The ‘Etiquette of Poverty’

Joshua Hunt explains how he became a pathological liar.

“. . . By then I was familiar with the kinds of stories poor people must get used to telling. I’d heard my mom swear that the rent check was already in the mail while watching her slip it into an envelope; I knew when she’d passed bad checks because the owner of the corner store taped them to the back of the cash register until the debt was paid; and I’d read the notes outlining invented reasons I couldn’t attend school whenever there were field trips that cost money we didn’t have.

If I ever thought of these as lies, I soon came to see them as part of the etiquette of poverty — a means of getting by for the poor, and also a gift we give to the rich; a practice that lets us avoid talking about the uncomfortable differences between us. Over time it becomes second nature. Observing this etiquette doesn’t feel dishonest because its falsehoods recognize the deeper truth that many of society’s institutions are hostile to the poor. Lying to the landlord keeps a roof over our head. Lying to the social worker keeps our family together. Lying to ourselves allows us to believe it’s all going to be OK, somehow, someday.”