Examining the Reasons Behind Lying When do we cross the line from white lie to whopper? Author Sisella Bok and columnist Amy Dickinson discuss the little lies we tell about ourselves.
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Examining the Reasons Behind Lying

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Examining the Reasons Behind Lying

Examining the Reasons Behind Lying

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From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is talk of the Nation.

Yesterday, the CEO of Radio Shack lost his job for awarding himself college degrees on his resume. A couple of weeks ago, it was a spokesman for NASA. Social psychologist Leonard Saxe says almost everybody tells little lies.

Dr. LEONARD SAXE (Social Psychologist, Brandeis University): Whether it's important or not, we often compliment people, we often present what we do in the most positive light, and that may mean that we're shading the truth. Sometimes, and over a period of time, we may not even realize what we're doing.

CONAN: When do we cross the line from white lie to whopper? Columnist Amy Dickinson joins us on embellished credentials. Plus, the debate over national security, port management and the Emirate of Dubai. It's the TALK OF THE NATION after the news.

(Soundbite of music)


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Anyone with a functioning moral compass knows it's wrong to tell a lie, and anybody with a shred of common sense knows that if you do lie, you shouldn't leave a paper trail. That did not stop David Edmondson, now the former CEO of Radio Shack, who stepped down yesterday after it came to light that he falsified his resume. Contrary to his CV, Edmondson did not earn degrees in theology and psychology from Pacific Coast Baptist College.

Earlier this month now, former NASA spokesman George Deutsch was caught awarding himself unearned academic credentials. He resigned as well. Despite the possible repercussions and the heavy weight of guilt, analysts estimate that roughly 25 percent of Americans fluff up their resumes, and some psychologists say few of us have a day in which we do not stretch the truth about ourselves in one or another. So why do we lie about ourselves, and when does a lie cross the line from the little white category to career-ending whopper?

Later in the program, a debate erupts over national security after a British- owned port management company is sold the Emirate of Dubai. But first, why we lie. If you've lied to employers or stretched the truth on your resume, give us a call. Did you get caught? Did you ever find a way to correct the information afterwards? We also want to hear from those of you who found liars out. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Joining us now is philosopher and writer Sisella Bok, author of the book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. She's with us by phone from Longboat Key in Florida. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. SISELLA BOK (Author, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life): I'm glad to be on.

CONAN: How surprised should we be that a CEO of a major corporation and a government spokesman turned out to have lied about their professional backgrounds?

Ms. BOK: Well, I think we always are surprised when we find that kind of thing out, and yet the person who is at the moral, as what you might call the lying end of things, is not at all expecting to be found out, and that person is also quite surprised.


Ms. BOK: Because we do take for granted that when you make a statement about yourself, especially a kind of formal statement like a resume, you sign your name to that really, and you owe it to others to be honest, and yet it is true that a number of people do indeed inflate their resumes. They use all kinds of euphemisms, like padding...


Ms. BOK: ...exaggerating a bit, embroidering, stretching the truth, but in fact, if they do say that they attended a college, for instance, that they did not attend, that's an actual lie.

CONAN: And we have to regard a lie on, as you say, a formal document, basically a job application, a CV, that's different from exaggerating the size of the fish you hauled in last weekend.

Ms. BOK: Absolutely. I mean, we can all slip into all kinds of exaggerations, like, for instance, if you say I'm so tired I could die.


Ms. BOK: Well, that's the way you feel just then, and everybody will understand. That's quite different from sitting down to type out or compose a resume and include facts that you know are false.

CONAN: How do we justify lies like that to ourselves when we know they're wrong, and we also know that it's not all that hard to check.

Ms. BOK: Well, that's the curious thing. I think people who are planning to deceive in that way live in a kind of illusion because they imagine that they may very well not be caught or, if they are caught out that, OK, so what, I lose a job.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOK: But if I'm not found out, you know, I can really make a lot more money, and they don't realize that if they are found out, they lose a lot more than a job. They lose their good name, to some extent, and that'll take some time to recover. Also, they don't think about the people whom they do out of a job, the ones who might have gotten the job instead of them.

