Those new-fangled contraptions these days — with their beeping and their "online" social interaction — are making us dishonest! Researchers from Cornell University have determined that they have led to a new kind of lie. Learn about the "butler lie," and why it fools everyone.

Everyone Needs a Butler Now

There once was a time when, not only were there large stretches of time could no one reach you, there were large stretches of time when no one even expected to. People were apprised of news when they arrived at work, at home, or somewhere they could be "paged." That's not how it is anymore. To be utterly cut off from the world, you pretty much need to have fallen down a hole, and even that only works if you've fallen on your phone.


This presents a problem to people at large that was once only experienced by the leisure class, who were at liberty to lounge around and "pay calls" all day. They are considered constantly available. Saying that outright that you don't want to talk to someone is considered rude, which is why butlers, or other household servants, used to say that their employers were out or had an appointment to get to. Today, we need to be our own butlers. Many things change but one thing stays the same. Anything is better than saying, "I don't want to talk to you anymore."

The Butler Lie Study

This kind of lie is especially prevalent on instant messenger services, whatever form they take. Whether it's texting or chatting, phone or Facebook, these unfortunate inventions can force one long-suffering party to make tedious conversation with whichever one of their friends is currently waiting for a bus. A group of researchers at Cornell University tracked a group's IM conversations, printed them out, and had the subjects highlight all the messages that deceitful in some way. Roughly one in five messages was a lie. One in 10 was a "butler lie."


Butler lies are anything that involves avoiding a new conversation ("I'm at work."), getting out of an existing conversation ("My battery is low."), or explaining why you didn't return a message promptly ("My phone died."). The study found that we tend to age into butler lies. Adolescents are more likely to simply stop the conversation without providing some excuse — perhaps because they're used to the technology, or perhaps because they have the energy for the drama that such honesty creates. The primary purpose of butler lies, everyone agreed, was not really to pull the wool over anyone's eyes; butler lies are obvious polite fictions, meant to give both people in a conversation a way to save face. The lies aren't meant to be taken literally. Everyone knows that they are, occasionally, lied to in this way.

And Yet We Are Deceived


If that sounds worldly-wise, consider that another study found that people don't seem to grasp just how often they're being lied to. In fact, most people are babes in the woods when it comes to butler lies. The second study once again demanded that people turn over their text messages and mark off when they were lying. Again, the people at the other end of the conversation indicated the texts that they considered to be deceitful.

The text receivers were harsh. They "spotted" most kinds of lies at a greater rate than they were actually being told. The receivers believed that 8% of the (non-butlerian) messages they received were dishonest in some way. Actually only 6.4% of messages were considered lies by the sender. When it came to the butler lies, the perceived rate shot up to 10.4%, which would have been astute, if the actual rate of butler lies hadn't been a comparatively astonishing 27.1%.

The most obvious lies, the ones that most people expect as a "common sense" product of not just new technology but everyday life, are still the ones that fly below our radar. Everyone nods and says it makes sense that people make excuses to get out of conversations, but no one actually believes it happens to them. At least, they don't believe it happens to them as often as it does. Butler lies slip by, then, by being so common that we can't possibly spot them all the time. Our egos can't take it. We have no conception of how little our friends want to talk to us.


[Via Butler Lies: Awareness, Deception, and Design, Butler Lies From Both Sides]