Exploiting Conversational Rules to Deceive Others

"Never forget that a half truth is a whole lie."--Unknown

Not only do Grice’s Maxims (rules) help us have an honest exchange of ideas, but they also come into play when we try to mislead each other.

Please note, the information on this page draws on the work of Grice, Bradac, Bavelas, Bowers, Brashers, Buller, Burgoon, Dawson, Jacobs, Dawson, Levine, and McCornack.

In particular, deception occurs when we act like we are following the rules, while trying to secretly break them.

And deception can take several different forms depending on the maxim which is being broken.

The following example demonstrates how this happens:

Imagine that you are recently married and your spouse is out of town for the weekend. On Saturday night you are restless and decided to go out with one of your friends for the evening. Although it is not really part of the plan, you end up at a bar and have a little too much to drink. By the end of the evening, you find yourself flirting with an attractive stranger. Because you’ve had too much to drink, you’re not thinking very clearly. Although you love your spouse, you end up kissing the stranger you’ve been flirting with.

The next day you’re talking to your spouse on the phone and he or she asks “What did you do last night?”

There are several different ways that you can respond:

Telling the Truth

You can follow Grice’s maxims and tell the truth – “I was bored, went out with a friend, ended up at a bar, drank too much, and I kissed a stranger I was flirting with.”

But, this is not likely to happen.

More likely, you will try to mislead your spouse by pretending to follow the rules, while secretly breaking them.

A Direct Lie (Blatant Lie or Bold Faced Lie)

You can secretly break the Maxim of Quality – you can say something that you know is literally not true: “I stayed home last night and watched TV.”

An Indirect Lie (Lie of Omission)

Or you can secretly break the Maxim of Quantity – you can say something that is literally true, but incomplete. That is, you leave out critical and important details. Your spouse, on the other hand, thinks that you are following the rules – that you have said all that needs to be said, when in fact, you are withholding essential information. So, your spouse thinks that he or she has the complete picture, but in reality he or she does not.

For example, you might say something like, “I went out for a few drinks with...”

One more example helps show how we make assumptions about completeness (Maxim of Quantity) when talking. Imagine that you pick-up a rental car in the morning. You ask the attendant when you have to return the car. The attendant tells you "By 8pm." The rental agent, however, fails to tell you that you need to return the car to a different location after 6pm. Again, the attendant’s answer is literally true, but it is incomplete. When people withhold information we assume that we’ve been told "all we need to know" – we make this assumption all the time when talking to each other.

An Evasive Response

Or you can try to secretly break the Maxim of Relation or Manner by trying to change the topic or you can appear to give a response which doesn’t really answer the question.

For instance, you can say something like, “What did you do last night?” or you might response by being vague (“not much”).

Differences among these types of responses

For the most part, people try to avoid telling a direct, blatant, bold-faced lie, especially when facts can be easily checked. People are more comfortable telling a bold-faced lie when they know that their story can’t be verified.

On the other hand, people prefer to tell indirect lies (lie of omission), whenever possible. Indirect lies don’t make us feel as guilty. We feel like we are actually telling the truth, but we just happened to leave out a few details here and there…

While people feel better about telling an indirect lie as compared to a direct lie, the person being misled doesn’t see it that way – they still feel that they have been lied to.

Finally, evasive answers are simply seen as being evasive. We tend to notice when people side-step questions or are not being clear.