So there's another thing, I think, that they imagine. And that is that, well, I'm telling this to help myself, but nobody really gets hurt. And that, of course, is not at all true as we see in this case where the company, the administrators say, yes, indeed we feel very hurt and damaged.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOK: Trust in our company has now been damaged.

CONAN: Do we, or at least some of the people who tell these kinds of lies about themselves, in a way, do they come to believe it?

Ms. BOK: There are some who do, and that's a separate case. You know, they really live in an illusion. They may come to believe that they have gone to such and such a college, they have earned such and such a degree, maybe written such and such a book, and that's a very different kind of case. It's a little like a mythomaniac, and again, to some extent, we all have illusions about ourselves. But when the illusions take that kind of very, with that form of factual statements that are incorrect, then there's a real problem.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And it's also, many of these people would have had opportunities over the years to go back and correct this misimpression that they may have gotten that master's degree at whatever college it was and don't do it.

Ms. BOK: Well, one way of correcting, I guess, would be to try to get the master's degree. Another way, indeed, would be to alter their CV.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOK: And it's very curious that they wouldn't do that once they begin to think that there is a problem about it. On the other hand, they may very well say, look, I got a job on the basis of this. How can I now go in and alter what I said the first time?

CONAN: Yeah, but there are people who got that first job, and it was, I guess, vital to have that faux sheepskin, if you will, to get that first job. But then, you know, they go on to the other positions, and it was really just to get that first job and they keep the lie in that resume.

Ms. BOK: Yes. No, that is again, it's a curious thing for us at the other side of this situation, people who might be on the receiving end, people who might have believed them, it's very curious that they wouldn't make that change.


Ms. BOK: But once they're in that situation, as I say, and they don't think they're necessarily going to be found out, and they don't think that it's such a big deal, I think they just reason differently.

CONAN: Hmm. Are we hard-wired to lie?

Ms. BOK: Well, that's an interesting statement. Some psychologist say so. Certainly we are born with the ability to lie and to tell the truth, and everybody goes through a period and childhood where it's very difficult to tell the difference, for instance, between tall tales that all children tell...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOK: ...and actual lies. And then you can develop a kind of discrimination, but that only comes about if you have parents and other people in your life who help you to draw those distinctions. There are children who grow up making none whatsoever.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. BOK: Mm hmm. Especially if they live in an environment where let's say the family is pretty dishonest itself, and, yeah, I think that it happens that kids grow up very confused about what's lying and what isn't.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson deals with ethical dilemmas such as lying on a daily basis. She doles out advice to Americans in her column Ask Amy, which appears in the Chicago Tribune and is syndicated in many other newspapers around the country. She joins us now from NPR's bureau in Chicago. Amy, always nice to have you on the program.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Syndicated Columnist, Ask Amy): Neal, that's doctor, Dr. Dickinson.

(Soundbite of laughter)

You know, what I don't get about the Radio Shack guy, where is his, where are his degrees from? What college?

CONAN: Um, the, uh, I've lost that particular...

Ms. DICKINSON: OK, it's like Pacific Northwest Logging School, like, why don't you make yourself be from some incredibly well-known institution?

CONAN: He...

Ms. DICKINSON: Like, that's what I don't get.

CONAN: ...could have graduated with advanced degrees from the Sorbonne.

Ms. DICKINSON: Exactly, as I did.

CONAN: It's where your doctorate is from.


CONAN: I was going to say you probably deal with lying, less often since you left NPR to write this column...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...but, hey, I'm not so sure about that.

Ms. DICKINSON: But you know what's funny, Neal, is that, you know, I'm in kind of a more high profile job now, certainly than I used to be when I was working, you know, for instance, as a booker on TALK OF THE NATION...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: ...years and years ago, but I have often felt so glad that I didn't do that kind of resume padding as I went along because Professor Bok makes a really great point. Like, these things get kind of stuck to you. These lies can stick to you. And now that I'm you know more of a nationally known person I'm so glad that I didn't do that as I went along. Because I, there's nothing to correct.

CONAN: Mm hmm. So, the gold medal in curling...

Ms. DICKINSON: In my dreams.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on this conversation. If you'd like to join us our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e- mail, its talk@npr.org.

We'll begin with JD. JD's calling us from Portland in Oregon.

JD (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi ya.

