Deception in interpersonal relationships is commonplace. Deception can be especially prevalent when being polite, and it may not be as benign as you might think.

Deceptive communication includes three elements:

– The information being communicated is knowingly false, inaccurate, incomplete or untrue. This can include exaggerated claims, withholding information and lying.
– Such communications are not accidental, misconstrued or miscommunicated in some way, but deliberate. Deception is intentional because there is some advantage to the sender in this deception even if only to preserve the relationship. When discovered to be false the perpetrator will often fall back on the claim that it was misunderstood or it was merely a jest.
– The false information is persuasively presented to induce the receiver to believe it is true.

A very common example of everyday deceptive communication is your résumé! We never come so close to perfection as when we write our résumé. Obviously we want to put our best case forward, and so you carefully and artfully circumscribe that painful time in your past; sometimes that version of events comes just shy of lying. (I’m sure you are thinking, with some anxiety, about the ‘stretches’ in your own résumé!)

Everyday deception also occurs when somebody, being polite, says, “Hello, how are you?”. Being polite, you answer, “I’m fine, how are you?”. She will also answer, “Fine”.

In fact you are having a really bad day and you don’t feel fine at all. While this may not be a grievous deception, nevertheless you have made an untrue claim, on purpose, in the hope that it will be believed. Your motive is that you don’t want to burden the relationship – such as it is – with the real situation. The alternative would have been to indicate that you weren’t ‘fine’ but in many situations this would not be considered polite or appropriate. “Hello, how are you?” is not really a question at all. It is merely a greeting. It is itself just a ‘politeness’ or ‘social nicety’; did the other person really expect you to respond in any other way than to say that you were ‘fine’? (In England the response to the ‘question’, “How do you do?” is “How do you do?” !) Did the enquirer actually care how you are? Is saying ‘fine’ in this situation really a way of saying – I don’t want to engage in conversation with you?

Most people can recognize these examples (or something similar). Admit it, you’ve done it yourself; many times. In these sorts of benign social situations a certain amount of dishonesty is acceptable, even expected. To be otherwise – completely honest with each other – would probably cause consternation or upset and be considered inappropriate or rude. Such social niceties may however come at the cost of a certain amount of intimacy. (Perhaps more on this in a future blog!)

A more serious example of deception might look like this: You casually report at a management meeting that you hear (source?) that Joe’s project is behind schedule (which may or may not be true) and that he is having trouble finding a good designer (how do you know that?). However, you say, you think you could help Joe by lending him one of your top designers for six weeks until the project is ‘under control’. Or maybe the whole project could be moved over to your group. You smile supportively, your boss looks relieved, and Joe is left seething!

Very polite. Very political.

Most people with even passing emotional intelligence recognize these situations for
what they are. Some don’t and have work to do in mastering social niceties.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further AFS Consulting has a program for you delivered in one-on-one coaching modality: Mastering the Art of Tact and Diplomacy. Check it out here: