Butler Lies From Both Sides

We’re almost constantly connected today, which makes it very easy to coordinate social activity. But our constant connection also forces us to lie sometimes:

Screen shot of a text message conversation including a butler lie
An example text message conversation with a butler lie.

This is an example of what we call a butler lie, a linguistic strategy used to manage your availability. We’ve documented butler lies in our prior work, but there are still open questions:

  • Do people consider these to be actual lies, or are they part of the normal course of business in modern social interaction?
  • How good are people at detecting lies in text messages?

To find out, we collected a total of 2,341 text messages exchanged by 82 pairs of friends, and asked both the sender and receiver to judge how deceptive each message was. We found that:

  • Senders lied more often in butler messages (about starting, stopping, or arranging social interactions). 21.7% of butler messages were intended to deceive. Only 6.2% of non-butler messages were.
  • Receivers missed many of the lies. Only 10.4% of butler messages were perceived as deceptive, while 8.0% of non-butler messages were perceived that way. Evidently people expect others to lie to them, particularly about availability, but not as frequently as they actually are being deceived.
  • When people tell lies, they feel worse about it than the receiver of the lie. Deception is commonplace.  We need a more nuanced approach to deception in availability management.
Graph showing actual and perceived lying rates for butler and other messages
Comparison of actual and perceived rates of lying.

What are the implications?

  • Discovering a deception may not always threaten a relationship. People expect to be deceived sometimes within the context of a relationship.
  • Ambiguity about time and location lets us lie in socially useful ways. These results question the recent moves to greater transparency about when messages were seen (in iMessage and Facebook) and user location (in foursquare, Twist, Glympse).

Want to learn more? Check out our full paper (Butler Lies From Both Sides: Actions and Perceptions of Unavailability Management in Texting) and lab websites (Northwestern & Cornell).

Lindsay Reynolds, Cornell University
Madeline E. Smith, Northwestern University
Jeremy Birnholtz, Northwestern University
Jeff Hancock, Cornell University

About the author

Madeline Smith

View all posts


  • Fascinating work… I think it’s very telling that you call them “butler” lies, because the systems we use for these communications today — text messaging, social networking sites, IM — could conceivably take on the role that butlers used to take. “I’m sorry, the lady of the house is not at home.” If that later turned out to be incorrect, then it could be blamed on the butler’s ignorance or incompetence, not on the lady, and the relationship would be preserved.

    If I had a butler as honest as Facebook, I think I’d fire him. 🙂

    What do you think are the design implications of that? Do we need social systems that are willing to be complicit with us in our butler lies, and willing to assume the face loss on our behalf? Do we need our systems to be unreliable and incompetent from time to time, so we can blame them for failures instead of ourselves?

    More specifically — did you see any examples of system-blaming in your study?

    • Great questions, Rob. We’ve definitely seen instances of system blaming (e.g., “Sorry, my Sprint phone just got your text” to blame the provider for late message delivery) in our studies, and we’ve seen people exploit these sorts of system unpredictability to help preserve relationships.

      Whether or not we need systems to be complicit with us is an interesting question. In our experience, people tend not to like systems that threaten ambiguity (e.g., the “read” notification in iMessage and BBM) or attempt to automatically make excuses for them (e.g., the “I’m running late” feature that the Palm Pre briefly had a few years ago). That suggests that we like some ambiguity, and we like to make our own excuses.

      So whether that ambiguity comes from a sometimes-unreliable system or just uncertainty about human behavior, it can serve a social purpose.