JD: Hi I just kind of wanted to make a point that it seems like the hiring system, no matter what job you're in kind of encourages this sort of padding and lying.

I mean when we hear about somebody getting dismissed it's generally you know, you don't hear all the background that's actually, you know their employer was looking for a reason to get rid of them. And so they finally went back and did the background check they should have done when they hired them to begin with.

Because finding out you lied on your, you know, resume is the easiest way to fire somebody. But if you know, if that's really what's going on then why is having a degree so important. Obviously you know, the guy that just got fired worked as a CEO for what, 10 years more?

CONAN: Hmm mm.

JD: He was obviously capable of doing the job. So did he need that degree to begin with? I mean our HR departments filter through 1,000 of applicants just because "oh you don't have a degree so you're not qualified to even get an interview".

Where as you know maybe if you trusted more to the person's actual abilities maybe probation, that kind of thing. I mean I work in law enforcement and that's the only job I've ever worked where I know they did a thorough background check and they checked everything I said.

CONAN: I wonder, Sisella Bok, are we demanding too many credentials? I mean don't, a company I guess has to have some sort of a line to draw.

Ms. BOK: I think that JD has a very interesting point. Because when people hire others why do they look at these educational, for example these degrees? I think they do because those are almost like union cards. That's how you get into the race. And then they should also evaluate you for your abilities, et cetera. But it's really rather hard sometimes to know without the person's credentials what they might be capable of.

One thing people should think a lot about these days is that there are more and more screening companies and search firms who do do the screening. So I think that it gets rather dangerous these days, especially for people who want high profile positions to carry along the kind of CV or resume that has falsehoods in it. And I agree with what Amy said it does seem to stick to you. It's very hard to get rid of.

CONAN: And JD, I assume you really hope that your family doctor did in fact graduate with a degree and that the architect who designed the building that you live in also knows what stress loads are and that sort of thing?

JD: Oh obviously. I think the problem comes like, like you're, the doctor said was that if you're going to require a credential like a degree then it should be a routine matter that you're checking on that.

And I think too many employers they put that down as a requirement but then they don't check on it. I personally went through a process once where I had an inside, I knew the people in the department, I knew that once I got an interview that I was a shoo-in for a job. And the HR department wouldn't even allow me an interview because I didn't have...

CONAN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there JD, thanks very much for the call.

More after a break. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about lying. Last month the Mayor of Rancho Mirage in California was caught in a lie. He claimed to have graduated from New York University and Northwestern University. No word yet on whether he'll resign or run in upcoming elections.

And the CEO of Radio Shack resigned yesterday after being caught in a similar lie. So why do we lie about our achievements? Is it ever worth it to lie on your resume?

Our guests are Sisella Bok, the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, and Amy Dickinson, author of the syndicated column, Ask Amy, for the Chicago Tribune.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call 800-989-8255, or zap us an e-mail talk@npr.org.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Terrell, Terrell's with us from Atlanta.

TERRELL (Caller): Yeah, I'm, I live in Atlanta but right now I'm in Jacksonville, Florida, doing some work.

CONAN: Okay either way you're on the radio.

TERRELL: Yeah, well you know, I was sentenced to prison some years ago and I worked for a, they leased the inmates out to the Department of Transportation. And while I was there, I did all kinds of odd jobs with the Department of Transportation.

When I got out trying to find a job, you know, it was very hard being a convicted felon straight out of prison. What I did, I just took their resume and I did a good job description and I said I worked for the Department of Transportation and I just excluded the Department of Corrections part. Fortunately, I landed a job. The whole time, you know I kind of wondered, you know what would happen if it came back. But it never did. You know, I wind up going to school, so you know it worked out pretty well, I guess you could say.

CONAN: Well all right it worked out for you, Terrell. Did you ever think about the guy who didn't get the job that you got?

TERRELL: No, I really didn't you know, because like I said I really felt like, look I'm really qualified for the job, I know I was definitely qualified. But I think I was just, you know I just got so discouraged behind, you know, receiving the nos. No we can't hire you because you just got out of prison, no we can't hire you because you just got out of prison.

And, you know, I guess you could say acts of desperation. I wasn't about to commit a crime.

Ms. DICKINSON: I have a question for Terrell.

