "expect" that their children will need to be careful "in the same way" is really really specific to their experience and to the child's future hypothetical environment.

I shared my experience because I think it could be worthwhile for you the OP, to reflect on your childhood experiences to understand where your fears are stemming from, before jumping into one specific approach that you think will be a combative conversation with your fiancee (a conversation they have not even had yet and they think they'll have to prepare with papers and research). You may find that your experiences lie across that spectrum and if you can identify which situations fall where, that may be a useful way to frame the conversation with your fiancee.
posted by like_neon at 6:17 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think part of the issue here is the black and white framing of “lying” vs”truth.”

If your fiancée means between the two of you then yes, that’s an issue. But there’s a vast expanse between telling everyone exactly what you had for breakfast, and being a con artist. The traditional word for that is discretion. It’s okay to operate with discretion and to have a sense of personal privacy.

When it’s part of a process of marginalization of course the reasons or need for discretion are complex. And what will be a challenge is learning where your family norm ends up. All parents teach their kids some degree of discretion like “we don’t discuss daddy’s diarrhea at the table.” I realize that you are talking about a massively different experience of oppression but your adaptive response is not a disregard for “the truth,” it is a choice not to be challenged on every detail.

I would definitely hope for a world where your children can choose to share their breakfast without worrying about children’s aid and here in Toronto it’s hard to fathom, but it might help your fiancée to realize that you are not talking about an alien response, you are simply drawing a self-protective line at a different point. I would expect, as parenting and life partners, that you would seek to understand each other’s needs and views and look for a compromise or a common ground. Maybe your kids will solve this for you by not listening and telling their preschool teachers every detail of your day (which is a thing) and she will learn about the marginalization you experienced, and you will learn about the privilege of having a partner who can respond from a more privileged position. And you will both support your kids differently than either of your families of origin. Neither one of you has to be right about Future World.

So...I would actually not look to expand her view of The World but for her to understand your experience and agree it will be a factor.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:20 AM on June 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

I understand and empathize with your perceived need to withhold or dissimulate this sort of 'uniquely identifying information', so to speak. I do not think it necessarily reflects poorly on your character. I think it can be difficult for non-minorities to understand the marginal burden imposed by difference. To me, this brings up a lot of issues that also surface in the discussion around microagressions, or Mark Zuckerberg's insistence on a real-name policy.

*However* I think some of the replies here are correct in that, practically speaking, this behaviour may place you outside of the ethical norms of your broader community - and most importantly - your spouse. I also suspect that this practice may be less adaptive than it was in the past. I think that you will have to be pragmatic about this: I do not think it is unethical to discuss your experiences balancing privacy and openness as long as you do not pressure your children to be secretive about their cultural background and practices. They will have to discover the right balance for themselves. Like everything else in parenting, you will need to discuss this with your spouse and accept that your bias toward advising circumspection is indeed a bias, even though it is well-founded in your experiences, and does not automatically override your partner's bias toward mainstream norms.
posted by Svejk at 6:36 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also wouldn't put so much weight in what you expect of parenting, period. There's no universal child manual for a reason, and given that you actually one day as a parent have the time, energy, mind and context to try to "teach", or micromanage, a child such a random detail of life, I think you'll find that children are every bit as individual as every other person on the planet as to how they perceive information, what they do with it, and in each having their own unique internal moral compass/value system that you're not likely to override with your own.
posted by OnefortheLast at 6:37 AM on June 1, 2018

I would never talk about certain parenting choices now and have explicitly taught my children not to talk about them to certain people because the cost is too high. Glide past or give a vague answer or if pressed, decline or lie. Only with very trusted people do we talk about our realities and choices in these sensitive issues.

I think of it as a question of trust and cost, not truth. Will sharing this honesty cost me more than it benefits me? Can i trust the person I'm telling not to hurt me with the information either on purpose or through ignorance? People who believe in radical honesty in my experience are young men with few relationships or people trying to pressure you past your boundaries. No one answers how are you? With the unvarnished truth.

Except to a dear best friend. Who your fiancee should be. That person should get as much of the truth as you can share. Don't lie to them, have your backs together.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:39 AM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: A few quick clarifications, neglecting many worthy responses to respect the prohibition on thread-sitting:

she's not able (or not conveying that she's able) to imagine the "do I bother explaining or do I just give them what they want" calculation.

