Using Abstraction to Obscure the Truth

People also use “abstract language” to conceal the truth from others (see Ng & Bradac; Lutz).

Language varies in its level of abstraction.

At a very low level of abstraction, words provide specific details about what is going on – information about who, what, where, when and why.

On the other hand, at a high level of abstraction, events and actions are described in vary broad and general terms.

The following examples help illustrate these differences:

Low Level of Abstraction High Level of Abstraction
granny smith apple fruit
reading e-mail working
running 5 miles exercising
watching a Seinfeld rerun relaxing

When speaking at a low level of abstraction, others have a fairly good idea about what is going on.

By comparison, speaking at a high level abstraction obscures the details. “Exercising” can include many different activities, whereas “running 5 miles” is more descriptive and concrete.

Or say your husband tells you he’ll be home "in a little bit." Does he mean 30 minutes or several hours?

People often use abstract language when trying to conceal the truth (details) from others.

For example, imagine that you call your wife at work and ask, “What are you doing?”

And you get one of the following responses:

  • “I’m talking to Chris about our fight this morning.” (low level)
  • “I’m busy right now.” (high level)

If you notice your partner speaking abstractly, it might help ask for the details: “What exactly are you doing?” or “What exactly do you mean?”

But, keep in mind that asking detailed questions does not guarantee that the truth will be told (see asking invasive questions).

Ultimately, the best way to get the truth is to create an environment where people are comfortable being honest with each other (see getting others to be more honest).

Related Information:

Truth About Deception – back to our home page.