When is a lie not a lie?

The word “paltering” describes a truthful statement meant to mislead. It is a ruse favoured by politicians, negotiators and corporate spokespeople alike, although I dare say most people have tried it.

For example: perhaps you are trying to avoid a direct question about your job search from your current boss.

Instead of saying: “Yes, I am looking for a new job and have an interview scheduled for Friday”, you might instead tell your boss to her face that there is no job that could give you the sense of satisfaction you get in your current role.

By saying something that is ostensibly true but misses out some key information – i.e. that you are on the search for a new role despite any satisfaction you might get from your current one – you are paltering.

Another famous example would be a certain former US president claiming on television: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, a claim which led to lengthy and detailed discussions in court about what exactly such relations might entail.

Where I come from, another way to describe paltering is “weasel words”. These days, we can also describe non-truths as “alternative facts”.

According to Alex Fradera, a writer for the British Psychological Society Research Digest, people tend to feel better about themselves if they palter as opposed to saying an outright lie. By not being a liar, while not being entirely truthful, the palterer can convince themselves that they are essentially decent because no one could say their pants were on fire.

What Mr Fradera discovered is that people dislike palterers, when found out, as much as they do liars.

He describes a experiment in which one participant imagined selling a car that ran well except for an occasional, mysterious engine problem. When asked by the potential buyer if there were any problems with the car, the palterer responded with the true fact that the car mostly ran very smoothly. They ended up feeling pretty smug about not having really lied, but when the buyer was asked how they felt about the imagined transaction, they were just as miffed having potentially ending up with a dud car.

Another truth revealed by Mr Fradera is that paltering is very common. In the workplace, it may be a useful tool to avoid dealing with uncomfortable facts. But what the research reveals is that it is no less damaging to your reputation to relationships if you palter than it is to lie. Maybe it would just be better if the truth were told. 

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