CONAN: Go ahead, Amy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay, so you're successful now and you have a proven track record. What about your next job? Do you still omit this information from your resume?

TERRELL: No, no not at all. Now I'm a, I'm an independent writer so it doesn't, sometimes it actually helps me out, you know some of my clients. Especially if they're working for a foundation that helps inmates or ex-prisoners. You know, it actually helps out.

But after that I decided not to lie about it again. And, you know, I landed much better jobs to be honest with you.


TERRELL: I was straight up with it and it seemed to work out. But, you know, I still feel as though I'm a very, very small minority of those that was able to go in and come out and accomplish the things I have.

CONAN: That I think you're right about that. Sisella Bok, is there any differentiation between sins of omission if you will by sort of leaving out the fact that he may have worked for the Department of Transportation on loan from the Corrections Department?

Ms. BOK: There is a distinction in the sense that, you're not telling an actual lie, you're just leaving out something. And it may be just as deceptive to the people on the receiving end.

On the other hand, I think also that Terrell points out something very important. That there are times when people are in desperate circumstances and may very well not find jobs, though they are qualified.

I know that in some states, maybe I'm wrong, but I think that in some states the very fact of having been in prison is something that you are allowed to leave off. And indeed that, even the authorities take away, take out of your record. And that seems to me to be one way of dealing with that problem.

But there are a number of other circumstances where people carry around a kind of burden. Edith Wharton and her wonderful novel The Reef, and it calls it the burden of deceit. The burden that you know that you said something that wasn't true.

Now here is the question you are omit something that you perhaps you feel you should have said. We come back to the question, what if a doctor for instance, or a person acting as a doctor omits the fact that he or she isn't qualified.

So omission and commission are such an extremely important distinction and it matters whenever the people at the receiving end are owed that information.

CONAN: Terrell, thanks very much for the call.

TERRELL: Hey you're welcome.

CONAN: And good luck to you.

TERRELL: Okay thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-Bye. Here's an e-mail we got from Richard in Belmont, California: During the Vietnam era I served 11 in the U.S. Army reserves including three years in Special Forces. When I get into a discussion with other former S.F. people, I have to be very careful to make it clear that I never served in Vietnam or anywhere in combat.

When I do I'm still accepted as a member of the tribe. To slip and not make this clear is to start on the trip into the country of the phony Vietnam hero. I once allowed a civilian to assume that I was a combat veteran, never again.

CONAN: And, Amy, I guess that's almost a sin of omission allowing somebody to assume.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And I agree with that person that it's always a good idea to try and correct people and clean it up. Because you know I think people, even professionally, if you say oh no, no, no, I, you know, I do not have a master's degree.

I'm often asked what my credentials are. And I never was even tempted to fudge. Because I thought, you know, I, people need to know that I'm not a psychiatrist, I'm not, what I'm not. Like I'm very, very honest about it.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Clint, Clint also calling from Jacksonville.

CLINT (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: All right.

CLINT: Good. I own a martial arts school and I'm the instructor and I have been in the industry for a long time. In my industry it's padding your credentials and flat out lying is a huge, huge problem. And it's popularized, you know in the magazines and things and outrageous claims. And often times people lie, you know, articles and covers and I think one of the reasons, at least in my industry, is the anonymity that goes along with everything. Jacksonville's a very booming place, a lot of people move in.

And I know that a lot of times certain instructors, you know, if you have a student who has, you know they don't like it they leave the school, for most of these people there's always someone else to replace them. There's always someone else to believe into the lie. You know and there's always a new group of people who are going to listen.

And you know the way the world is so fast, everyone's moving around, you can kind of be anonymous and you don't have to be held accountable for things that you say. Because we're far less, you know, knitted together, far less tightly than we used to be. You know like when my parents were children and stuff.

CONAN: Sure, but in terms of those sorts of lies, basically you're defrauding your customers. You're saying you have skills and accomplishments you don't have.

CLINT: Correct. I see that all the time and it drives me crazy. And it actually, it's kind of frustrating for me because, you know I don't follow, fall into those things. It actually impedes my growth of my school.

I mean there are people who--I get letters from Hall of Fames where I can join a Martial Arts Hall of Fame for the low price of $300. And I just pick whatever category I want to be in.

