Shoot The Messenger

M. Night Shyamalan, director of the 1999 mystery-thriller, The Sixth Sense, once said in an interview that every director’s hope is to have the film achieve some type of iconic following, where lines or situations from the movie become part of American culture. He cited films like The Godfather, where the sentence, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” became forever synonymous with anyone making a serious threat. Once, when Shyamalan was playing basketball, one of his teammates threw a pass to an open spot, and another player asked, “Who were you passing to if nobody was there? Do you see dead people or something?” In that moment, he knew his film had become ingrained in the fabric of society, and had achieved a place in pop culture.

Similarly, the famous line screamed by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men remains possibly one of the most over-used today. Who can forget Tom Cruise as prosecutor Lieutenant Kaffee demanding of the defense witness, “I want the truth!” and the booming response of Nicholson as the brooding, impatient, furious Colonel Jessup, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Bending The Truth

Have you ever really thought about the truth and the way you handle it? How about the way you manipulate it and the way it manipulates you? I’ve spent a lot of time observing the phenomena related to this topic. I’ve watched toddlers, who have yet to speak, back away from a broken lamp so as not to be blamed for the accident. I’ve seen executives berate a team of employees and watched one or two of the latter step away from the group in order to separate themselves from those who should be blamed. I’ve seen puppies knock over water bowls and hide to prevent their masters from figuring out who did it. My dad was always chosen to slice the Easter ham or carve the Thanksgiving turkey, and he did so at a small table in the kitchen with his back to the dining room. When my mom asked him a question, he would chew furiously and swallow quickly so that the muted sounds of his eating did not give him away. The bottom line is we all form a rendition of the truth, and manipulate it to serve our needs.

Am I justifying white lies? Comedian Dennis Miller calls white lies “the WD-40 of life.” Without a few of those little buggers properly applied every day, there would be no way to navigate a peaceful existence. Questions that may evoke the white lie may be, “Does this dress make me look fat?” “Isn’t this the best lasagna you ever tasted?” And, “See, aren’t you glad we came?”

Some people, though, are blatantly truthful: “I hate the New York Yankees.” Some people take a stand and wish they hadn’t. “Oh, I never eat dessert--don’t like sweets.” Then they drool over your banana split instead of telling the truth, “Actually, that looks so good I’m going to get one for myself.”

Playing The Game

Some people veil the truth deliberately to get what they really want. My wife is transparently good at this. I’ll say, “Want to grab a bite for lunch?”

And she’ll say, “Sure, anywhere.”

“Oh,” I respond, “anywhere? (I’m so gullible.) How about Luchita’s?”

Her nose wrinkles. “Mexican? On a Monday? Well, if you want …”

“Oh, ... n ... no, no.” I see her face. “Uh, the steakhouse?”

She shrugs. “Will you be able to work all afternoon on such a big meal?”

“Oh, yeah … well … you choose,” I say.

“It doesn’t matter,” she returns. “Anything.”

“Wanna get a pizza?” I smile.

“You mean like we just had Saturday?” she says.

“Oh, yeah,” I nod. “Chinese?”

“Mm, that’s a good idea,” she’ll say, sounding surprised. “You think of everything.” And I nod, wondering why she didn’t just say, “Let’s get some Chinese food for lunch.”

Manipulating a husband for Chinese food is an excusable sin, but how about taking that same process to a higher level with bigger stakes? By manipulating the truth, a variety of unexpected and possibly severe results may occur. In the area of parental relationships, think back to how you used to control the truth in high school when your parents questioned you about the people you hung around, the hours you kept, your commitment to school or your college plans. If your parents found out about any indiscretions, and they usually did, they would likely penalize you. “These grades are terrible. You may not use the car again until they are better.” That was when you first learned truth manipulation or “spin control.” Your response to the grade issue? “Oh, yeah, I forgot to turn in assignments when I had the flu and was out. I turned in all that work this morning, and they’ll be issuing an updated progress report next week.” Your dumbfounded parents stood there blind-sided and watched you drive out the driveway. This ability served you well then, but it created a manipulative monster that learned that, by defusing the bombs of pressure in a situation, you could reduce conflict and get what you wanted.

