To lie or not to lie

Girl with a choice near the forked road

I’ve noticed that my husband, who is British, and I, a native to Finland, have somewhat different ideas about saying how things are, talking about things with their real names, or lying in the name of politeness.

To give you an example:

My husband and I were having a date night and headed to a newly opened restaurant in Brighton in which we hadn’t been before. We walked in, sat down and the waitress brought us a jug of water and the menus. We looked through the menu which (a) listed items that were more expensive that we expected and (b) listed nothing that we wanted to eat (it was all bit too trendy in a bad way for us, for example ‘cod cheeks’ and ‘blood and egg’). My husband and I were discussing our options when the waitress returned to take our order. After a few seconds of silence, I plucked up some courage and while visibly squirming in my seat said in an extremely apologetic tone: Erm…I’m so sorry but we are not impressed with your menu. And we stood up and walked out.

Once outside, my husband turns to me and expressed his embarrassment in relation to the extreme level of rudeness that I had displayed in the restaurant. I was gobsmacked. To me, my approach had been polite, we didn’t want to eat in that place and we had to get out of there. What should we have done?

His view was that it was impolite to say that we didn’t like the choice in their menu. He thought our options were (a) just to order something and spend our evening there (regardless of the fact that that cheeky and/or bloody experience would have set us back by about £100) or if we absolutely could not force down the gory-sounding food (b) under no circumstances should I have said anything about the appeal of the food but lied along the lines of:

Hmm, you know we’ve just remembered that we’re actually meeting some people somewhere else. So, sorry, but we have to leave.

To him, the latter of these would have been the polite way to get out of the situation, but to me this feels extremely impolite because it is an obvious lie. A lie that we know and the waitress knows and we know that the waitress knows and the waitress knows that we know that she knows. Thus, that statement in my opinion would imply that the waitress is stupid enough to think that a (sober) adult couple had forgotten a prior engagement whose existence they recall the minute they’ve read through the menu. When I questioned the politeness of this practice, my husband told me that he thinks that that is how the world works. But I think that is just how England works.

I think it is interesting to think that different cultures might view this in such different ways. What do you think? What would you have done? Would you have (a) given honest feedback in a polite or impolite way, (b) given dishonest feedback (friends waiting in a different restaurant), (c) done something else or (d) you don’t give a shit about cultural differences maybe because you voted for Brexit and/or Trump.

17 thoughts on “To lie or not to lie

  1. Lol, d) (assholes). For a German, British pretenses of this kind were very hard to deal with. These people 😉 don’t seem to mean a thing they say. But it’s worst when it comes to expressing an opinion that you think would be useful for somebody to hear in order to make things better. That’s when I heard about the difference between moaning and complaining. Britons moan = they like to complain to each other over tea, but not ever to a person who would be in a position to change anything. Germans complain = express in a very opinionated way what you think is wrong. The latter is a cultural taboo in the UK. The first paragraph in this article sums up my experience: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/06/07/party-games.

    • Even though my English is grammatically and pronunciation wise ok, I still (15 years after moving to England) find it occasionally difficult to infer what a British person means. Years ago I learned the hard way the meanings of common expressions like: ‘I can see what you mean’ and ‘See you around’ (i.e. the opposite to what a Finn would think). But sometimes I still find that the Brits speak in code that makes little sense! 😀

      I think Finns and Germans are very similar in this. I feel that negative feedback is important for things to improve, but like you and the Party Games article expresses, British people do not give negative feedback. They only give positive feedback even in situations where they want to give negative feedback. Maybe this is one reason why Finnish and German people find change for the better in England unacceptably show.

  2. I’d have gone for either saying that we’d just had a text from the babysitter (the waitress doesn’t know about your possibly non-existent kids) and have to go, good job we hadn’t ordered, etc etc.

    Or said, sorry I’m sure it’s lovely but nothing on the menu really grabs us. Note that Brits will apologise for not liking the most repugnant of things in order not to give offence.

    We have in the past got up and left a restaurant because we ultimately couldn’t pick anything we liked off the menu, but never when we’d actually booked a table. In those cases we tend to have had some pre-knowledge about what kind of stuff we’d be facing so wouldn’t have been in your predicament. Research can avoid excruciating embarrassment!

    • Thanks for your comment 🙂

      Luckily we hadn’t booked a table. Had we booked a table beforehand, even I would have forced down the food and paid the £100 without a word of complaint 🙂

      As a native Finnish speaker, to me ‘My child is all of a sudden ill’ or ‘Oh, we’ve just remembered we need to be somewhere else’ excuses are rude because it is pretty obvious that it is just an excuse to leave the restaurant the minute you’ve read through the menu. The waitress is likely to know that the reason why you are leaving the restaurant is because you didn’t like the menu (the interior or her). So the function of these types of excuses is the same as saying it directly.

