I went on my semi-annual trip to the dentist. It was a completely normal visit. I read outdated magazines in the lobby and sat in the special chair that costs more that most people’s first car. After a dental assistant strung a bib around my neck, the dentist did a check up and asked me the same question he asks me each visit, “How often do you floss?”
This is the part where I usually lie. As a child, I would exaggerate and say daily. It was the answer they wanted to hear and in my mind, that made it the only right answer. Over the years, my approach matured and I learned to lie more realistically. “I floss a couple times a week,” I’d say and the dentist would give a little nod of acknowledgement not necessarily condoning my habits but accepting the answer regardless. A self-depreciating lie always seems more believable than an idealistic one.
This time was a little different. I had said something marginally clever and felt very smug about it after. I answered, “Whenever I think about it” which is true. I never think about flossing and I never floss so it works out in its own ridiculous way. The interaction got me thinking, though. Why do we lie to the dentist? Why do we feel the need to lie to a stranger we see once, maybe twice a year? It’s not like we get away with it either. The dentist knows you’re lying the second your gums start bleeding during the cleaning. It’s a relatively common practice and even the most honest of us are prone to exaggerate their dental hygiene.
When considered, lying to the dentist has no real benefit. It’s not like your dentist really cares whether you floss and even if they did, even if stayed up late at night consumed with disappointment whenever you crossed their minds, who cares? You only see them twice a year. The rest of the world doesn’t care about whether you floss, either. You’ve likely never been asked whether you floss on a blind date or in a job interview and if you have been, I hope you took those questions as red flags. The only time other people even notice your teeth is if there’s a piece of spinach caught in them. Even then, it becomes a personal challenge of focusing on you rather than the distracting green bit wedged between your canine and lateral incisor. Aside note, the people that let you know about the spinach are the best kind of people. Never trust anyone that lets you carry on your day with spinach in your teeth. Add that to the red flag list. Getting back to it, your value as a person has nothing to do with your dental hygiene. Your social standing in life will not drastically change based on whether you keep a little spool of floss in your purse.
It’s evident we don’t lie to the dentist because it benefits us but there has to be some reason why it’s such a common practice. The value isn’t extrinsic, but perhaps it’s intrinsic: we lie to the dentist because we want their approval. It doesn’t matter that their approval is insignificant in our daily lives. This makes people that lie to the dentist sound desperate for approval, and perhaps we are in some ways, but maybe it’s not the dentist’s approval that we care about. Maybe it’s because the dentist is a stranger, a part of the proverbial, “everyone” and with their approval, we feel the world smiles on us.
Besides getting dressed, slipping on our shoes, and grabbing our keys, there’s something else we take with us on our way out the door: our egos. We carry them with us everywhere we go and for the most part, we benefit from them. To succeed in a game, you have to know the rules and socializing is one of many games we play our entire lives. Our decisions about how we present ourselves in the public eye are shaped by the desire for public approval. We create our brands with what we wear, how we walk, and with the logo on our coffee cups. Even counter-culture movements still play off these assumptions and the human tendency to categorize.
We are actors on a stage. For the most part, we stay true to ourselves but it’s undeniable that we present different slivers of identity situationally. The faces we wear are different with our co-workers and friends, our spouses, parents and children. They’re not necessarily wrong, either. You are not less of yourself with your parents than you are with your children; you’re just a another aspect of your identity. People are complex, social creatures and we’re quite adaptable to boot. We ease into faces situationally, at times balancing multiple simultaneously, and we usually do so without actively thinking about it. We are most self-aware out on the town, so our public faces are the most constructed. Preserving that face comes second nature to us. We check our hair in window reflections, blow our noses in bathroom stalls and wear our name brand headphones on the bus all to protect our brands. Our self-awareness extends beyond our appearance into our conversations. Sometimes we pretend we understood that reference or watched that game. We might fake laugh at a joke after our coworker repeats it even if we still didn’t hear it the second time.
In summation, we lie to the dentists because we want to save face. It’s not like our necks are on the line if we don’t convince the dentist or that we’re connivingly rubbing our hands together at our clever deception. We tell little white lies receiving insignificant benefit and consequence in return. We do it without a second though. Consider telling the truth next time you’re at the dentist. Or lie if that’s how you get your kicks. I don’t care and the dentist probably doesn’t either. Regardless, be aware of you motivations and maybe floss for once.