How to lie by telling the truth


(MoneyWatch) My post "The 10 times it's OK to lie to your boss" received numerous comments from people who believed that it is always wrong to tell a lie, even when telling the truth could get you fired. Some of those comments pointed out that, rather than lying, you could simply tell a half-truth that would mislead the hearer just as effectively as telling an out and out lie.

Personally, I think that's cowardly. Intentionally leaving a false impression whilst technically telling the truth allows you to feel good about yourself ("I'm being honest!"), while still reaping the benefits of telling a lie. To my mind, it shows more guts to tell a baldfaced lie (and risk getting caught out) than to hide behind a technicality and then protest that it was the other person's fault for misinterpreting "the truth."

To illustrate my point, here's an example from outside the business world.

Now, I don't want to shock you, but there are a fair number of single young men whose primary goal in life is to meet girls but are not looking for a serious relationship. The ones who are successful at this behavior seldom if ever tell the truth. Instead, they tell half-truths like "we need to take it slow and see what develops" so that the girl will believe that there's a possibility of a longer term relationship.

Then, when Mr. Sleaze wants to leave the girl, he can state "truthfully" that he wasn't leading her on. He can feel good about himself (because he didn't lie), while the girl ends up feeling stupid for misinterpreting his intentions. To my mind, if the guy had courage, he would have told a real lie and then, when confronted with the difference between his lie and his behavior, he'd admit that he lied. Needless to say, if he had courage, he'd be completely honest about his intentions from the start, and accepted the consequences of telling the truth.

Similar situations happen in business all the time. People (especially executives and managers) trot out half-truths, in full expectation and knowledge that they will create a false impression. And then, when others act on the false impression, the "truth-telling liars" can sit back and pretend that they aren't liars. They get the benefit of lying, without any damage to their precious self-image.

Here are the five most common ways that people lie by (technically) telling the truth:

Method No. 1: Cherry-picking facts. The liar has an opinion he wants to bolster with facts. He digs through a set of facts, ignores any that disprove his opinion, until he finds one bit of data that seems to confirm his opinion. He then presents that fact or data point as if it were definitive proof. (This is a very common marketing behavior, especially when dealing with qualitative "research.") Outside the business world, the most common examples cherry-picking can be found among climate change deniers, who ignore overwhelming evidence and instead seize only on irrelevant facts that serve to prove their point.

Method No. 2: Misusing averages. The liar wants to blur a massive disparity in a set of numbers, so he concocts an "average" that obscures the actual disparity. Where you see this method most often in business situations is in statements about the salaries made within the company. In this case, the "average" obscures large differences in compensation. An example outside the business world is the way that tax cuts for the uber-rich were sold to the public using the concept of an "average" tax savings. That was exactly like taking a room full of 1000 people, one of whom is a billionaire and remainder are homeless, then stating that there's no homeless problem because the average net worth of the people in the room is a million dollars.

Increase in sales!

Method No. 3: Highlighting insignificant differences. The liar wants the listeners to think a disparity is more significant than it actually is, so he scales the data so that a tiny difference seems huge. This is generally accomplished by using graphics that technical tell the truth, but leave the impression that something remarkable has taken place.

Method No. 4: Citing anecdotes as evidence. The liar can't prove something with actual research, so he trots out an irrelevant story that backs up his point. In business, this often occurs when discussing customers. An anecdote about a particular customer (which may indeed be true) gets used as "evidence" that something needs to change, regardless of whether other customers are having the same experience. Unfortunately, anecdotes are not evidence, even when true, because they describe an individual situation, not the general case. Because anecdotes are meaningless as evidence, knowingly pretending that they're relevant is a form of lying, even when the anecdote is true.

Method No. 5: Pawning off the lie. The liar passes along a piece of information that he knows is untrue but technically "tells the truth" by citing the fact that he heard that piece of information from somebody else. For example, your boss knows a layoff is going to happen, but says: "HR told me that a layoff is not going to happen." Somebody in HR may very well have said this (and even believed it to be true), but because your boss KNOWS that a layoff will happen, passing along that truth (what HR said) will leave you with a false impression. It is therefore a lie, while technically the truth.

There are other methods, of course, and readers are welcome to share any other methods they've encountered. Forewarned is forearmed.

This post by Geoffrey James originally appeared on