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Opinion: How Canadians lie – and how we justify telling untruths

This is the first of three columns that explore Canadians' relationship with the truth, based on polling from Research Co. and Glacier Media
Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about their relationship to the truth – and to lying

One of the many contributions to public discourse made by former British prime minister Winston Churchill is the phrase “terminological inexactitude.”

More than a hundred years later, these two words are still being used to suggest that a statement could be inaccurate, without labelling it – at the risk of using unparliamentary language – as a lie.

Canadians go through their daily lives with plenty of opportunities to both be exposed to lies and be less that completely forthright about reality. With this in mind, Research Co. and Glacier Media developed a survey aimed at gauging Canadians’ relationship with “the truth.”

For starters, practically three in four Canadians (74 per cent) believe that people should always tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. Only 22 per cent disagree with this statement, and four per cent are undecided.

Canadians aged 55 and over are more likely to endorse the concept of universal truth (81 per cent) than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (75 per cent) and aged 18 to 34 (68 per cent). There is no change on this notion between Canadians who voted for the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party in the 2021 federal election (80 per cent each). Among New Democratic Party supporters, the proportion drops to 65 per cent.

The results of this question may suggest that just over one in five Canadians are fibbers. When we asked if five different types of lies are permissible, we see that more residents of the country are willing to be less than authentic.

We can start with a classic conundrum that Canadians might encounter on a regular day: lying to spare someone else’s feelings. An example could be to refrain from pointing out, when asked directly, that clothes look bad on a person.

For more than half of Canadians (55 per cent), this type of lie is permissible. While we see majorities of those aged 18 to 34 and aged 55 and over glossing over this misrepresentation of true feelings (53 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively), the proportion rises to 61 per cent among those aged 35 to 54. More than three in five middle-aged Canadians may not be telling their significant other if the garment actually fits.

Another type of lie is the one uttered to protect a relationship, such as withholding information that could cause anxiety or anger to a significant other. For more than two in five Canadians (45 per cent), this type of lie is permissible – a number that rises to 48 per cent among those aged 35 to 54.

Sometimes, Canadians do not express everything they know to protect someone else, such as misleading someone about the whereabouts of a person to help them avoid negative consequences. For 41 per cent of Canadians, this type of lie is permissible. Canadians aged 18 to 34 are more likely to condone this behaviour (48 per cent), than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (43 per cent) and aged 55 and over (30 per cent).

Another seemingly innocent fib allows people to be perceived in a positive light, such as claiming that they are late because there was an accident on the way to the office. Only 28 per cent of Canadians think this type of lie is permissible, but this includes 33 per cent of those aged 18 to 34.

Finally, we look at a situation that many people in a corporate setting can relate to: Lying to impress people and boost your own reputation, such as claiming you were primarily responsible for a project when you were not. Only 16 per cent of Canadians think this situation is permissible, rising to 26 per cent among those aged 18 to 34.

Our relationship with the truth becomes even more complex when we factor in all of the information at our disposal. A majority of Canadians (56 per cent) acknowledge that there have been moments in their lives when they would have preferred to be told a lie instead of the truth. Women (59 per cent), Canadians aged 18 to 34 (63 per cent) and Albertans (64 per cent) lead the way in, at least sometimes, preferring falsehoods to certainty.

In future columns, we will look at the circumstances under which Canadians are more likely to lie, as well as their perception of professionals when it comes to being truthful. Right now, while most of the country’s residents are quick to say that the truth must prevail, there are clearly circumstances where it can be twisted.

The survey results outline a captivating generational divide. There is a calm consistency in the views of Canadians aged 55 and over. The country’s youngest adults are more likely to say “terminological inexactitudes” are justified to boost their reputation or to be perceived in a positive light, while middle-aged Canadians are more likely to consent to lying to protect someone else’s feelings. In any case, more than half of us can look back at a specific moment in our lives and whisper: “I wish you hadn’t told me that.” 

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from March 10-12, among 1,000 Canadian adults. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.