      I think different speakers just have a different view as to which is more insulting: insulting the food or the waitress’ intelligence. 🙂

  3. I’m Australian, and I am closer to your view than to your husband’s. Perhaps I would have been slightly less blunt, but without having been there I can’t say for sure. I get the impression you’re not saying there was anything inherently wrong with the menu or that the restaurant promoted itself in a misleading way, and that you accept responsibility for walking in open-minded without knowing anything about it. In that case I might have tried to express more of that sentiment — perhaps less “not impressed” and more “not right for us”. But again, I wasn’t there, so this is guesswork, and your response was appropriate if it reflects what you feel the restaurant needed to hear.

    • Thanks for your analytical comment 🙂
      I know that I could have delivered my message in a less strong manner (and I now regret that I didn’t), but I just wanted to give honest feedback as to why we were leaving. As many Finns want to influence things by giving feedback, giving your opinion about things is quite normal, but I think I just need to remember that in England it doesn’t quite work the same way.

  4. How about “It all looks very good, but we were looking for something else this time, so would you mind if we come back another day?” Yes, still all of you three might know you are not coming back another day, but at least you’re being honest about the reason why you are leaving. Being a Finn myself I can see your point of view, yet at the same time we have to be careful with the words we use and how we put them in order not to sound impolite. If someone says they are not impressed with something you offer them … that word has such a strong meaning in English. Also, when two people read the same code language they might not consider a lie as a lie. How many times also us, Finns, go to a clothing store, try something on and only then realize is too expensive. In order to get out of the situation we say “I’ll think about it”. And both parties know that no, we will not even consider buying that item, but because the both parties read the same code language we accept it as an appropriate way to leave the shop.

    • Thanks for you comment. Yeah, I agree. I could have delivered that better 🙂 I’ll try to remember next time (or alternatively just sneak out of the restaurant without the waitress noticing :D)

      Yeah, ‘I’ll think about it’ is a great sentence, because it implies that there is still hope that the customer might return (and having worked in the retail industry for years, sometimes people do return). I wonder if there is a restaurant equivalent for ‘I’ll think about it’. If there is, I need to be made aware of it to avoid future offence 🙂

  5. I feel for you. I have the same dynamic with my husband, but in reverse, as I grew up in a family where nothing was ever said directly (conflicts were expressed by the silent treatment), and my husband is very straightforward and sometimes bluntly honest. I admire his honest style a great deal, but it’s difficult for me to be that way because it goes against the way I grew up. In this situation, I probably would have ordered something small, very small, stayed for a teeny tiny bit of time, and then left! I’ve never had cod cheeks, but have had cheeks from other fish, and they are very tender and delicious, not significantly different than any other part of the fish as far as I can tell. Perhaps the issue is a bit linguistic also, as the word “impress” to me (US/Canada English) is also rather strong and I probably would have said something more along the lines of “I can’t eat anything on the menu…” But I am a coward so most likely would not have said anything at all.

    • Hi Min,
      Yeah, ‘impress’ is a strong word and I now regret using it. I think I need to remember that British people do not appreciate negative feedback. I think I need to hone my white lie skills 🙂

  6. “Impress” is definitely a pain point here: it implies that the menu has been created to generate oohs and ahs, which it may well have done given that it’s a new restaurant probably seeking out accolades for its daring menu, but it’s very not-British in that situation to say you’re not impressed by people who are trying to do something a bit flashy. It’s not far off from saying “everything you’re doing is worthless.” (British parents chide misbehaving children by saying “I’m not impressed by your behaviour.”)

    “Oh, we’re sorry, we’re just in the mood for something you’re not serving right now” would be as British an escape clause as you can get without resorting to auxiliary excuses in the manner of the awkward sitcom. It places the blame on oneself and reserves the possibility that you’ll come back if they put something cheaper or less avant-garde on the menu.

    Was there a menu posted outside? If so, that’s one of those situations where some people would say you knew what you were letting yourself in for.

    • Thank you for your comment. I will try and remember to phrase my negative feedback so that it places the blame on myself/ourselves next time.

      Yes, there was a menu outside. I had walked past the restaurant a couple of weeks earlier and had then had a look at their lunch menu, which looked good. Given that my husband and I are not particularly fussy eaters (when in Japan, we often don’t even know what we are eating!) we didn’t think to check their evening menu.

  7. I’m also Australian and an ex-waitress of many years…. in my experience, I actually don’t mind people being honest, especially when I had my own cafe. Feedback is good. The thing I really hated was when people would sneak away and not say anything, leaving me wondering if it was my staff, my menu, the environment etc. ☺️

    • My parents used to own several outdoor shops (where I worked for years). Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy getting negative feedback, like you say, it’s important to know what customers are unhappy about (but regardless of that, maybe I need to tone my complaints down a bit :D)

  8. This is very interesting. My natural instinct would be to say something along the lines of what your husband suggested. I am from Ireland and I think the Irish and the English are culturally tuned the same way. However, my husband would probably say something more like what you did. He is Japanese. I do not know if that would be the “average” Japanese response, but he is very moral and can’t lie, not even a white lie. That is a good thing. This is food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun!

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