Lying as a rule is generally considered socially unacceptable and morally wrong. Something is considered a lie if it is intentional and creates a false belief. Some would argue that there are certain situations in which lying is socially beneficial. This is most argued when it comes to other oriented lies—lies to benefit others. Regardless of whether one sees lying as justifiable or not, everyone has lied—even if it’s a lie about the most harmless thing—and everyone acts deceptively from time to time. When it comes to computer mediated communication, lies and deception are perhaps more common than in face to face communication.
Butler lies are a particular category of lies that utilize deception to manage social interaction. Butler lies can be used to avoid a new conversation, smoothly exit an ongoing conversation or explain other communication behavior. In John Hancock’s study of Instant Messages, of the 6996 messages sent, 685 (10%) were identified as lies, and 132 (1.89%) were classified as butler lies. I analyzed 30 text messages from my phone’s sent list and came up with the following results:
30 Total Messages
27 true messages
2 butler lies
Thus, 10% of my messages were lies and 6.7% of my messages were butler lies. These results are fairly similar to the results found in the Hancock study but with an increase in the percentage of butler lies. Looking at my messages I saw that the 2 butler lies had to do with attempts to end an ongoing conversation and to explain communication behavior. The first butler lie occurred when I was talking to an annoying individual in my major who was asking me to basically give him the answer to one of the problems on our weekly problem sets. I exited the conversation with, “sorry man I’ve got a class now. I’ll catch you later.” Of course I didn’t have a class, and I never called him back. Nonetheless, the butler lie allowed me to remain polite and seem interested in helping.
The other butler lie occurred when a friend asked if I wanted to get lunch with her. I responded with, “I’m real sorry, but I have a meeting then – let’s meet Thursday.” I didn’t have a meeting later on that day but I decided to lie because Thursday was more convenient for my schedule. Stating that I had a meeting was used as an excuse or justification for my self oriented lie.
I think that lying on IM is much harder than lying via SMS text messages primarily because of the issue of speed. Text messages limit the time pressure placed on an individual to respond because there is no sense of presence or visibility. An individual could be preoccupied with other activities and could take a long time to respond. Because there is less time pressure, individuals text messaging have a longer time to compose a well drafted excuse that allows them to lie convincingly. When using an instant messenger, the pressure to respond quickly is much higher due to a stronger sense of presence and visibility—unless there is an “invisible feature.” This means individuals are under a stronger time constraint and less able to compose well thought out, deceptive lies. In that sense, one could argue that IM is perhaps morally better for society than SMS. But that is an incredibly personal and subjective question.