Why are white lies considered “politeness”?

I’ve lived in this country for nearly twenty years but I still can’t figure out why Americans consider as polite inserting little white lies pretending they care into conversations with people they really don’t give a damn about.

I’m talking about saying things like “We really have to keep in touch” to a coworker moving to another job you’ll be happy never to see again or adding “Maybe some other time” when you decline an invitation to an outing simply because you don’t like that person.

The February 2009 issue of hugely popular Parents magazine  includes an article “Your Complete Guide to Playdates” by Mary Jo DiLonardo which includes a “Q&A” Playdating Dilemmas. One of the questions was:

“That kid was a brat, and I don’t want him to come back. What should I do?”

The suggested answer? You guessed it:

“Our schedule is crazy at the moment. Can we touch base at a later date?”

with a comment

“If you say that enough, all but the most socially inept person will get the message.”

What really surprised me is that these answers were provided by Melissa Leonard, a certified etiquette consultant in Harrison, New York.

It just so happens that one of my son’s classmates asked to come over to our house for a playdate, so I contacted his parents to arrange that. The answer I got was “We are fully booked for both Saturday and Sunday. Maybe we can find another day in the future.”

Mind you, she didn’t say “Gosh, I’m sorry. We can’t do it this weekend. How about in two (three) weeks?” or something along those lines showing she does want to arrange a playdate in the future. So… In the context of Melissa’s advice I should take that answer as “No way I’m sending my kid to play with yours,” and that really sickens me.

What in the world compels Americans to pretend they are friendly if they really don’t care?

Honestly.. If you cannot stomach telling me “I’m sorry, but I think your child’s exuberance just is just too much for my son and hypers him up” then all right, do say “We are fully booked.” I’m okay with that. But do not add “Maybe we can find another day in the future,” when you don’t mean it. It might be the accepted convention, but to me that is not only disingenuous and insincere but just plan insulting. And disgusting.

What am I supposed to answer to that? “Whatever” would of course be my first reaction, but that would be rude. I could also answer along the lines of that  style and write back “I’m sorry to hear you are busy. I hope we can try some other time.” And leave it at that. But frankly, I don’t really feel like answering at all. And I don’t care what that mother or Melissa Leonard think about me. I refuse to play that game.

I’m just sorry for my son and that kid, because he really sounded like he wanted to come over to our house for a playdate.


  1. “White lies” play a role in social relationships that is very hard for people with learning disabilities to see, especially if the disabilities affect nonverbal communication.

    Human relationships are complex, culturally-defined connections. When we interract with others we subconsciously follow unwritten, social “rules” that are changeable depending on a wide variety of factors. For example, why is it considered rude to look a stranger in the face on an elevator, but it is perfectly acceptable, even appropriate, to smile and nod when you pass someone you don’t know on the street? Social rules also involve boundaries which define how we relate to another person.

    Thus, we comply with social niceties that are expected in our culture in order to be accepted by others and viewed in a positive light. In order to do this, we have to value being close to others over being right. Thus, we politely compliment our friend on the new, ugly dress they are wearing when they ask about it; we say nothing to correct an innocuous error our spouse makes in conversation, until later when they won’t be embarrassed. We smile and congratulate our friend on a new purchase, when we know they got ripped off. We let someone we love prevail in a debate.

    So, for the NT world, “white lies” aren’t true falsehoods; they are the mechanism by which relationships are protected.

    The flip side of this, of course, is the role honesty plays. We strive to be honest, but in fact if we are too honest we will hurt the feelings of people we want to be close to. So you have to balance the importance of honesty against the value of closeness in every situation. The doctor will tell her obese patient that they are too heavy and must lose weight for their health, but when she gets home she may say she likes her husband’s new crew cut hairstyle, even if it isn’t really true, because she wants to spare his feelings.

    Unfortunately, many people with learning disabilities have trouble learning the various social rules of their communities in the way other people do, and often it takes time to master these unwritten, vague standards. Because of this, many 2E people rely heavily on the things they know and are strong in: facts. But human communication requires more than simply passing information back and forth, so it often comes as a surprise when stating a fact ends up creating a problem with another person. As my 2E son now knows: it’s the difference between being right and being close.

    There’s no reason, by the way, that people with learning disabilities can’t master these social rules. It just takes longer, and it takes a lot of motivation.

  2. Thank you very much for this thoughtful comment, Debra!

    As I wrote in the “About” page — being a foreigner I still feel a bit like having mild autism or NVLD because I still don’t know, get, or remember certain social conventions.

    Where I come from there is a very distinct difference between how you interact with close friends and how you interact with mere acquaintances. It took me a while to remember that here when someone asks “How are you?” they usually do not expect anything more than a simple “Good. Thanks. How are you?” Where I come from, people greet each other with a plain “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” and only ask “How are you?” when they really mean to stop and listen to the answer.

    My American husband was flabbergasted, when he heard I told a coworker that I preferred her previous hairstyle, because, as you said, you never, ever, ever criticize someone’s hairstyle. (That happened over sixteen years ago, I know better than that nowadays.)

    I’ve talked to a few of my American friends about “white lies” and social conventions asking them how they know whether “Can we touch base at a later date?” or “Maybe we can find another day in the future” is genuine or a white lie. Most of them answered “You don’t know unless you know the person. If you ask again and get the same answer, then you know not to ask them the third time.”

    p.s. I doubt that anyone visiting my site would not know what NT, mentioned by Debra, means — but just in case — NT is short for “neurotypical” or, as most people who don’t know any better would probably say — “normal.”

