Truth Serum

The other day I overheard a mother-daughter exchange that really made me pause. The 5-year old was hanging on a grocery cart while she stood in line with her mother, and both were extremely bored. The girl was gripping the cage of the cart, leaning back so that her long hair nearly touched the floor. Her mother told her to stop it and stand still. The girl pulled herself up and mumbled something about being “just like daddy’s wife.” Whatever she said must have struck a nerve because her mother reacted immediately. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” said the little girl.

“I think I heard you, Carolyn,” she said. “That wasn’t ‘nothing.’ Tell me the truth.”

“But mommy,” she protested, “you never let me get the truth out.”

Yikes. I wished I could have disappeared at that moment, but I was too close to the conversation. I just smiled as if I wasn’t paying attention and looked away, but I was thinking, what a zinger!

Then, in a quieter tone, the mom said, “What do you mean, I don’t let you?”

The girl responded immediately, holding out her left and right hands like she was carrying an invisible tray.  “I start to tell you, then you

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / feedough

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / feedough

get mad, then you tell me what I was gonna say, and I say ’No, that’s not it,’ and you say ’Yes, it is!’ I don’t like getting yelled at, so I stop talking and never get to tell you the truth.”

Wow! This little gal was hard-wired for delivering killer lines. The mother ignored the last utterance, dismissively piling groceries onto the belt. Not another word was said, but her eyes were shooting daggers at the kid.

Those words, like the text bubble in a Sunday morning newspaper cartoon, stayed with me for the entire day. “You never let me get the truth out.”

Jumping The Gun

Too many people today find themselves in the same position as that intimidated little girl. They are basically saying, “Look, you have already decided what you need to hear, and no matter what I say now, you have positioned it so that it works for you and feeds your version of the story. It will take months if not years for me to reverse what you have already put out there, so it is probably best I just hush before speaking anymore about it makes it worse.”

Think of how many public apologies we have heard in the last few years since the Internet has caught every Tom, Dick, and Harry saying something they would have ordinarily not had to retract except that practically everyone is carrying a video-recording device around in their cell phone. Presidential candidates, college football players aiming to get into the pros, Hollywood stars who sometimes forget about their delicate futures when they speak; all of these characters open their mouths and we, the mass-media consumers, fill in the blanks. We further embellish the statements. They become fodder for late-night TV hosts and part of a “teaser” for the Internet-addicted. We live in a world of sound bites and “gotcha” moments instead of ever having the full story. It’s like an episode of an old 1970s sitcom in which the entire conflict could be solved if only one detail was revealed, but, of course, it isn’t until the end of the half hour. Then the viewers feel bad for making such poor assumptions; meanwhile, the hero is vindicated, the credits roll, and we tune in next week. But in the real world, that vindication rarely is seen. In fact, we expect perfection from others, yet rationalize our own imperfections every day.

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