Why people lie to you (and you let them)

July 24, 2020

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When we first meet someone, we follow a certain social script. That script calls for certain kinds of lies. But it's not malicious. It's a fundamental part of the relationship building process. They lie to us, and we tell them what kinds of lies are ok. Because humans are flawed creatures, and all we want to do is connect.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


When we first meet someone, our conversation follows a fairly predictable pattern. That’s because, in the initial stages of any relationship, we follow particular social scripts. These scripts act, in a way, as tests of character. We’re supposed to be pleasant and polite. We’re supposed to be receptive to conversation and not rejecting. We’re supposed to avoid controversial topics. So long as we follow the scripts, the wheels of the interaction are greased—other people know what to expect from us, we know what to expect from them, and we can more quickly determine whether we want to move on to the more interesting stages of relationship building.

That said, a core part of this initial interaction involves lying. In his 1956 treatise, Erving Goffman wrote at length about "impression management". Goffman noted that, depending on our social goals at the time, people will “take a line” upon first meeting.

What he meant by that is that, with new people, we do our best to present ourselves in a certain light. The hue of the light will change depending on what you want to get out of the meeting. Say, for example, you're networking. In these situations, we ‘take the line’ of the intelligent professional. This line might be a little different from those times you're chatting to some cute-looking single. In that case, you might ‘take the line’ of a confident and charming virtuoso (or put your foot firmly in your mouth, if you’re anything like me).

These insights are not particularly astonishing in their own right, but the point Goffman was making goes a little deeper. Goffman uses the metaphor of stage to make his point, referring to people as actors and the interactions between people as a performance. And as with any performance, for the ‘act’ to work, the audience must be responsive for there to be success. The 'show' is there to facilitate the building of community between the performer and the audience. The response (good or bad) of the audience helps to regulate the performer to act in a manner that's suitable. A good 'show' means that the relationship between the actor and the audience can continue. In his later work, Interaction Ritual, Goffman outlines the form this regulation takes:

  1. the audience accepts the other actor's line. Goffman refers to this as ‘giving face’, and it’s an essential part of early conversations. For a conversation to continue, one must allow the other to present themselves in a certain light (and accept that presentation).
  2. if the actor fails to please the audience with their interaction (called ‘losing face’), then the actor has to modify the performance to suit (or else...)

The point is that the interaction is two way. The actor wants to portray themselves in a certain light, to achieve certain ends. But the script has to suit to audience. The audience's role is to guide the actor in adapting the script to purpose.

You, as an audience member, are happy to accept whatever 'line' you're being strung, so long as they conform to the appropriate social script. This is because the real work of relationship building doesn't happen here at the start. It happens later on. All you want to do is filter out the really problematic people with the least amount of effort.

To me, this is quite poignant. It speaks to a sort of built in forgivingness to the flaws of the human character in the fabric of our social interactions. We let people build themselves up, and subtly guide them on where they're going wrong. But we can also learn from these interactions what someone's motives are. The 'line' they're spinning is tied directly to their social goals. Decipher the line, and you decipher the motive.

This is made easier by the fact that these 'lies' are not commonly outright falsehoods, but rather lies of omission. People emphasise some things while minimising others; putting on a certain ‘face’. Goffman’s theory outlines the fundamental truth that is, we are multifaceted and flexible people, not a single, static entity, and we’re strategic with our identity. We choose the facet we want to portray based on the goal we’re trying to achieve. As Shakespeare put it in Jaques' monologue:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts”

Or as Goffman did, (and I’m paraphrasing):

All the world is not, of course, a "stage", but when it isn’t who can tell?

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