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Sociability • Social Virtues

The Origins of Shifty People

There are certain people who we recognise, much to our distress (for they might be our lovers or our best friends), as stubbornly ‘shifty’ in nature. They tell us they’re going to stay in and work for the evening; we return home and discover they went out with a new acquaintance. They say they’re going to eat a healthy meal we prepared for them; it turns out they ordered in a hamburger. They promise they’ll tidy the bedroom; we find out they shoved everything to the back of a cupboard. Why couldn’t they speak up? Why have we had to unearth awkward realities? Why are we being lied to?

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait, 1914

The behaviour, though maddening in its enactment, typically has highly moving origins. Our companions have ended up shifty because – early on – there were truths about them that threatened to exact too high a price from those they grew up among. There might have been a furious father who was always on the verge of a deranged outburst if anything – a mere fork or teacup – was left out of place. There might have been a mother who insisted on an impeccably healthy diet and raged against any indulgence, however small. Someone might have been obsessed by punctuality, grades, housekeeping or sexual morality.

These might– in their place – be fine enough concerns; it’s just that few of us can live up to them without the occasional slip. The question is what happens next. The person who develops a shifty side was never able to come clean about their shortcomings. There was so little acceptance of who they were that they had no option but to develop powerful capacities to fabricate. How to admit one’s craving for fast food, when a wish for it might provoke a week long sulk? How ever to own up to being a bit messy or having a complicated sexuality when this might result in being grounded for the summer? We can blame liars all we like: but spare a thought for the over exigent and vindictive mindsets of those they learn to lie to.

The way forward is to recognise that the habitat which made shiftiness an emotional prerequisite is no longer in operation. Most sane adults don’t require perfection from the people they live around. The truth can be borne, so long as it is shared early, kindly and cleanly. 

The shifty person misses this hopeful perspective. They remain in their minds trapped in a vision of archaic punitiveness and therefore sweep their difficulties under the carpet, and then – when these come to light (as they generally do) – find themselves on the receiving end of the very sort of fury that they knew well from childhood, confirming them in their view that they can never do anything right (and should therefore probably lie some more next time around). But what this misses is that the fury is completely different; this time around, it springs not from an error, but from its cover up. Those around them are not furious with the slips that have been made, they don’t really care about the slightly less than ideal household habits or wonky diary coordinations; they’re annoyed at being lied to.

In a more sensibly arranged world, masterclasses would be offered to recovering shifty souls. At the top of the agenda would be how to develop the faith that the jagged aspects of one’s reality could properly be accepted by anyone half mature, so long as full responsibility had been taken for them and they have been declared upfront, modestly and calmly. ‘I know what I’ve done isn’t brilliant, but I’m afraid I…’ Or: ‘I should of course have done what I hoped to, but what happened is…’

We don’t need anyone to be perfect. We need people to have the courage of their imperfections and the kindness to be able to warn us of them without rancour or deceit. We’ll learn to forgive the shifty when we understand that they are principally scared; they’ll outgrow their shiftiness when they accept that the truth well-delivered can be borne. 

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