Hot potato – Alison Healy on the dark side of white lies

An Irishwoman’s Diary

I committed a grave social faux-pas and may now have to move to a faraway land. Everyone who commutes will have that small group of fellow commuters whose faces they recognise but names they do not know. There is an unspoken rule among commuters that you never speak to these train and bus strangers. Otherwise, where would it end? The following day you find yourself sitting beside them, struggling to make conversation.

Ten years pass and you are still making small talk with the train stranger about weekend plans because there is no escape until you die or retire.

I haven’t commuted for a long time, but I saw one of my train strangers in the park the other day. I accidentally greeted him heartily like an old friend before remembering that I didn’t know him.

I could see the horror registering in his eyes. I had broken our social contract and he was now compelled to return the greeting. We will never again be able to ignore each other studiously when we pass in the park. We have no option but to front it out and become friends. Or dive behind a tree when the other one approaches.


Comedian and actor Dawn French is a great believer in fronting it out when you make a mistake. That was her approach when she confused butter with cheese on her first day in boarding school.

She spied a plate of neat cubes on the dining table, and, thinking it was cheese, she popped one in her mouth. Immediately realising that she had a mouthful of butter but, not wanting to appear stupid, she wholeheartedly committed to her mistake and declared she always ate cubes of butter.

And then she spent seven years eating lumps of butter because she refused to admit her error.

“I couldn’t give in to the mistake,” she said plaintively when she told the story on the Table Manners podcast.

She is not alone. If the Reddit website is to be believed, there are thousands of people answering to other people’s names, and eating industrial quantities of ham, just because they felt they had to double down on a misunderstanding or a white lie.

Not correcting someone who calls you the wrong name can involve a very long-term commitment. One woman told how she called her neighbour Gina for 15 years until Gina was moving out and revealed her name was Gail.

But doubling down on a misunderstanding had a happy outcome for one student who snuck into a conference room in the university at 7am one day to Skype his girlfriend. A meeting about a new research project was getting under way and the participants presumed he was involved.

Six months later, he had transferred to their lab and was travelling abroad with the research expedition.

Things didn’t work out quite as well for another man who was trying to be polite. He praised the quality of the ham being served on his first visit to his girlfriend’s home. He may have overdone the praise, because, 10 years later, ham is a feature of every meal he eats at his in-laws’ house.

They send him gift baskets of ham for his birthday and once took a three-hour detour to get to Ham Lake in Minnesota so that they could take a photograph of the sign for him. Ham makes his hands swell up so much his wedding ring can't be removed. He hates ham and his wife now hates ham.

But for the most extreme example of doubling down on a lie, the award would have to go to a Reddit post about the humble spud. Some doubt has been cast as to the veracity of the story, but it has everything – a baked potato, an enraged father and a tearful girlfriend.

The author was invited to his girlfriend’s house for the first time and was very nervous. Everything was going well until he decided to enhance his standing with the family by making them laugh. They were serving baked potatoes and he thought it would be funny if he pretended he didn’t know what a baked potato was.

He stared at the potato on his plate, going for an expression of interested confusion. They were also confused but they quickly became frustrated when he continued to say he did not recognise the vegetable. He realised his joke was a mistake but felt he couldn’t back down. He took a bite of the potato, made a high-pitched noise and exclaimed: “Tastes very strange!”

His hosts grew increasingly angry with him, his distraught girlfriend left the room and it culminated in her father ordering him from the house. He doesn’t say, but I like to think the baked potato was hurled at his retreating back.

He dolefully predicted that his girlfriend would break up with him because of his potato-denying antics. One helpful commenter suggested he send the family a bouquet as an apology. A bouquet of potatoes.

Like Dawn French, he felt he had no option but to commit 100 per cent to his lie. We’ll never know if the potato denying story was real. But if it was, at least his girlfriend realised that he was good at committing to things. And if she still broke up with him, you would have to assume that she dropped him like a hot potato.