ESSAY- Pants on fire?: Tips for telling the truth

"I didn't see you at my gallery opening," says a friend I've stumbled on while out shopping. "What happened?"

Truthfully? I got engrossed in a rerun of The Daily Show. (I know, I know, I‘m a jerk.) But despite my husband's insistence that my brain's censor button doesn't seem to have an "on" switch, at least I know enough not to tell her as much. 

"Ummmm, oh, gosh, didn't I call you? Food poisoning," I mumble sheepishly. (Memo to self: Tell husband that if he runs into friend, I was very, very sick that night.) Stupid, stupid, stupid, I say to myself, as I walk away from the encounter feeling terribly guilty for lying to my friend and panicked that somehow she is going to find out the truth and hate me. There has to be a better way.

Lying is a part of everyday life. We are always mentally editing ourselves. "My daughter is so beautiful, we're taking her to a modeling agent," boasts a friend, and rather than pointing out the unfortunate child's homeliness, you assure her that no doubt her child is magazine cover material. 

"Why isn't your presentation ready?" demands your boss, and you reply with a saga of crashed computers and uncooperative vendors, conveniently leaving out the part where you just forgot about it. 

"We lie so often that a lot of the time we don't really realize we're doing it. We lie generally for psychic rewards– to make ourselves appear smarter, kinder, or more honest, or to protect ourselves from embarrassment, disapproval or conflict," says Bella dePaulo of UC Santa Barbara. "To a lesser degree, we lie to protect others from embarrassment, worry or hurt feelings."

In one of her studies, the participants admitted to an average of one to two lies a day. Over the course of a week, they lied to 30 - 38 percent of the people in their lives.

Are these little white lies as benign as we like to think? Not really. They can cause stress from the fear of being found out, of keeping our lies straight, and from the lousy way lying make us feel about ourselves. 

In Dr. DePaulo's study, participants reported feeling distressed during and after their lie and said that social interactions in which they lied were less pleasant and less intimate. Besides, people who are caught in enough lies are perceived as untrustworthy. 

But how can one possibly tell the truth and still be compassionate? Should I have told my friend that, in my book, Jon Stewart trumps dull art any day? Of course not. There are other ways to remain true to ourselves and still not hurt others. Here are strategies that can help people stop lying but still keep their friends:

Know your purpose. Don't you just hate people who use truth-telling to say absolutely horrible things? "But I was only being honest!" they shout, usually after reducing some poor soul to tears. Telling the truth is not enough a justification for making someone feel bad. Count to ten before you blurt something out, and ask yourself why you're going to tell the truth: Is this a truth that needs to be told? Are you just protecting yourself or someone else? Are you maybe getting the teensiest bit of pleasure from delivering bad news? 

"Find your role and purpose: Is it your place to relay the information? Will the information help or hurt the other person?" cautions Bernardo J. Carducci, author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk. 

"If you decide that this information needs to be told, tell the other person why, as in ‘I'm telling you this because I want you to hear it from me and no one else.'" 

Prepare the other person for a painful truth, says Charles V. Ford, author of Lies! Lies! Lies! Cushioning the blow takes some of the hurt out of the message because it sends a signal of concern and caring. 

"I'm really uncomfortable telling you this, and I'm afraid it will make you uncomfortable too, but I think it's important that we discuss (whatever)." 

And remember: time and place are everything. A colleague once told me how much she disliked my new haircut– 10 seconds before I was to get up and give a presentation to 300 people, completing destroying my confidence. What was I supposed to do about it then?

Be brief and to the point. Tell only as much information as necessary. "Well, the band was a little tacky," I once heard myself tell a new bride who wanted to know how I enjoyed her wedding. 

Once we get chatting, sometimes it's easy to get lost in the details and blurt out things that don't need to be said. "When we're confronted in a situation, we get anxious about how to get out of it," says Carducci. "It turns up the level of this defensive behavior so we start saying more and more, until it starts to smell funny. It's like when you're caught in a skid, and you defensively pound the brakes harder and harder, which is exactly what you are not supposed to do." 

If it's something no one needs to hear, or you've entered dangerous ground, zip it or just stick to the minimum. Obviously, my friend didn't need to hear my opinion of the band. All I should have said was, "It was really fun and you looked so beautiful."

If you can, put a positive spin on a hurtful truth. A friend asks if her jeans make her fanny look fat– and indeed she is hanging pretty wide. Find a positive slant such as "Actually, I think you look so cute in that other pair." 

This takes the sting out of the truth while still setting the other person on the right track. This doesn't mean you should make stuff up, but try to find a positive way to redirect the conversation. 

"This provides a constructive alternative that doesn't focus on the person, but on what they can do," says Carducci. You can also use the old "It's not you, it's me" routine here. I'm constantly being invited to those kitchen appliance parties, which I loathe. I used to beg off with invented conflicts. Now I just say, "Thanks for thinking of me but it's just not something I'm interested in."

Don't ignore the elephant in the room. One caveat to the tip above: If the other person is dealing with something really difficult– a death or job loss, for example– don't ignore it or brush off her concerns with happy talk. 

"It's not compassionate to pretend you don't see a black eye or don't know that someone's husband has cancer," says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. "We often don't know how to talk about illness or death, but it's hurtful to ignore it,"  Ask about someone's problems when others aren't around, and then follow her lead as to how much she wants to pursue the conversation. Allow her to vent her feelings and validate them as best you can: "This is so hard for you. I can see how you're struggling."

Follow these tips, and you'll soon feel a weight lifting off your shoulders. No lie!

Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman's Day, Family Circle, the Chicago Tribune, USA Weekend and Newsday.