The Jewish Ethicist: White Lie Redux
Can I reassure a business colleague with a white lie?
Q. Sometimes I'm just too busy to talk even to an important customer. Can I avoid offending them by asking my secretary say that I'm out of the office or in a meeting?
A. Truth is a supreme value in Jewish tradition, and the Talmud states that "The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is truth." (1) However, our tradition does sanction an occasional "white lie" in order not to hurt someone's feelings. We learn this from the Torah. When Sarah was incredulous at the thought that she would give birth at her advanced age, she said to herself, "After I have aged shall youth return to me, my master also being old?" But when God told Abraham about her thoughts, He worded it "Shall I bear a child, now that I am old?" (Genesis 18:12-13.) Our Sages explain that Abraham might have felt pained to hear his wife describe him as old. (2) (He was only 99.)
However, this kind of paraphrase is permitted only as a one-time response to an awkward situation. We learn this from the story of the Talmudic sage Rav and his son Chiya. Rav had a strained relationship with his wife, and she would often do the opposite of what he requested. Their son Chiya eventually learned to relay the father's requests to the wife in an altered way that helped restore harmony. When the father eventually learned of this, he praised the son's wisdom but instructed him not to continue with this practice. Since this alteration was habitual, it carried a danger of accustoming the son to bending the truth. (3)
So one reason we must avoid the kind of "white lie" you describe is that these fibs almost invariably become a habit. This habit is unethical in itself, and also has a way of undermining the workplace where it becomes rooted. After you instruct your secretary to lie when it's inconvenient for you to talk to a customer, what do you expect him to do when it is inconvenient for him to help you with some urgent task?
An equally important reason is that your concern is not really to avoid hurting someone's feelings. You're not worried about your customer's feelings; you're worried about his business. When you can't talk to a salesperson from a prospective supplier, you are probably far less worried about his fragile ego. This worry is not included in the leniency to bend the truth for the sake of harmony.
The final reason to avoid these fibs is that they are completely unnecessary. A more rational policy can avoid both bad feelings and untruths. You should instruct your secretary or colleagues to avoid giving specific information when you can't come to the phone. Whether you are out of the office, or in a meeting, or simply emotionally unavailable, the caller should be informed, "He can't come to the phone right now." If the caller is insistent, then the secretary can use his judgment as to whether it is appropriate and helpful to give more information.
Many parents give similar instructions to their children so that strangers can't learn if youngsters are alone in the house; whether Dad is out of town or just in the shower, the answer is "Daddy can't come to the phone right now." The same policy that helps us protect our children can help us protect honesty in the work environment.
(1) Shabbat 65a. (2) Yevamot 65b. (3) Yevamot 63a.
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