The traditional word for that is discretion. It’s okay to operate with discretion and to have a sense of personal privacy.

This is true and very helpful. I'd welcome more responses that explored this framing and vocabulary.

So like, to be clear OP, you're defending lying to other people who are only tangentially in your life, not your immediate family, right?

Yes, and further I'm only advocating lying when it "doesn't matter". E.g., it's okay to describe a breakfast I didn't have if I believe the teacher really only wants me to conjugate verbs into the past tense, and use some breakfast-related vocabulary.

Sounds really similar to the kind of conditioning that children of abuse are taught in order to cover their abusers asses.

It sounds like you're interpreting the breakfast story as, "My parents abused me, I accidentally disclosed this at school, and I want to teach my children not to disclose their abuse." This is not what I meant to convey. To clarify: I do not consider my parents to have abused me by feeding me this breakfast, nor am I laying the groundwork for future planned abuse my children. Please MeMail me if you are concerned.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:40 AM on June 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

I would add that the discussion surrounding "the talk" that black parents give their children surfaced by the Black Lives Matter movement (and the occasionally incredulous or dismissive responses to it by members of mainstream culture) may be useful in structuring your own discussion with your spouse.
posted by Svejk at 6:45 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

I also suspect that this practice may be less adaptive than it was in the past

I'm going to disagree with myself of 5 minutes ago (am large, contain multitudes): I think certain particular expressions of this practice may be less adaptive now, but only because certain taboos have shifted. For instance, bouillabaisse for breakfast may be OK now, but other cultural signifiers may be less safe. Having this discussion is a chance to update your understanding of the current potential threat landscape, and map it together with your spouse.
posted by Svejk at 7:03 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can give you lots of personal stories because I grew up in a family that was a minority religion and poor, and I'm trans. There is always a true answer and a correct answer in every situation. Sometimes these are the same: the true answer is also acceptable to the person you are talking to, and they let you get what you need. Often, they are not the same, and the true answer makes it harder while the correct answer makes it easier.

Little kids are really literal and you have to teach them not to be while also teaching them not to lie about something important that actually could hurt or deceive someone else. This is something marginalized and mainstream people both do; a classic example is teaching kids not to say "Mom can't come to the phone because she's on the toilet" and say "Mom can't come to the phone right now, can I take a message?"

When there is a power imbalance, the person who is on the bottom of the wheel, so to speak, has to evaluate how literal to be so they can get through their day. It is very well known that there is a correct answer if you want hormones to support a transition, for example, that is not always the true answer since gender is more complicated and personal than the checklist the doctor is holding. Marginalized people are working without a safety net, so they have to make more of this calculation than others do. I can relate to your breakfast story because I have a similar one: True = bread-and-dripping = Result: problems because adults are freaked out that child is being fed what they perceive as a disgusting, non-nutritive poverty food, should they investigate? Correct = peanut butter sandwiches = Result: no worries.

Or here's another one: what are your hobbies? Shouldn't be a hard question, but it's important to me to be seen as male. If I include quilting in my list of hobbies, which is the true answer because quilting is super fun and everyone should do it, that can often tip the balance into being seen as female. Similarly: your name is a little unusual, is that the name you were born with? True = No, I changed it = Result: painful questions about my old name that I hate and getting misgendered forever after. Correct = Yes, why do you ask? = Result: conversation ends, you must just be a dude with a weird name.

I feel like this is one of those things that basically everyone has experienced, but the stakes vary based on your level of power in the world. So for some of us it's choosing to roll with a "Starbucks name" so you don't have to awkwardly explain your name to the barista every single time, and for some of us it's a matter of getting the medical care you need or not getting shot by the police.
posted by blnkfrnk at 7:07 AM on June 1, 2018 [49 favorites]

OP the specific problem you will face is what this behavior will do to your intimate relationship over time.

How can I put this?

Changing the subject or glossing over a detail is understandable and acceptable, that's using discernment and discretion. Making up an entirely alternative narrative and telling that story like it's the truth is lying. When a partner lies in this protective fashion enough times, the other partner can't help but wonder what lies they are being told within the relationship as a way of keeping everyone happy. It's a slippery slope. This coping mechanism developed in childhood actively works against the adult's better interests.

Dishonesty kills intimacy. These are not harmless social misdirections, it's death to an intimate relationship by a thousand cuts.

