You're obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn and know lacks all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretences of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you loose all joy for life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. This is the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world. —Octave MirbeauM. Mirbeau thinks that we poison our hearts with each little insincerity. Then you have people like Mark Twain:
An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered. The man who speaks an injurious truth, lest his soul be not saved if he do otherwise, should reflect that that sort of a soul is not strictly worth saving. - "On the Decay of the Art of Lying"Twain seems to have had jaundiced views on the subject of truth in general. I think most people lie sometimes, perhaps often, for social reasons. "Oh, no, I love that hat!" "I thought your husband was very funny last night, no one thought he had had too much to drink." "No, I don't think you paid too much for the car." Even more often we hold our tongues, and simply don't say what we really think. The older I get, the less interested I am in telling the truth, and the more interested I am in making human interactions run smoothly, with as little friction as necessary, so that people can get on their lives, their jobs, their vocations, the business and pleasure of living.
Some truths have to be told. "No, I don't think your landing approach will intersect the top of that mountain," isn't the sort of polite fiction you want to tell. And yet, studies of jet crashes have shown that co-pilots or other officers sometimes have well-founded concerns in the minutes before a crash, that they don't quite manage to communicate to the pilot because they are unable to break through the social barriers and risk offending a superior. Likewise, there are times in our friendships or romantic relationships when we are expected to tell the truth, uncomfortable though it might be.
But there's no science about this. As we grow up, we learn that we can't just blurt out the truth all the time without making enemies of everyone around us. But we all learn differently. Everyone has his or her own secret paradigm of when you have to risk offending, and when it's okay fib in order to keep the peace. As with a lot of other human behavior, there is a gaussian curve, with most people clustering towards the middle, and increasingly few the further out you get on either limb. In any group, there will be a few individuals (dare I say, likely to be salesmen?) who will tell polite lies in almost any circumstance, and others who simply blurt out whatever is on their mind at any given moment. I suspect human cultures differ, too, in where the center of the normal curve lies. Perhaps the Japanese and Chinese norms are more towards the direction of polite lies, and the American more in the direction of brutal frankness.
All the guidance we get in this as we grow up is the whispered suggestions of adults ("For god's sake, don't tell Aunt Millie that she's fatter than she was last Christmas"), social feedback when we tippy-toe the social tightrope successfully (or fail to do so), and quotations like those above, which don't help at all, because people like Octave Mirbeau and Mark Twain have completely different ideas about what's proper. In fact, how sincere to be in our interactions with others is very much in Kuhn's 'pre-scientific' phase of thought. There is no generally accepted paradigm, no theoretical framework for thinking about the issues involved, no textbooks, no journals. There are only schools of thought, individual 'experts' pontificating. It's something we all learn to do, but there's little guidance to each of us in the often painful learning process. Can there be a science of honesty in social relationships? A quantitative study of when it is appropriate to lie about orgasm and when it is not? A cross-fertilization between game theory and how to decline an invitation gracefully?
What a geeky question to ask!