Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Comparing Misspeaks, Colorful Anecdotes and Lies

Tiny exaggerations can become big lies.There has a been a lot in the news lately about political candidates who misspeak, which implies they meant to say one thing but said something slightly different, absolutely by mistake. It is usually a way of minimizing a much more serious error. (Like the old joke about the guy who showed up at work with a bruised face and broken arm. A friend asked him what happened and he said, “My wife and I were having breakfast and I misspoke and she got all upset and beat the daylights out of me.” The friend exclaimed, “My gosh, how could she get so upset over a little misspeak?” The guy replied, “Well, I meant to say, “Honey, would you pass me the butter?” I misspoke and said, “I think you’re disgusting and I wish I was married to your sister.”)  

I have inexplicably misspoken on occasion–using a word or phrase that I not only did not intend to say, but did not realize I had said it. For example, at an awards luncheon I was speaking about the value of government employees in our country and I said “county” several times when I meant to say country. I swore later that I had not done it, but enough people teased me about it that I knew it must be true. It was a misspeak. I did not say I had visited every country in the world–that would not have been a misspeak, that would have been a lie. (I could have compounded my misspeaking by misquoting as well: “Ask not what you can do for your county, ask what your county can do for you.”)

On the other hand, we all enjoy anecdotes and stories that are slightly–or highly–dramatized for affect. We sometimes even know or suspect the story is not wholly true, but it is so enjoyable we do not mind. Sometimes stories simply become a mixture of fact and fiction from frequent re-telling and revising according to the situation and the results.  

  • Water cooler stories often are told with high drama: A sporting event, someone’s actions at a party, or the story-teller’s adventures on a doomed fishing expedition. If part of the story gets a hilarious reaction, the story-teller emphasizes it the next time.
  • “War stories” about the comedy and drama of work–especially decades after the events–are nearly always much more interesting than the real thing ever was.
  • Presenters and trainers often use anecdotes based on real life, but of necessity must change names, locations and some details to avoid potential problems or embarrassing the people involved, so after awhile it is hard to recognize the real thing.
  • Sometimes a person will tell a story but not want to appear to be bragging so he or she will create details that add humor and a touch of humility to their own role in it.

What all of us who tell personal stories have to be alert for is the temptation to embellish a story past the point of making it more colorful all the way to making it untruthful.  After telling it for a few years you will not remember the true version–but you can bet someone will.  Have you ever heard a coworker tell a story about something that happened at work and you hardly recognized it as the same event you witnessed? Have you ever squirmed in embarrassment as someone told an obvious lie? You will never feel the same about those people–and you will always question the truthfulness of other things they say.

I am so concerned about that issue for myself that I have corrected the introductions made by someone before I speak if they were not correct. And, I have to tell you honestly, it was a temptation to just let it go and not say anything when I was introduced as Dr. Tina Rowe! I could have said later that I didn’t say it, she did. But, I corrected the error to avoid even inadvertently lying. (I said my correct title was Dr.Tina Lewis Rowe.) 🙂

I can certainly understand that people get caught up in their anecdotes or in talking about their personal or professional history, and do not mind it when there is nothing at stake–although I would prefer to know that what I am hearing is the truth, even if dramatized a bit. I am not so forgiving about people who tell blatant lies to gain status, make themselves out as heroes or important persons, or to attach themselves in some tenuous way to an important event. I do not care very much about the deep underlying causes of their psychological, social or political need to be deceptive, I only care that they lie and I will usually confront them about it if I think it matters.

I once knew a man with an important job, (Oh my, I would love to use his full name here–but his initials were Bob B.) who would lie when the truth would have been easier and sometimes just as good or better. A regular and large part of his conversations were lies–serious, purposeful and sometimes frighteningly diabolical lies. Those of us who knew him could write a book! I am not referring to that kind of behavior here. I’m referring to the additions and subtractions that appreciably change stories or time-lines that are purported to be truthful.

We cannot easily jump up and shout that a speaker or trainer is lying, but we certainly think less of him or her and turn off everything else that is said. If a supervisor or manager seems to be lying, we cannot easily confront that either. And, the reality is that if someone is a friend or is someone we will not see again, we listen to the tall tale (AKA lie) but do not say anything. So, what does that tell you? The fact that no one  confronts an untrue story does not mean they believe it, they simply do not say anything directly.

If you use anecdotes in your speaking, training or work discussions, or if you have a story you often tell family and friends, consider it carefully to ensure it is true in all the major components. If it is not, say you forget the details and stop telling it. Or, adjust it so you no longer tell the untrue parts. Practice telling it truthfully so you can learn to add to the humor or drama with your style of presentation rather than embellishments. If you are caught in an untrue story do not use the excuse of misspeaking. Consider telling the truth!

“I’m terribly, terribly embarrassed about this and I’m glad you confronted me. I wanted to make myself sound (whatever) and I went too far in my dramatic story telling, to the point that it wasn’t true at all, it was just a reflection of what I know I could have done. I promise you I won’t tell a story like that again and I hope you will forgive me.” Almost everyone will empathize and you will do a long way toward rebuilding your credibility.

Telling the stories of our lives is a great way to enhance teaching, speaking, or everyday conversations. Pants on fire!But you may never know the damage to your career and reputation if you tell an untrue story, or a true story in such a way that it loses its truthfulness. Being colorful and entertaining is not worth the embarrassment, humiliation and loss of respect that usually results when the truth comes out.  George Herbert wrote, in his poem, The Church Porch, “Dare to be true: Nothing can need a lie;/A fault, which needs it most/Grows two thereby.”

April 3rd, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 6 comments