If you are doing this so much it's coming up before marriage, you are probably doing it the wrong way and too much. I urge you to examine and evolve how, why, and how often you rely on this technique. I guarantee you are using it incorrectly. I urge you to investigate and adapt new techniques. These exist. This is not the only way to interact smoothly with the outside world.


""Sounds really similar to the kind of conditioning that children of abuse are taught in order to cover their abusers asses."

It sounds like you're interpreting the breakfast story as, "My parents abused me, I accidentally disclosed this at school, and I want to teach my children not to disclose their abuse." This is not what I meant to convey. To clarify: I do not consider my parents to have abused me by feeding me this breakfast, nor am I laying the groundwork for future planned abuse my children. Please MeMail me if you are concerned."

OP, I find your takeaway there super informative! The original statement was direct, it's about how kids that are abused are conditioned to act happy and put on a mask. It wasn't about your parents or what they fed you for breakfast. The statement was drawing an analogy between the way abused children act and how white US society made you feel and act as a child.

There's a lot to unpack here for AskMe. I hope you get the chance to dig into this experience and turn it into something better that works for you today.

- I still don't know what term you call this type of social lying, but I know exactly what you mean.
posted by jbenben at 7:24 AM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

White lies to low-contact acquaintances do not imply dishonesty with a partner, spouse, or anyone else you're actually close with. It might erase intimacy with people you aren't intimate with in any way regardless, but there is no reason why your relationship with your spouse should or will be affected by how you communicate with, for example, your boss or co-workers.
posted by Dysk at 7:35 AM on June 1, 2018 [14 favorites]

Isn’t this a white lie?! I’m a middle class white woman too, and I do this pretty regularly just because I’m female and a hippie with a conservative day job. I just get tired of explaining to people that I don’t have a TV, you know? I’m sort of surprised at some of the impassioned replies you’re getting. It’s like saying you have a boyfriend to get a creeper to give up hitting on you or wearing a “wedding” ring while traveling. Try the term white lie with her.

I have a 3.5 yr old; I wouldn’t specifically teach this thing per se, for two reasons:

1. Once they figure out how to lie you’ll end up teaching them all sorts of things anyway - bad lies, white lies, subjective truth, secrets, etc.

2. What they need to white lie about, when, and to whom will be different and they need to learn (for themselves) how to read various situations and make an assessment.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:51 AM on June 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

The traditional word for that is discretion. It’s okay to operate with discretion and to have a sense of personal privacy.

Another concept that may help you find other people discussing this stuff, or that you may want to discuss with spouse or children:
Need-to-know basis
Wikipedia has a page about this in terms of information security, as well as the related Principle of least privilege.
The basic idea is it's good security practice to not share info willy-nilly for no good reason.
The fact is, lots of people have to live their lives a bit on the defensive. And it is often good practice to only reveal information when there is a legitimate reason or need.

So yeah, generally it's good to not lie to your friends, relatives, spouse, children, etc. But for the rest of the world (guy on the bus, chatty coworker, prying fellow student), it's completely reasonable to teach young people that they do not (usually) have to divulge just because someone asks.

On the other hand, sharing personal info is how we build relationships, and it is true that some people are so private/closed that it impairs the relationships that they want to keep close. I think, based on your response that you are primarily thinking of this as Us and The World. But to be clear, when I plan on talking about this stuff with my kid, I will also discuss that it's good to strive for openness, honesty and trust among our in-groups.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:04 AM on June 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

If it's alarming your spouse (I'm assuming from observation and that you are not lying to her), I think it's worth thoughtfully revisiting whether the technique is still useful in all the circumstances you are deploying it in. Maybe she is recognizing a degree of maladaptiveness that it's hard to see through the shell of lifetime habits.

But, yes, wow, at times this is a necessary tactic. As an ethical matter, it's worth considering whether (a) the person even has the right to ask the question and (b) they are entitled to a true answer. The teacher is not being inappropriate in asking about favorite breakfasts, but she has no particular entitlement to a true answer (she probably doesn't even much care what the answer is). If giving the true answer would expose you to some unjust harm, then there is no reason to do so.

I would be reluctant to try to teach a kid this out of context, though, simply because abusers like to try to convince their victims that it is all a shameful secret. You especially need to be clear that there are no secrets within the family. Also think about whether you may unintentionally be encouraging your kid to feel shame and embarrassment over some aspect of their heritage. Sometimes it's necessary, but if it's not...
posted by praemunire at 8:08 AM on June 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

Every parent has to teach their kid something about honesty vs discretion, regardless of minority status.

