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What is Lying by Omission??

My inbox had a great email the other day. It said, “Ryan, what is lying by omission? And why is it something that I feel like we all do subconsciously now? Is it considered a lie if we intend to lie? Or not intending to lie?” Well, this is a great one! And a question that will determine much of your future relationships.

The unspoken lie is so convenient and easy to pull off. Simply avoid mentioning a certain detail in your story or statement, and you can steer clear of the consequences, at least temporarily. However, lying by omission can ruin relationships beyond repair when exposed. And if life has taught us anything, it’s that lies are often brought to light and unmasked when you least expect it.

So, why do we still do it? To what extent can it harm or hurt the people involved? And most importantly, how can we avoid indulging in deceptive silence and move towards more genuine communication?

My Experience with Lies/Lying by Omission…

Here’s the thing that you have to realize: not all lies are the same. People lie! They do!! And sometimes, they lie for good reason. For example, they may lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings—is this good or this bad? This is probably okay, actually… Especially if it’s a stranger.

But lying by omission is a special type of lying. It’s when someone (like in a relationship), don’t provide you all the information in a type of false statement. By telling you only the things that you know. And nothing more. And this is usually to avoid negative consequences.

For example, I had a girlfriend who would tell me partial truths about who she was hanging out with. And would avoid saying that she was with a guy or girl that I didn’t like. And that key detail is important in me feeling secure/good. Are these false statements? Yes, they are!

Keeping secrets HURTS! Especially in relationships. And I’ve had plenty of personal experience around people [in relationships] withholding information to prevent me feeling bad or them feeling bad. Ultimately, all it does is worsen the situation. There are four types of lies: deceitful, delusional, duplicitous, and demoralized lies.

Telling lies has become far more abundant in today's world. Primarily, due to technology and how it enables us to be dishonest more easily.
Telling lies has become far more abundant in today’s world. Primarily, due to technology and how it enables us to be dishonest more easily.

Lying By Omission: The True Definition

First, let’s understand what the phrase ‘lying the omission’ means and dispel any misconceptions about this particular form of lying.

Lying by omission implies behavior where someone leaves out or withholds essential details or information deliberately. It refers to an act where the speaker will intentionally keep from sharing relevant facts that can lead to a misinterpretation of the statement or story that’s different from the whole truth.

Here are a few typical examples of how lying by omission happens.

  • A used-car salesman declares that the car in question has only run for 7000 miles, making it almost new. He does not mention that most of those miles were run with weighty loads, which compromised the car’s suspensions and affected the car’s stability.
  • An employee does not reveal that he failed to follow up on a business deal, leading to the deal’s failure. However, the boss is under the impression that the customer backed out for other reasons.
  • A prospective candidate deliberately avoids mentioning his arrest and conviction of a crime during a job interview. The employer hires him, believing that the candidate has always been a law-abiding citizen.
  • A college student drops out in lieu of finding a job. But he doesn’t mention it to his parents, who continue sending him funds for his tuition.
  • A politician discusses only the potential benefits of a new bill while excluding the clauses that will raise taxes on citizens.

Lying by omission is more subtle compared to blatant lies, fabricated statements, or outright denial. However, they remain as damaging and deceptive as other apparent lies. In most cases, they cause more harm than ordinary lies because of their duplicity and deceit.

Why Do We Lie By Omission: Understanding The Motivation Behind Silent Deception

Intentionally skipping important facts is dangerous but still widely observed. And there are several very ‘human’ reasons why we do it.

To Manipulate

Exploiting or manipulating people is one of the despicable reasons why someone may hide specific information. The intention may be to influence the listener into thinking all is well when in reality, there are problems or wrongdoings along the way.

A manipulator may also use lying by omission to withhold information so that the listener behaves in a certain way or makes decisions favorable to the person speaking.

Studies show that doctors may manipulate information to help change the patient’s perspective and hope for getting better. But the ethics of practices like these also remain murky.

