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The Necessity of "Butler Lies" in a Hyper-Connected World

Constant connectivity may be encouraging a new, subtle, type of dishonesty.

Key points

  • "Butler Lies" are lies we tell to avoid social interaction.
  • Butler lies are common in text messages, and may include making excuses for one's lack of availability.
  • Ironically, our need to be hyper-connected to others may result in more dishonesty in our dealings with them.
Alexas_Fotos via pixabay
Source: Alexas_Fotos via pixabay

With text-based communication, like emails, text messages, and social media messages, becoming more and more common, people are often concerned that this medium promotes dishonesty. Without being able to look someone in the eye when you're talking to them, how will you know if they’re telling the truth? In fact, research shows that people expect others to be less honest online than face-to-face. But is this actually true? As I discussed in an earlier post, it really depends on the particular communication medium and the topic. But there is one type of lie that we're particularly prone to tell via text message: The Butler Lie.

What is a Butler Lie?

Most of us don't have experience having an actual butler, but we've seen enough movies about upper class society to have a sense of what butlers do. The butler manages household and social affairs, so that his employers don't have to. If visitors come to the house, the butler will answer the door, and if the guest at the door is someone the employer is not interested in seeing at the moment, the butler can make an excuse. While we don't have butlers to manage our affairs, we do have a little electronic substitute: Our phones, with their texting capability.

Our ability to send text messages allows us to manage our social affairs, in a somewhat hands-off manner. Jeff Hancock and his colleagues coined the term "butler lies" to refer to lies told via text message that are typically designed to help us avoid social interaction. Without directly speaking to someone, we can tell them we're running late for a meeting, or decided to make a last-minute trip to the grocery store on the way home. This also makes it easier to lie. You can text a friend saying you're on your way and just got into the car when you haven't left your house yet. You can tell your spouse you're just finishing up your last drink at the bar, even though you just ordered another round.

We also may find ourselves telling butler lies in order to make an excuse for being unavailable via our phones. "Sorry, I didn't see your text, I had my phone on silent during class," "I must have missed your call – my phone battery died," "I couldn't text you back right away because I was driving." People tell butler lies pretty frequently and expect others to do so. In fact, people may even perceive messages like "sorry, my phone died" as deceptive when they're not, due to the commonality of butler lies.

The Social Necessity of Butler Lies

Butler lies may increasingly be becoming a necessity, due to our constant level of connection. Some researchers have discussed the modern condition of hyper-connectivity, in which people expect constant social connection and communication via smartphones. This leads people to worry that if they don't respond immediately to a message, they will hurt someone's feelings or be viewed as a bad friend. Before cell phones, it would not have been at all unusual to not be able to reach someone for hours at a time. You might try to their work number and their home number, and if they were at neither of those locations, you would simply have to leave a message and wait for them to call you back. Cell phones further increased our availability, since we could expect people to carry their cell phone at all times. But answering the phone is intrusive, so even with cell phones, you wouldn't necessarily expect someone to pick up your call every time or to have time for an extensive conversation. But replying to a text message can be so quick and unobtrusive, that when someone doesn't reply right away, it can look like they're deliberately ignoring you.

Hyper-connectivity creates pressure to respond immediately to texts. That in turn creates pressure to lie on those occasions when you don't want to respond right away. So, the pressure to be constantly connected can have the unfortunate consequence of actually making us lie more. Most people feel guilty when they lie, and social interactions that involve lying, even when the lie isn't discovered, are perceived by the liar as less pleasant and intimate, suggesting that these butler lies could have cumulative negative effects on our social relationships.

How Do We Break the Butler Lie Cycle?

So, how do break the cycle that leads us feeling obligated to respond to messages, and to lie when we simply don't want to reply immediately? This is not something that you're likely to be able to change in your own life by simply not participating in the obligations of the hyper-connected world. If you just opt out, others may feel snubbed by your behavior. But you can extricate yourself from hyper-connectivity by having honest conversations with those close to you about what reasonable expectations are for responding to texts. You can assure your friends or family members that you do care about them and want to talk to them, but that you need your space sometimes, and that you won't always respond immediately. This will help you avoid butler lies and prevent your friends from taking it personally when you aren't constantly available.

Special thanks to my Fall 2021 Senior Seminar Class at Albright College, for a lively discussion that inspired this blog post!