Lying is considered a universally bad thing by most children in the world, but the distinction about when it’s okay to lie varies greatly between cultures.
I’ve done a fair amount of work in the translation of fiction, and one of my colleagues has a joke he repeats often that this makes me an expert in lying. After all, fiction is a collection of artistic lies, isn’t it? Perhaps I do have some insight into the art of deception across cultural barriers. After all, when you see how different cultures construct their formal lies (fiction) you get some idea of how they construct their informal ones, too.
Recently, however, I read an interesting article in Developmental Psychology about a study conducted comparing the ways in which Canadian and Chinese children view deception. The different groups were chosen as more or less opposing sides of the cultural divide between East and West in the world, and while you can’t map all of the West to Canadians or all of the East to Chinese people, it’s as good a place to start as any when conducting research into lying!
Lies around the World
The first interesting aspect of the study’s findings was the fact that both groups of children had the same basic moral compass – that is, they agreed on what qualified as a lie and what wasn’t a lie. This is an important distinction, as its common for cultures to demonise other cultures and part of that typically includes the idea that the “foreigners” don’t have the same basic honesty or moral fibre as we do. The study quickly puts the lie to that idea – both groups had the same answers when it came to identifying lies. There was no need of translation services to bring the groups together.
The main cultural differences came into play when the question of when it was okay to lie came up. The children were asked the unfairly weighted question of whether they would lie to help a group but harm themselves or a friend, or the other way around. The Chinese children almost unanimously answered they would choose to lie to protect a group at the expense of themselves or a friend, while the Canadian children were the exact opposite.
So, while both cultures clearly see lying as a bad thing, they have different ideas about what justifies a lies. An armchair geopolitical psychologist would see all sorts of easy answers here: The Chinese come out of a communist society where the self is subjugated to the better good of the state, whereas the Canadians come from a Capitalist society where individual achievement and comfort is considered the main goal of life.
Is it that simple? Doubtful, but it is fascinating, both in the evidence that we all share a basic common sense of moral good and the fact that we diverge greatly on how to measure that goodness. This would clearly have some interesting impact on my perception of fiction translations going forward, as well.
Image courtesy wikihow.com