In this particular Hall of Fame I was "elected to" said that there might be more than one person in my category. And that just amazed me and I of course threw it away. But I was so tempted to call this person and say, how can you legitimately say these things. You know and then there is a guy in the phone book who claims to be a part of this organization. And it's just comical to me, but it's very hard you know to stay away from that. Because like I said it impedes the success of those who are honest. It really does.


Ms. DICKINSON: But you know I think there's almost a tradition of that in this country. In terms of it's the biggest, it's the best, it's the fastest. You know, commercially anyway we seem to almost accept that there's so much inflation going on. I mean I know exactly what this caller's talking about. This temptation, like everybody has, is flying their credentials and like what they've done and who they are. And I think a lot of people just assume that a lot of that is complete subterfuge.

Ms. BOK: Yes I would also add that in this country especially, you know especially when there are a lot of people who come from many, many different parts and there is a lot of anonymity as you suggested.

Then there are the people who can come in like in the movie The Music Man, and I think that's quite a wonderful movie, but it really conveys the spirit of sort of inflating your credentials to say the least, and the willingness to believe, the desire to believe.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right and you know the pulp, the happy ending of that movie is when those kids just by believing they can play, they basically can play.

CONAN: Hmm mmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's very American.

Ms. BOK: Yeah.

CONAN: It's also, I mean the facts were, the facts were wrong but the metaphor was right.


CONAN: Clint, thanks very much for the call.

CLINT: Thank you.

CONAN: I wonder when I was a NPR as a correspondent in London many years ago, one of the things I used to have to do partly because of the time difference there was deal with bureaucrats in the old Soviet Union when people were going in for visits on reporting trips and that sort of thing.

And I used to routinely promote myself. That, you know, one day I'd be London correspondent and then the next day I'd be Bureau Chief and by the end of it I was, you know, Vice President, European Affairs. But I thought that that was justified. I ...

Ms. DICKINSON: Well after all the guys you were talking to were all the ministers of information and you know that was all phony bologna too.

CONAN: Yeah I think so. I think so. Let's get another caller on the line. Meg, Meg's calling from Philadelphia.

MEG (Caller): Hi how are you?

CONAN: Very well thank you.

MEG: I was wondering where exactly the line is drawn between being unethical and illegal. And from that what the repercussions or the rights are for the company or the consumer that are quote, unquote, "harmed."

CONAN: Sisella Bok, any ideas there?

Ms. BOK: Well, when you break laws then you are indeed illegal and you're also on the whole unethical, but there are various times when there are no particular laws involved. Often that can be in a community or in a company where you're just misleading people. Maybe they're not going to sue when they find out. They may simply ask you to leave the job for instance.

But the most important thing I think for an individual is to think, you know, can I live with this myself? Can I keep my self-respect if I do this? And I would quickly add with respect to a number of the questions we've had so far, you know, we've had people who really do care about that question of being unethical. But there are lots of others who couldn't care less, I do think. And for them, there is a special problem because they won't necessarily notice that they are violating some moral code.

CONAN: Do you have a line, you must get questions about this sort of thing, Amy?

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. Actually I was just going to say in my column I see so much of this and I would call it gratuitous lying, lying for no reason at all. And you see how much it hurts other people. For instance, in my column today there's a letter from a woman who says that her daughter has been planning this huge wedding and she just found out that her daughter has been secretly married for a little while already and yet they're going through with this whole big affair. And it's kind of breaking this person's heart.

And in my answer I told her that this secret wedding, something I knew nothing about before I started this job, I hear from so many people who say that they were secretly married. And I always respond, okay, that, unless you disclose that, at your so-called wedding ceremony, some people say they don't even disclose it to the clergy, that they're already married. What's the point of that? I mean, it just seems to me like a gratuitous lie.

Ms. BOK: One of the points probably is that they say to themselves look we don't want to hurt anybody's feelings so that's why we're lying. But, of course, that argument, you know, I can lie if the truth would hurt somebody's feelings, that opens the door to a huge amount of lying of that kind.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And another thing I deal with in my column are family secrets. Really, these are lies of omission that get inflated, magnified, amplified over years until they're incredibly painful. And, you know, holding onto a secret can really prevent you from being intimate with people. You're being very dishonest.

