Accidental polite ignorance

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Sometimes I lie. They are strange little lies that usually don’t mount up to much but they are lies nonetheless, and can seem pretty weird if they get found out. It’s an odd phenomenon because in any important situation, I have a total inability to be untruthful. Sometimes I would be better off offering a half-truth or a total lie to save myself and I just can’t bring myself to do it. No; the lies that I can do are quite unconscious. I like to call them ‘accidental polite ignorance’. To put it simply, it’s when you pretend not to know something that you are being told, even though you do. I know- it’s a bit weird.

I have a feeling that it stems partly from a sort of mild degree of social ineptitude where you over-think conversation. Sometimes you realise that you’ve left it a bit too late to say that you already know. It’s especially difficult with fast-talkers or particularly confident people who often don’t leave very big gaps for you to neatly insert a quick ‘yes, you did tell me that last week’. So the conversation, or rather, the statement of fact, rambles on uninterrupted until it is far too late to do anything but feign mild surprise at the amazing proclamation about the thing you already knew.

Life can also sometimes be a minefield of things that you know but shouldn’t know or have been told with the prefix- ‘don’t-tell-anyone-but’, and it can sometimes be safer to pretend that you don’t know just in case you shouldn’t. I think most sufferers of accidental polite ignorance are also quite good listeners and as such, tend to know an awful lot more than you might expect.

Secondly I think it is partly due to the fact that the exchange is often a more positive one if you give the teller the pleasure of being the one in the know. I know this is silly, but nobody likes to say something that they think is original and profound and be told that the listener has already heard that. If you play along and pretend you don’t know, you are giving the teller the pleasure of being right, interesting and conversation worthy. It’s a pretty little confidence boost, like giving praise. It can also fill conversation gaps in awkward first meetings.

Of course the problem comes, as with all lies, when you get found out. And then you look pretty weird. It is hard to explain the motivations behind these little accidental polite ignorances, given that it’s usually totally unconscious until it’s too late. Only the other week I let a man ramble on at the train station about how best to stop smoking, without the having the heart to tell him I was a smoking cessation advisor… I couldn’t help it- he looked so pleased to be giving me such insights! I do dread the day that he recognises me behind my counter and enquires why I didn’t tell him that I already knew what he was telling me. But then in this internet savvy world where everyone seems to know about everything, perhaps we’re all just humouring each other anyway.


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