“Magnifying a matter is not the way to mend it.”Ivy Compton-Burnett, English novelist
I grew up around a community of anglers: family and friends who liked to fish. If you’ve spent time with anglers, you’ve likely heard a “fish tale.”
That would be the outlandish story about the size or number of fish caught.
There’s even a way that some anglers hold a fish when being photographed. Yep, arms extended fully in front of them, to exaggerate the size of the fish in the photo.
In many ways, our world is organized around fish tales. We talk and read about “the best,” “the greatest,” and “the most.”
Not to mention all the top 10 to top 100 lists out there, ranking everything from vacation destinations to pizza.
Exaggeration Boasts Little Appeal
It’s not unusual to hear someone exclaim, “It’s the greatest meal I’ve ever eaten.” Or, “That’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.” Until the next greatest meal or movie comes along – sometimes as soon as the next week!
These exaggerations can be relatively harmless. Fish tales and claims of the greatest pizza fall into the category of hyperbole. Hyperbole is defined as exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally. The key there is “not meant to be taken literally.”
Hyperbole may embellish and even entertain, but it’s relatively benign. It’s when exaggeration seeks to persuade or influence that it may cause harm.
If I exaggerate my experience, I may land a job or assignment for which I’m not suited. If I exaggerate the impact of a project or service, I may disappoint my customer and ultimately risk success. And if my exaggerations are believed, I’m taking others down a disingenuous path.
If my exaggerations are found out, I’ll quickly build a reputation – as someone whose claims cannot be trusted.
Critical Thinking Exposes Exaggeration
So how do I deal with a world filled with exaggerations, or with the exaggerators in my world?
Critical thinking can be an effective counter to exaggeration. When confronted with an exaggeration or assumption, critical thinkers analyze all available facts, evidence and observations.
They approach claims with rational, unbiased skepticism. They ask questions to learn more. And often that simple practice of asking questions is enough to disarm the exaggeration.
The Dangers of Lying
In order to survive, exaggerations need to be taken at face value. Critical thinking takes nothing at face value. But critical thinking also takes time and effort. Often, I become too seduced by the exaggeration to put my critical-thinking gears in motion.
As Richard Paul, the founder of the Foundation of Critical Thinking, wrote: ”Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.”
Sound exhausting? Not really, but it does take practice. Critical thinking is more of a mindset adjustment. And it’s much less exhausting than becoming derailed or distracted by the next exaggeration we encounter.
Critical thinking is also an ongoing endeavor. It’s a practice to be honed. And to a world sometimes infected with exaggeration, it’s a great antidote.
Exaggeration: Lying or Not?
During Friday’s #MTtalk Twitter chat, we discussed what exaggeration means to us and when we use it. Here are some of your best responses to all the questions we asked:
Q1. How can you tell that someone is exaggerating?
@MikeB_MT Broad statements, bold statements, without detail or evidence. Over excitement when making statements. Changing “facts” to fit the purpose.
@ZalaB_MT Exaggeration comes in many shapes and forms. Some can be culturally or community-specific, and some can be personal (style or trait). It often shows in the way people talk, their body language, the words they use. And the context in which it’s used.
Q2. When I hear someone exaggerating, I immediately think _________.
@Midgie_MT I wonder what other things they exaggerate about. What is truth and what is fiction? I trust them a bit less.
@SarahH_MT Why do you think this is necessary? Who are you trying to impress here? Do you actually believe what you’re saying? Are you deluded or do you think I’m stupid? Oh heck, that’s a lot!
@ColfaxInsurance This is a topic that excites them a lot. For whatever reason, they are agitated, excited, etc about whatever they’re talking about. So it must have made an impression on them when it happened.
Q3. How do you react to exaggeration?
@ThiamMeka2Gogue It depends on the intention of the exaggeration. I politely excuse myself and walk away if it’s frustrating. Or I face it with humor, by showing an over-the-top response to their story if it’s just for fun.
@Yolande_MT I’m a critical thinker and I’m always asking questions. So I’ll usually ask a question. I want to know why they say so, where they got the info from. If it’s really “never” or “always” etc.
Q4. Why do people exaggerate? How does it serve them?
@BRAVOMedia1 Insecurity, lack of self-esteem, need to be heard no matter what, to self-inflate. To make themselves feel important at the expense of someone else. Or overstate the truth to bolster their own ego.
@AnuMeera2024 A lack of self-awareness of what they’re saying, or low self-esteem. They create an alternate reality. Also, to fit in or yield to peer pressure, or bad intentions to gain (the worst type of all).
@J_Stephens_CPA Sometimes it’s to increase attention on a real problem. “Hundreds impacted by the issue” is more likely to get a fix than “Dozens reported the problem.”
Q5. Is exaggeration the same as lying? Why/why not?
@Yolande_MT If you exaggerate with the intent of making it sound like the truth to benefit you, it’s a lie. Intentional exaggeration for the purpose of a laugh or a good pub story is probably not so high on the “lie scale.”
@SarahH_MT Most people who exaggerate don’t do so to intentionally lie. They would probably not recognize their exaggeration as lying in any case. Perhaps it’s about intent? Lying is intentional deceit and exaggeration is unintentional?
Q6. Is exaggeration spontaneous and/or learned behavior? Can it be unlearned? Please explain.
@junkkDNA It’s mostly behavior that’s adopted and nurtured over time. However, in cases of fun and happy banter, or when one’s excited about something, it can be spontaneous as well.
@ZalaB_MT Exaggeration is partly learned and partly spontaneous. The only difference is to be aware of why we exaggerate and when we use it. I don’t mind some theatrics, but I do mind if people use it to manipulate.
Q7. Exaggeration is harmless, and might even be necessary to make a point. Yes or no? Explain.
@Mind_Tools It might be harmless if it’s used to get a point across. For instance, “We will never get anywhere at this pace.” It’s an exaggeration and everybody in the conversation probably knows it. It’s an alternative way of saying, “We need to move faster.”
@SoniaH_MT When someone uses exaggeration to help explain a point, it can help others to learn. It’s the messenger’s responsibility to state the exaggeration, compare it with the solid facts, and close the gap.
Q8. How would you challenge someone who often exaggerates?
@ThiamMeka2Gogue I would challenge the reasons behind the exaggeration. By showing I already find them interesting and already like them – without their inflated stories.
@Mind_Tools You can ask a person to back up their statements with evidence.
Q9. How might you help a colleague to see the damage that their exaggeration causes?
@Midgie_MT By asking, “What if… ” type questions. I’m thinking along the line of exaggerating on a CV or in an interview. Saying that they could do something and then be faced with actually having to do it.
@MikeB_MT Sharing how their exaggerations may be harming their reputation or others. Showing how factual claims are much more effective and lasting.
Q10. How can an organization or individual salvage trust after losing it through exaggeration?
@NWarind Organizations are paying hefty amounts to lobbying firms and advertisement companies when they need to salvage trust.
@Midgie_MT With lots of hard work! Being always truthful, transparent, and upfront with things. Acknowledging limitations and weaknesses and yet doing something about it.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat here.
Co-workers may gossip, exaggerate, or in some cases even lie. What would happen if a colleague did something deceptive that caused you a lot of hurt? How would you move forward?
In our upcoming #MTtalk Twitter chat, we’ll be discussing forgiveness: what it is and when it’s possible – or not. In our Twitter poll this week, we’d like to know how you’d feel about forgiving a person who hurt you.