Thing is, this sort of teaching is generally done by example. One day you'll be on your way home from a potluck and mention to your spouse that Suzie's salad was underseasoned but she was so proud of it you complimented her anyway, and your kid will hear and start to absorb that kindness is more important than the straight facts in some cases. Another day your kid will tell you that Mitzie at school was copying answers from someone else's homework and you'll have a discussion about that. You'll talk about safety related privacy, tricky adults, situations where you need to have your guard up. Your kid will try to wiggle out of admitting something you know they did, and you'll talk about responsibility. There will be school assignments with prompts and you'll help them figure out what the point of the assignment is and how to get the most out of it. You'll talk about assessing risks. Stuff comes up every day.

What I'm saying is, you can and should make sure that your values around honesty are compatible with your spouse's in a practical sense, like how you make decisions, how you act towards each other and towards the world. If they are, then the way you live will demonstrate them to your kid.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:18 AM on June 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Your question reminded me of African American individuals I have worked with over the years that are hiding "wealth", avoid bank accounts, and probably commit some manner of fraud, because the system is set up disproportionately to punish them for being black and keep them poor. I do not know if there is a word for it, and I do not think that you will find information that condones this because there are ethical issues involved in that level of lying even if it is for survival purposes. I am speaking from a place of privilege, so maybe that is a factor in my response. I have seen a lot of Medicaid fraud, and under the table jobs, for a variety of reasons. Whether it is to avoid responsibility or to avoid issues associated with being a minority is probably determined on a case by case basis.
posted by crunchy potato at 9:30 AM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

As long as you aren't doing this with her, I don't understand what's so upsetting to your fiancee.

I'm assuming she's living a relatively mainstream life and has little need for these discretionary "lies" (while technically correct, I think the word carries implications re ill intent that don't fit the circumstances). In addition, her wealth and/or position likely protect her from the negative consequences of revealing something about herself that is not mainstream, e.g., rice and pickles for breakfast is a quirk, not a potential sign of neglect.

Regardless, it doesn't take superpower levels of empathy to understand that life isn't necessarily so simple for those outside her privileged circle.

Re your kids: teach them to be honest about their lives and be ready to defend them if they get any grief whatsoever at school, etc. As they get older, they will decide on their own when they want to take advantage of the "discretionary lie" option. And you can be that they will do so with you and their mother because every kid does.

Fwiw, I'm a 63 year old white woman in the midwest, after 30 years in Chicago I returned to my small, conservative hometown a few years ago (temp stay, leaving next year) and I do this whenever I'm simply not up for some long discussion because I'm doing something outside of local norms.
posted by she's not there at 10:54 AM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

So I'll say we visited my grandmother over the weekend, and not mention that she's dead ....

Just one data point... I'm in your fiancee's demographic, and I don't think you should do this or counsel anyone else to do it. It's completely normal to visit the grave of a deceased relative. Why not say it?

Maybe recalibrate your expectations, rather than looking for an explanation to justify concealing random facts.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:38 AM on June 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

"As long as you aren't doing this with her, I don't understand what's so upsetting to your fiancee."

"So I'll say we visited my grandmother over the weekend, and not mention that she's dead ...."

Imagine this: Running into your spouse's coworker and they make random small talk, asking about your recent trip to Grandma's. They are being polite and bringing this up because that's what the coworker interpreted your spouse to mean when they said, "we visited my grandmother." Then you're just left standing there dumbfounded, trying to figure out what to say. It's such an outlandish idea, that your spouse would misrepresent anything about visiting a gravesite, why misrepresent that?? At this point, once the coworker registers that you are shocked and confused by their innocent small talk, almost any answer you give to this very well meaning acquaintance seems rude or bonkers. Everyone walks away feeling badly AND you get to go home and hash it out with your spouse. Not good times. Nope.

Every intimate relationship faces these issues to navigate, both partners have come together united on what is appropriate to tell or not tell outsiders. There are better ways to handle these interactions, such that no one looks foolish or like a liar. Be a good married partner by finding updated strategies to accomplish the goal of being discreet and socially savvy. There are better ways.
posted by jbenben at 12:03 PM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's completely normal to visit the grave of a deceased relative. Why not say it?