CONAN: Meg, thanks very much for the call.

MEG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And we should say we trust you implicitly.

MEG: Bye.

CONAN: We're talking about lying today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk with Byron. Byron's with us from San Antonio in Texas. Byron, you there? Byron has left us. So we'll go to, this will be Richard. Richard's in Rogers City, Michigan.

RICHARD (Caller): How're you doing?

CONAN: All right.

RICHARD: Yeah, I've always been taught to be honest and fill out the application properly, but in some cases I'm dyslexic, so I have a disability, and two different people, two different organizations I went to for employment, I was encouraged to lie, because if they see that I'm dyslexic, they think that I'm not fit for the job, and I was encouraged not to tell the truth. And, you know, I knew it was wrong, and I don't see why people, you know, do discriminate against people that are dyslexic, and so forth, because they're just as smart as everybody else.

CONAN: Right.

RICHARD: But it does happen, you know. That's my point.

CONAN: Did it work? Did it work?

Ms. BOK: That's a very...

RICHARD: Yes, it worked.

Ms. BOK: ...interesting question. And for many of us, you know, whatever illnesses or disabilities we may have it doesn't occur to us, I think, that we have to list them all on a job application. So it's interesting then that people discourage you from listing that, whereas otherwise you might not even have thought of listing it. And if you can fill out the application well and do the job well it's not clear that you needed to list it.

ALLEN: Right, that's when somebody, you know, basically has created a lie for you by saying, oh, by the way don't ever mention this. Well then, you know, maybe you, I don't know how Sisella Bok feels about, if you're not asked about something, and if doesn't pertain to the job, do you have to disclose it?

Ms. BOK: Right. No, I would agree with that. And in the old days, of course, when women were being interviewed, you know, all kinds of questions about whether they were planning to have children were really inappropriate questions and they should not have to answer those.

CONAN: Hmm. Richard, thanks very much.

RICHARD: You're welcome.

CONAN: Here's an email from David in Jacksonville, a lot of listeners in Jacksonville today. I found that some of my employees have hedged their resume. So what, he writes. If they're doing the job then it doesn't bother me at all. It is my job in hiring to make sure their resume is on the up and up. If I fail to check, then that's my fault. If I hire them and they don't have the capability to do the job because they fudged their résumé then that's my fault also. Doing the job is what counts, not if they fudged on a degree or a past job. I don't find that people who fudge on their resume are inherently dishonest or untrustworthy. Sisella Bok, people who lie once might lie again.

Ms. BOK: You know, I take issue with that. Let's say, for example, that you are hiring somebody to be a health professional and indeed they have fudged. Maybe they look as if they can do the job, but wouldn't the patients like to know, for instance, if they have been trained to do the job they are in there doing? Let's say the physical therapist or anesthesiologist or something.

No, I think it can get dangerous when you say that you as an employer will know very clearly whether the people are doing their job or not and if they are then you don't really need to know about the credentials in case you didn't notice something at the very beginning.

CONAN: And Amy, is it, once the employer receives that resume, and then doesn't check, is the moral weight passed on to him or her?

Ms. DICKINSON: No, I don't think so. You know, one thing about this Radio Shack case that interests me, and I haven't read that much about it, but I couldn't help but notice the day before yesterday Radio Shack announced that the company is really in trouble, they're closing a lot of stores, and then the next day, boom, out he goes.

And, you know, obviously if you were looking for a reason to fire your CEO without perhaps providing him with a hefty severance package, this would be the way to go. So when you lie, it's like you're handing people, you know, evidence to use against you later on.

CONAN: At will, whenever they want, whenever they want. Anyway, we're going to have to take a short break. I really mean it. We'll continue our discussion about lying afterwards. If you'd like to join us, again 800-989-8255. Email is administration's deal that would turn over port operations in this country to a company based in the Middle East. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today we're talking about lying and why some of us feel the need to embellish our resumes, even to the point of when we're found out, losing our jobs. 800- 989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Or email us, talk@npr.org. Our guests are writer and philosopher Sisella Bok, and Chicago Tribune's syndicated columnist Amy Dickinson. And let's get another caller on the line. And this is Allen. Allen's calling from Cambridge, Ohio.

