During a particularly stormy phase in life – a phase that could be a top contender for the worst in life, but the jury is still out on that one – I met an acquaintance at a shop. Now, the bad phase was unfortunately known to a larger radius of people than I could help, and so this person was aware of the stormy goings-on.

The encounter was unexpected, and the kind that we would usually try to dodge. If either of us had spotted the other a few seconds before, we would have bolted in different directions. Anyway, we saw each other and smiled and he asked, “How’re you?” A routine question, a routine answer, and we would have been on our way. However, it was not to be so.

I had always been a supporter of honesty’s undisputed position as the world’s best policy (whether I always practised it is a different question) even though I was never quite sure when that guideline really applied. Was honesty always the best policy? Was it a conditional statement? Were we supposed to be honest only to our close ones (and doctors and lawyers)? When to be honest? Did dishonesty cover the white lie? When to be dishonest just to be polite and nice? Being polite and nice and politically correct meant not always saying the truth. Was giving an untrue answer considered dishonesty or could it pass? Was the word dishonesty intended only for larger crimes?

The man pretty much knew what I was going through, so why lie?

So I skipped a beat, decided to be “honest” for all it was worth, shrugged and said, “Not great.”

He froze for a second. Then he gathered himself, made a grimace and nodded. Everything was contained in that nod – he knew what I meant, he was sorry, he was helpless, that sort of thing.

Then he abruptly walked away. I think he was too shocked that I chose honesty that day.

What would have happened if I had just gone with a smile and “I am doing great!”?

Perhaps we would have exchanged a few more pleasantries. He would even have said to himself, “Given the conditions, she is handling herself very well.” Or he may have thought I was merely trying to show a brave face. In all likelihood, he would have not thought anything of it at all. This meeting would have been an unimportant event in both our memories and would have vanished in no time. As it was, I chose to give a truthful answer, and see where it got me. That’s why they invented stuff called white lies.

I maintain that hypocrisy is the greatest thing in our lives – even though we take pains to claim that we despise hypocrisy and all its forms. We cannot be “honest” for honesty’s sake; we have to put on a show. That’s what we call dignified / civilized / cultured / decent (look up the thesaurus) behaviour. On a normal day. A shot of untruth to keep things normal.

A hypocrite, by definition, is a person who pretends to be what he is not. And when I decided to be what I was, I scared away my acquaintance.

So, the best policy comes with a condition. It is up to us, civilized, well-mannered, well-behaved hypocrites to figure out and shape those conditions.