In some cultures, you're not visiting the grave, you are visiting the person. That they're deceased doesn't change that you're visiting them. This concept isn't easy to explain off-hand, so it can be easier to elide it.

Seems like some people are mistaking the question. It's not a matter of whether it's okay to lie to the fiancee (it's not), but whether future children should be told it's okay to lie about inconsequential things to strangers. Fiancee needs to understand why it might be necessary at certain points.

Basically, it sounds like the fiancee has never been part of the "out group" and needs to understand how answering a "harmless question" can be stressful. Others above have given some great information about how there's a "true answer" and a "correct answer" that don't always line up.

Let's not accuse someone of being a liar for exercising discretion.
posted by explosion at 12:08 PM on June 1, 2018 [16 favorites]

Kenji Yoshino calls this Covering. He advocates for a world where people don't have to cover, but people do - because it is useful.

I suggest finding his videos or reading his book
posted by rebent at 12:11 PM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

One day you'll be on your way home from a potluck and mention to your spouse that Suzie's salad was underseasoned but she was so proud of it you complimented her anyway, and your kid will hear and start to absorb that kindness is more important than the straight facts

This is where the ethics of it all get fuzzy and potentially dangerous for the child, because you're also assuming that you can "teach" an internal value system, what meaning a child will gleam in any given circumstance, what they actually will assume themselves, and what they will absorb and learn from any given circumstance.
Ie. Personally, as a child, whenever my parents did this, I "learned" that my parents lie to people's faces, then talk poorly about them behind their backs. I learned my parents were secretly unkind and to not trust them. Point being, the "lesson" is not always what is learned through a child's eyes.
posted by OnefortheLast at 12:14 PM on June 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was a white kid among white kids, but I nevertheless used to lie all the time because I was born atheist in the South, so whenever Jesus came up on the playground, which was like every three minutes, I'd smile and nod like a bobblehead doll. My parents never said word one about this: it was just obviously what was called for. Once during silent reading I thought I was releasing a silent but deadly but it turned out to be audible and the evil meangirl in charge called roll to determine who dealt it and I affected to be so absorbed in the Dick and Jane that I missed the whole scandal. I was only six or seven, but I actually pulled this off. I acted startled when I heard my name and said, "huh, whu!?" and meangirl said impatiently, "Oh, it wasn't her" and called the next person's name. I don't think you have to train kids to lie and I don't think a nonkid can hope to train a kid to fit in with other kids because kid culture changes hourly. Anyway, I can't believe there's not some long-unexamined niche in your fiancee that made her different from other kids and I can't believe she didn't at least try to downplay it. She has just forgotten.
posted by Don Pepino at 1:25 PM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Frankly, the bizarre overreactions and vague accusations of ill-intent in this thread are exactly the kinds of stranger interactions that the OP has been trying to avoid in real life.
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 1:40 PM on June 1, 2018 [32 favorites]

a classic example is teaching kids not to say "Mom can't come to the phone because she's on the toilet" and say "Mom can't come to the phone right now, can I take a message?"

I was thinking of the misdirection that is normal to perform around menstruation. E.g., In most workplaces I would not decline an invitation to lunch with "No, I'm cramping, waiting for you all to leave so I can use the microwaveable hot pads I keep in the back of my desk drawer." even when that was very very true.
posted by clew at 3:37 PM on June 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised that your wife doesn't understand the need to lie or withhold the truth to peripheral people.

I'm a white woman. I learned very early that I needed to hide who I am or get teased horribly. It carries on to today. For instance, I'm taking a trip this summer for a nerdy hobby. I'm telling my coworkers that I am going to see friends. I don't want them to see me as "different." I was hired because they thought I would fit in well with the team, so I'm conventional with my coworkers.

Your question made me think about how much about myself that I keep to myself and only share with the people with whom I am closest. I thought this was something everyone did to at least some extent.
posted by parakeetdog at 4:57 PM on June 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

I am not white.

There is stuff I just don't tell people because I don't have the time or the desire to be National Geographic.

I think it's absolutely vital to have a partner who not only understands that, but has your back on that.
posted by oenanthe at 5:28 PM on June 1, 2018 [23 favorites]

One of the arts of resistance in Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Examples given like having multiple names, one for friends and one for the tax collector; when the authorities come and ask for your leader, send out a dupe so they won’t know who to target; rope a dope: pretend to be helpless so you can catch them off guard.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 9:47 PM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

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