ALLEN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: I'm all right.

ALLEN: Okay. I have two comments about lying and I've sort of put this together through my own life, just watching people around me. One is that I feel that lying is a survival skill in some cases and that would transfer to, for instance, the person that pads a resume has to get a job, has to make a living, and therefore embellishes certain parts of their past, you know, in order to do that. Or it could be just simply your kid when he breaks a window and you stand there and you say look if you tell me the truth absolutely nothing is going to happen to you and the kid lies anyway, you know, because he's trying to get out of trouble.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALLEN: And in following that thought my second comment would be that sometimes lying I believe is, it's something some people do, I'm not saying everybody does, because it increases our own sense of self. I mean, if you lie, like the truth is not always yours, all right. The truth belongs to everyone, but a lie is something that belongs to you and you alone. You make something up about yourself, you say it, and all of a sudden you are that thing, and nobody can really take that away from you unless they, you know, they actually bring the truth straight in front of you and hit you with it, you know.

CONAN: Well, here's where that phrase that is so often used I think comes in handy, Sisella Bok, because people are then fed that lie and your company might repeat it. Our CEO's a graduate of the Sorbonne.

Ms. BOK: Yes. No, I think both of the points that Allen made are very interesting. And about the survival skill, I would say that that works especially when there's some immediate crisis. For example, a young women reporter once was caught by rebels in Angola and they were going to execute her, but they asked if she had any children and she lied and she said yes, two. And they let her go.

Now everybody can understand why she did that, and it was in order to survive, and there's no problem about that at all. But a resume, that's really rather different. That's, you know, there's no immediate crisis of the same kind. And so I think that distinction is important.

But then also the notion of increasing the sense of self that you mentioned. I think that is something that really does happen, and it also increases the sense of power over others. If you can lie about yourself so that you can make them do something about you that they wouldn't have done otherwise, that gives you power. But, of course, if you begin to think of those people at the other end, that's the golden rule. How would you like to be treated in that way?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Allen thanks very much.

ALLEN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Let's talk with David. David's with us from Cleveland.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. How're you doing?

CONAN: Well, thank you.

DAVID: In my case I had to dummy down my resume when I'd retired from the Air Force. I was a senior NCO when I retired and I came across, for example, I controlled a budget, it was only a small budget, it was only 10.8 million dollars, and things like that. I had a bachelor's degree. I had to lie and say I had an associate's degree because I was overqualified. And in one case I went on a job interview and the man just flat out said I can't believe an enlisted man held positions like these, because my work experience I was always replacing Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels.

CONAN: Right.

DAVID: And, you know, because the Air Force is realizing that enlisted people do have some common sense and they can move onward and upward.


DAVID: And in the case of this one man he said all you enlisted people are liars, anyway. So...

CONAN: I'm sorry, I missed that last line.

DAVID: He said all you enlisted people are a bunch of liars, anyway.

CONAN: I see, so...

DAVID: He was a former officer. Well, I took it to court. To make a long story short, but, and in this guy's case, he turned out to hire almost exclusively veterans, because he realizes, hey, we're not embellishing our resume when we say that we supervised 135 people or we controlled a budget, and that sort of thing. In my case, I brought documentation in, I had to show, I showed it to him, and he balked at it.

And he said, well you've got to have a bachelor's degree, not that. I turned right around, showed him my bachelor's degree. Well, he said you only have an associate's. And I said, well I'm overqualified for a lot of positions around here. And he said, well you need a master's. So we went to court, and he lost, you know. But in this guy's case, he hires, he looks for veterans. Predominantly.

CONAN: Well, let me...

DAVID: He hires people off the street that, most of us don't embellish their resumes.

CONAN: Leaving the veterans point aside just for a moment, Amy Dickinson, dumbing down the resume, is that something that falls into this category?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I actually have done that. It's funny, I'd forgotten until this caller. I, right after I had my daughter, when she was a toddler, I applied for a job that was well beneath what my previous experience would indicate. And I was forced by, you know, you really can't, in an interview, nobody can ask you, like, are you married, what's your story, you know, there are a lot of personal questions you can't be asked. But the person who was interviewing me couldn't figure out why I was applying for this one position, and they ended up having to say, I am a single mother, and I am only interested in these certain hours, and I felt that my telling the truth knocked me completely out of the running.