  3. Hi! Happy New Year to everyone! As the expert for the Q&A in Parents Magazine, I just wanted to explain why I believe discretion is always the best way to go. I do, absoutely, understand why some parents would want other parents to be “up front” and not gloss over the truth with niceties. I do believe, however, that it is not our place as parents to speak our mind about the behavior of this or that child and voice that opinion to that child’s parents. I think doing so causes problems, gossip, hurt feelings and can have a ripple effect that is disasterous.

    When a parent says, “our schedule is crazy at the moment, can we plan something later on,” we cannot assume that they don’t like the behavior of our child. Making assumptions just causes problems. They may, in fact, have a family situation they are dealing with, time may have gotten away from them or may be struggling to get through each day. We don’t know what the reason is, but we can graciously accept the answer and try back at a later time. By assuming we know what their reasoning is for denying the playdate, we can spiral out of control with our thoughts….and as mothers, we have enough on our plate already.

    Now, if our child is misbehaving and this other parent is simply being polite in their response, we must accept that. I think being discrete & gracious is always the way to go. I certainly wouldn’t want to hear, “your daughter was a complete nightmare and is a bad influence on my child.” Hearing someone say something like that would definitely cause major problems and is simply rude (in my opinion).

    If I thought that there was a reason that they didn’t want to have a playdate with my child, I would try to find out the truth. I would approach my child and ask them if anything happened that I should know about. This is also why it is so important to ask a parent when you pick up your child, “did anything happen that I should know about?” This shows the other parent that you are interested in correcting poor behavior and working with your child, so further problems don’t occur. Sometimes you have to push your child for the truth and if anything did happen, you should address it with the other parent. Apologize for what occurred and let them know you took care of it. If other parents see that you are making the effort to work with your child and that you care, they are more apt to dismiss the behavior…as ALL kids misbehave or act out here and there. The sad part of this is that most parents just don’t make the time and energy to correct poor social behavior…but by being consistent and working with a child, eventually, they are better equipped to deal with social dilemmas (sharing, bossing around, fighting, foul language, etc).

    Perhaps, it wasn’t “our” child that was the problem and it is the other child who causes issues….but we can only control what our child does or how they react to others. Perhaps that other parent perceived our child as a “brat” because they were having an off day. If this is the case, do you really want your child spending time at a home where quick judgements are made and there is little tolerance and patience. After all, kids will be kids…we only hope that when they leave our presense, we have equipped them with the tools to handle themselves with confidence and authority.

    If we don’t want a child at our house, we should be kind about it…don’t say, “we’re fully booked” as that implies that we are just so popular that we can’t make time for other friends. Treat others as you would want to be treated….give the child another chance,but be vigilant during the playdate. By making your presence known, that child will know that certain behavior will be seen and stopped immediately and eventually their better selves will come out and they know that being naughty won’t be tolerated. On the other hand, like I said before, that child may just have had a bad day…and we certainly don’t want to be judged during one of our off days. So, if you can bear it, have them over again and try once more. If the same behavior occurs, when it comes time that the parent calls to make a playdate, simply say, “unfortunately, we can’t do it right now, but perhaps we can get together soon…can we touch base at a later time?” This is the gracious way of handling it. Perhaps when some time goes by, you will feel different…but it is nice if you do what to have that child over, you know you didn’t burn a bridge and potential friendship for your child by saying something indiscrete and unkind.

    Hope this helps and would love to hear your thoughts.
    :) Melissa

  4. Hi Melissa!

    Thanks for visiting! And thank you very much for the comments and suggestions, which made me realize how much I still need to learn about the American society and about social conventions. Your thoughtful comments also made me realize I might have internalized the exchange with the other mom too much and yes, I have made ungrounded assumptions. Point taken.

    I am not so sure, however, I agree with your comment

    “that most parents just don’t make the time and energy to correct poor social behavior”

    And that

    “A child will know that certain behavior will be seen and stopped immediately and eventually their better selves will come out and they know that being naughty won’t be tolerated”

    when it comes to atypical children.

    Most parents of atypical kids I know put in a lot of effort and energy into trying to correct a child’s behavior. And a child might really want to be “good” but sometimes they just cannot control themselves. At that point, if redirecting doesn’t work, leaving is the only remaining option. That is why I generally “stick around” when we’re invited for a playdate because I know what the “warning” signs are and know how to intervene.

    The society, as a whole, in general expects that we all choose and are in control of how we behave and act. And that does apply to most people. Except those with mental and neurological disabilities.

    A little kid throwing a tantrum and insisting everyone play the game the way he wants to play might be a “bully-in-training” but he also might be on the autism spectrum in which case changing the rules of the game throws him into a panic he cannot control.

    A kid throwing a tantrum in aisle five might be a spoiled brat who is trying to manipulate his mother to buy him candy, but he might also be sensory defensive and the odor of produce or the loudspeakers might have just pushed him over the edge. If he’s five, the parent will most likely know by then that it’s time to just drop everything and leave. If he’s only three, the parent might still be trying to figure out why every trip to the grocery store escalates into a tantrum and is truly ashamed of the child and the stares they get.

    It is easy to say “it’s the parents’ fault” or call a child “a spoiled brat.” It is much harder to realize and remember that atypical kids have as little control over their behavior at that point as a muttering schizophrenic carrying on a conversation with nobody.

    Given that I do love your closing comment

    “do you really want your child spending time at a home where quick judgments are made and there is little tolerance and patience”

    The answer is no – if my son is not welcome at someone’s house, there are other friends that he could visit or invite to our house.

    Thanks again for your insight! I really appreciate your taking the time to write.

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