Threat Of Consequence

Deliberately concealing information may happen if the whole truth poses the risk of facing some kind of punishment or retribution. The fear of consequence remains a vital factor that influences our behavior in many ways.

So, an employee on the wrong side of a costly mistake may suppress information that may get him fired. A child out past his curfew may avoid mentioning it to the parents because he may be grounded as punishment.

Distrust

The speaker may skip some relevant information if he/she does not trust the listener with the contents of the message. For instance, you may cut your exact address details while speaking to a stranger regarding where you live. And we may consider it a legitimate reason if we do not know the person well.

Lying by omission out of caution is one of the few valid reasons that justify the behavior. However, one should still be careful of overindulging in this practice because it can become a core habit quickly.

Societal Norms

The norms considered acceptable in your society may also promote lying by omission in some circumstances.

This is especially true in situations where a specific detail may appear inappropriate or unsuitable.

For instance, you may avoid mentioning excessive details of your personal life in the workplace because it is inappropriate or unprofessional. Alternatively, you may skip details about your religious practices if the situation doesn’t seem right for it.

Avoiding Hostility

There may be situations where revealing the whole truth may lead to fights or arguments. In such cases, the person may omit specific information that may cause such friction.

Even in instances like these, omitting the information may prevent conflict, but the secret will not age well. And the repercussions will blow out later when the truth does come out.

You may find out the hard way that resolving conflicts in a healthy manner is better than preventing them temporarily through deception.

Self Preservation And Survival

There’s a clear link between lying and survival if dishonesty holds the potential for a specific benefit or preventing a threat.

A person may refuse to divulge information that paints them in a bad light. Not including specific details may create a more favorable impression. And it’s a common reason why people choose to lie by omission.

For instance, a job applicant may exclude mention of weaknesses in his resume. However, many employers appreciate honest self-assessments and what the person is doing to mitigate those weaknesses.

The Fallout And Damage Inflicted by Omission Lies

Wounds inflicted by concealing elements of truth can ruin healthy relationships and may take a harsh emotional toll on everyone involved.

Loss Of Trust

One obvious effect of lying by omission is that you lose the person’s trust. The misdirection that this type of lie causes is so betraying that whoever is responsible will appear to be a conniving and scheming villain.

Trust violated in this manner is almost impossible to regain. Projecting the lie by omission takes less than a minute. But re-earning the trust it breaks will take years of loyalty and proving yourself to the one betrayed.

Misconceptions

Lying by omission can cause misinterpretations that lead to wider and more unpleasant implications.

The lie by omission implies that the listener does not have access to all the relevant information. The absence of important details will give rise to misinformed decisions and possibly mislead actions in the future.

For instance, a CEO may receive half-truth reports that the employee presented without important facts that paint the employee in a bad light. The result is that the CEO makes company decisions that go haywire because all important aspects were not considered.

Conflict

It’s ironic that lies of omission designed to prevent conflict can often lead to more friction.

Of course, the lie may keep tension at bay for some time. But when you find out the truth, the damage it does to the interactions between the people involved is huge.

A business partner may deliberately conceal information about the establishment’s finances. When the other partner eventually finds out, the distrust created will seep into every area of their professional relationship. As a result, they’ll end up in more conflict and apprehension than the small friction the initial honesty might have caused.

Legal Troubles

Important official and legal documents may require full disclosure of information. And if you withhold intended information in these instances, you may face penalties that come with such crimes.

For example, you may be witnessing or testifying in court. If you omit crucial information under oath, the court can prosecute you on charges of perjury or other crimes of deception.

Broken Relationships

Lies of omission, when exposed, will break the bonds you enjoy with the person. Regardless of whether it’s a friend, colleague, or family member, the misdirection will cause you to see each other differently.

Years of friendship can come undone owing to a simple lie of omission. Close ties with family can come to ruin when you trick people with silent deception. Professional partnerships will suffer if you refuse to divulge relevant information continuously.

