Et tu, Brute’?

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Peter Brady was trying out for the role of George Washington in the school play (Yes, I remember the episode). When he was awarded the role of Benedict Arnold, his peers turned on him — calling him a traitor, as the turncoat he would portray was known. An American hero who was unsatisfied with insufficient pats on the back, Arnold betrayed his country to the British during the war, and his name still serves as a way to label someone a traitor. From Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus of Nazareth, to Tokyo Rose, who betrayed American soldiers,  people have been betraying those whose trust they previously enjoyed for as long as people have occupied Earth. Perhaps, as Nietzshe says, it isn’t such a problem that people lie, it’s a problem when we can no longer believe them. That is when we often feel betrayed.

Lying and betrayal are easier for some folks than for others. I’ve spent years employing a non-threatening way of asking questions so it might be more difficult for the other person to respond in a lie. As a parent, it would have been easiest to tower over my children, demanding they admit I was so smart to catch them lying in typical childhood incidents, but I never wanted to be superior to my boys — I wanted to be approachable. For instance, the rule in our house was that a person could have whatever they wanted from the snack cabinet, as long as they didn’t try to sneak. While our children caught on quickly, it was very hard to teach their friends this concept, and many children would attempt to sneak past me, fearing they would be in trouble for taking food. If I knew my kids had done something they shouldn’t have, I rarely accused and almost always offered ways for them to be honest without fearing retribution. For the most part, it was a successful approach.

How we approach people matters, yet there are still people who not only will lie to us but who will betray us. It is heartbreaking to realize we have our own Benedict Arnold or Marcus Brutus when dishonesty becomes betrayal. Betrayal by anyone makes trusting everyone much more difficult. Is it worth the risks to trust people?

At the risk of being considered naive, I tend to trust most everyone. I’ve learned that is called “generalized trust,” and I’m happy to report that in a 2014 study, it was shown that people who have higher generalized trust tend to be more intelligent (you can view the study for yourself). Research shows there are great benefits to trusting others, not the least of which is that people often act as we expect them to act. “Countries whose citizens place greater trust in one another have more efficient public institutions and experience higher rates of economic growth,” the study concludes. If we can put aside our distrust long enough, we might find that we build stronger families, stronger communities, and even stronger countries.

If you want to encourage honesty from people, you can make some easy changes in your approach:

  • React calmly when you hear a difficult truth. Don’t overreact.
  • Share information about a subject and hope for a similar response instead of grilling a person with questions (“Here’s what I did today,” as opposed to “Where were you today?”).
  • Forgive mistakes (they spent too much, drank too much, behaved poorly) instead of beating up on someone verbally or shaming them.

We think it won’t happen, that people won’t betray us, but as it happened to Julius Caesar when Brutus turned from good friend to traitor (and chose the Republic), so it can happen to us. Start by trying to be approachable instead of superior, trusting instead of being certain others will lie.

 

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