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