Emotional Distress

Lying to a trusted colleague or being lied to leads to a break in faith. This form of betrayal will create anger and anxiety in the victim. In extreme cases, this emotional distress may cause overall health problems too.

So, you risk harming the physical and mental well-being of the person, in addition to breaking the friendship or bond, you enjoy with them.

Scarred Reputation

People often discuss unpleasant experiences with friends and family. If you caused sadness or betrayal through lying by omission, there’s a good chance the victim will confide in others for relief.

The result is that your reputation tumbles down the drain. These bad experiences can undergo exaggeration as they move from one set of lips to another. Soon, your whole workplace, extended family, or community knows you as someone who deceives and misdirects.

This damaged reputation has the potential to harm your chances of seeking employment, making new friends, or simply living alongside other people.

How To Replace Lying By Omission With Genuine Communication

Now that we know how this negative trait works and the harm it causes let’s learn how to turn this vice into virtue.

Identify And Acknowledge

Most lying offenders fail to admit that they possess this bad trait. And a surefire way to sustain a bad attitude is the denial of the problem.

Start by recognizing this bad habit in you and labeling it as a problem. This first step alone will position you in the right direction – towards kicking the habit.

Once you see it as a problem to fix, you can begin practicing corrective measures that will soon separate you and the problem.

Recognize The Damage It Does

Remember the irreparable damage that lying by omission can cause. It may seem harmless at first. But the effects can snowball into ruined relationships, guilt, emotional distress, and missed opportunities.

The effects of such misdirection are too great to ignore or risk in the long run. And the sooner you realize the grave nature of this behavior, the faster you can work towards a more honest attitude.

Own Up

Understand that you have control and influence over the type of behavior you embody. Genetic inclinations and childhood experiences determine a lot of how you think and act in adulthood.

But these influences are not set in stone.

Take responsibility for your personality and character. And begin practicing habits that gravitate towards an honest demeanor and do not mix well with deceptive habits.

Practice Honest Communication

Let’s be clear here. We’re not espousing the brutal kind of honesty where your communication has no filter. There are nuances of courtesy and positive communication that require reservations or careful explanations (Like reassuring your spouse that they look fine in that dress/suit).

However, white lies meant to encourage should not grow into lies of omission designed to manipulate or misdirect.

Make it a point to choose honest communication wherever appropriate. It may mean confronting uncomfortable issues or awkward conversations. But you’ll enjoy closure and trust with the person, and both will be better off for it.

Consider Professional Help

There’s ample research and evidence to show that effective therapy can address a wide range of mental and behavioral problems.

Maybe you suffer from compulsive lying habits. Perhaps there are underlying and unresolved issues that make you lie by omission to preserve your image or prevent risks.

A healthy take on addressing these issues may help you overcome deceptive behavior. No one is born a saint. But all of us have the power to choose progress in areas that taint our character.

Sustain The Progress

One of the toughest challenges of changing established habits is maintaining progress and keeping it consistent. Put extra effort into avoiding selective dishonesty and practicing genuine honesty.

The longer you sustain this consistency, the more integral the positive trait will become to your personality. The 1000th tap on a boulder may trigger its collapse, but the other 999 taps provide the buildup and accumulation of pressure that causes this event.

Closing Note—Lying by Omission!

Lying by omission may seem trivial at first, but the stress and destruction it invites are regretful and often beyond repair.

Experience the contentment of keeping it real by kicking this habit in the butt and adding true value to all your relationships.

Want to know what other bad habits you can overcome? Check out this list of the 25 worst personality traits and see what you can do to become a better you!

Fact checked:
Board reviewed by Marianne Tomlinson, LCSW (Couples and Family Therapy). Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Learn more.

About the author

Ryan Sanderson (LCSW) Ryan is a game and relationship enthusiast who enjoys all things quizzes, games, fun, love, relationships, and family. He's a licensed social worker and helps families, couples, and children in need. He's spoken about love and relationships on Salon.com, Forbes, and Mirror, to name a few.

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