Know When To Hold ‘Em

In the days when Christians were sacrificed to lions for sport, there was a theory that, when the lions roared, the victims in the arena should run at them to confuse the beasts into a non-attack mode. Sometimes it really worked, a term dubbed “running to the roar.” The key to this lesson is that it worked for a while. Later, when the animals became used to this trick, they would simply begin to roar and open their mouths for the food to come running in. This is much the same with manipulating the details: if you do it all the time, those with control over you begin to expect it, and understand that you are simply manipulating the truth to make yourself look good and force others to take the blame.

Boss: Tim, I thought we’d set a deadline of December 1 for this project to be completed and billed out.

Employee: You’re absolutely right, Mr. Evans, we did, and I already have a call into the marketing department, which (angrily checking his watch) was supposed to be here hours ago with the final calculations for the advertising blitz. I am learning if I want something done, I’ll have to do it myself, so I’ll find out if they’re on their way and get back to you.

Boss: Call them again while I am here (an unexpected response because this employee has become famous for this kind of act).

Employee: Now? They are probably at lunch.

Boss (seeing blood in the water, sits down): Try anyway.

Employee (out of cards to bluff with, Tim begins to panic and asks if he can be truthful, which means trying to tell a different lie): “You know what really happened? I probably shouldn’t tell you this but …”

Boss (interrupting): Yes, Tim, I think I do know what happened. What happened is what’s happening right now, and that is that you are a habitual liar. Please clean out your desk and leave by the end of business today. You are fired.

Employee: Why?

Boss: Because you’ve become so accustomed to lying, you don’t even know when you are telling the truth yourself anymore. I can no longer trust you or what you might do. This kind of thing destroys companies. Please go.

On The Flip Side

In another light, what if your boss has set up an environment in which the messenger is killed? He has therefore taught you to lie to protect yourself. Knowing if you say the market opened poorly or profits are down, he may take out his frustrations on you. When he says, “What’s the profit margin at the moment?”, you say, “Haven’t seen the numbers yet this morning, sir, but I should know in about an hour.” You have removed yourself from the line of fire and will probably put the numbers in writing, or communicate them through some fledgling rookie who is just waiting for an opportunity to meet the boss. Self-preservation is a human trait that you shouldn’t be ashamed of, but the truth is that management has trained you to lie by penalizing you for the truth. Let’s be honest, folks, this happens in a lot of places. I’m no Dr. Phil, but if I had to pick the players in this game, open communication, truth and reactions to the truth are at the center of all of it. Overreactions absolutely derail the trains in these situations. And what makes people overreact? A lack of trust. And what causes a lack of trust? Continued evidence of deception. It becomes an almost unbreakable cycle--something goes wrong, someone will want to know what happened, I tell the truth, I get in trouble. If I make up a version of what happened, I am safe. What should I do? I should stay safe because the cost of losing my job is too high.

Have you identified the real villain here yet?

It’s that insensitive, demanding boor on the other side of your defensive position that is forcing your answers, and this idiot is ignorant enough to think he is ferreting out the truth. So who’s really to blame? The answer is, I’m sorry, the messenger, the victim who cannot be expected to render the truth when he sees the bludgeon above his head, poised to hit if the answers aren’t right.

Folks, beware--if you want the truth, the real truth, be sure you can handle the impact of an answer that might not be what you want to hear. Also, be sure you have framed your question so that it evokes a response that can be used, not one that just hangs someone out to dry. Observe:

Question: Which absent-minded moron left the presentation materials at the airport? Tell me who was responsible because it’s showtime and we have no show! Who is going to fess up for such a screw up?

Same question: Folks, it appears one or some of us forgot the presentation materials at the airport, and the client is ready for us right now. Anyone have any ideas about how we can save this presentation?

Which question would you rather answer? Both are based on truth--one destructive, the other constructive.

Will the truth set you free? You may want to think about that.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail

Bryan BuchkoComment