CONAN: Hmm. Yeah, Sisella Bok, I mean, what if you're asked one of those inappropriate questions that you're not supposed to be asked, and if you tell the truth, as Amy did, you won't get the job? And of course, if you don't answer at all, you won't get the job either.

Ms. BOK: Yes, I must say that that does make it hard, and I hadn't heard myself before of the notion of dumbing down the resume, but it certainly is true. There are a lot of people these days who, because of working conditions, that are having to apply for jobs for which they are overqualified. And that's something I think our society needs to do something about.

Sometimes it is important that they should not get the job. For instance, in Sweden, I come from Sweden, once it was found that there were an awful lot of tram accidents. You know, tram ways? And it turned out that the conductors were overqualified and they were, sort of, not paying attention and they were dreaming, maybe about their dissertations, or something like that. And then, indeed, the standards were changed, the educational standards, so that those people could not get those jobs. And the accident rate went down.

CONAN: Wow, that's interesting. Let's just get one last call in on this point. Casey. Casey joins us from Sacramento.

CASEY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead please.

CASEY: Yeah, I come from a profession where we lie by omission on a daily basis. I'm an attorney. And, you take those, will you tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but we're trained to lie by omission. And the burden's really on the other side to ferret out the truth, so to speak. And we're trained to put forth our arguments. How do you feel about that? From an ethical standpoint of...

Ms. BOK: You know, there's a big debate about whether lawyers should ever lie in court, and I don't, I think on the whole, I mean, it's clear that they should not. So they're trained to advocate. But I think that many people in many law schools would argue that they're not, they should never be trained to lie in court.

CASEY: No, I know. But, I mean, lie by omission. In other words, you know, you put forth the facts, which may be true, ought to be, like, in an argument, let's say a legal argument, I will put forth the facts, which are in fact true, but I'm omitting certain things. So, your goal is to advocate, but in doing that, you're inherently going to omit other truthful facts which may change a judge or a jury's decision. But, we're lying by omitting because we're not doing the whole truth.

Ms. BOK: And there, in that comes the question of omission and commission is very important when you are a defense attorney, because you also have a duty to your client not immediately to spill out everything you possibly could about that client. You are trained to do that best you can for the client.

CONAN: And do you ever tell clients, Casey, please, don't tell me!

CASEY: No, but there's certain times when we're forced to give hints to clients. I can't tell a client to not tell me, or don't lie, but I can't explain something and then ask, do you understand why I'm telling you these facts? And they nod their head, and because, you know, I would never tell a client to lie and I would never tell a client, but I might point out, hey, this is a really important aspect to your case. Remember, only answer the questions they ask you, and I would do this in depositions every time.

CONAN: Right. Don't volunteer anything. Certainly.

CASEY: Don't volunteer anything, exactly. And even though they want to sometimes, it's, actually I think there's, they want to tell the whole truth. But I have to tell them, do not tell the whole truth, answer the specific question.


Ms. DICKINSON: I have a question for Casey. Do you have kids?

CASEY: Yes, I do.

Ms. DICKINSON: How do you feel like, about that sort of behavior in terms of your children? You know? It is such a fine line, lying by omission and commission, like, do you feel like, in your home, this is through no fault of yours, but do you feel like in your home, through your training, your kids have picked up a little of this? Well, prove the truth, dad. You know? Does that happen?

CASEY: No, my daughter's only eight and she's a bright girl, but, no, I really haven't seen that it would've made any difference to her, or would've picked up on that.

CONAN: Well, I'd double check those girl scout cookie receipts if I were you, Casey.

CASEY: Well, there was three. I only got two mints, but I'll check for the Tag Alongs later.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call.

CASEY: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks to our guests today. Sisella Bok, thank you so much for your time, it's a delight to speak with you.

Ms. BOK: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Sisella Bok, a writer and philosopher, and author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, and she joined us from Longboat Key, in Florida. And Dr. Dickinson, always good to have you on the program.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, professor.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated Ask Amy column for the Chicago Tribune and joined us from NPR's bureau in Chicago. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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