We all know about and have encountered straightforward lying, where someone simply tells you something that isn’t true. And truth be told, we’ve all done it as well as been victims of it. But can lying be more subtle and indirect than that? Can someone lie to someone else by what they DON’T tell them? Is this still lying, and is there a name for it?
Not telling someone something in a way that misleads them is indeed a form of lying, and is often referred to as omission lying or lying by omission. If pertinent or relevant facts or details are withheld from someone in a way that significantly alters and manipulates their reaction and perception, this is still deception and should be responded to as such.
In other words, yes, someone can lie by what they don’t say, what they don’t tell you, what they (conveniently) leave out of what they say. Let’s go into more detail about how and why this form of deception occurs.
“In my life I’ve learned quite well that there are always two sides to every story. And oftentimes, the person who told the first side will intentionally or unintentionally leave things out of the story that changes the story completely.
I’ve heard plenty of stories where someone accuses someone of (this and that), and then you hear the second side of the story, and you hear ‘well, I only did this because of that’, and the second side of the story totally rectifies the actions of the person being accused initially, and makes the first person who told the story look rather bad”
Think Before You Sleep channel – see here
Examples of Someone Lying By What They Don’t Tell You
One the best succinct examples of deception by leaving things out of what you tell someone was given in a good YouTube video on red flags in dating. Deception is obviously a huge red flag, but sometimes it can be more subtle, with someone NOT telling you certain things, omitting certain details and facts, in a way that deceives you.
Here’s an example story from the video:
(Regarding people only telling half-truths):
“That’s the ‘oh, Becky and I are going out Friday night’, (then the day after): ‘We went out, we went dancing til about 2am, and then I had too much to drink, and I slept in late til 10am, and then I called you. That’s why I didn’t call you. That’s why I didn’t message you back’.
But then there might be (the full story, without omissions):
‘We went out to the club and we had a couple of drinks. I met up with this dude and slept with him and we didn’t really go to sleep until 3am. And then I woke up late and didn’t get home til 10am’ etc etc etc.
There’s a whole lot missing there (in the first account)”
So you can see how the deception is played out in this case. It’s not what is said, but what is NOT said, what is omitted, what is left out, that’s actually crucial in understanding what really went on.
The girlfriend isn’t technically wrong in the details she DOES give, but is still deceiving the partner by what she hasn’t told him. That’s a pretty big deal if you’ve slept with someone else while dating someone, right?
Other examples of this kind of lying by omission could include:
- Not disclosing pertinent details of one’s sexual past to new partners, especially if it’s particularly unsavory and demonstrates a promiscuity that the current partner is not aware of and would not approve of (pulling the wool over a new partner’s eyes about your sexual past).
- Not disclosing more general pertinent facts about one’s past to new partners, including past criminal convictions, debt/money problems, etc.
- Not disclosing relevant information regarding one’s past in job interviews.
- Not disclosing relevant information which would undermine or contradict a smear campaign against someone (more on this below).
And there’s many other examples as well, of what a person could fail to mention to someone else in a way that’s misleading.
Is It Really Lying If Someone Doesn’t Tell You Something?
Readers might ask “is this really lying though? We can’t tell people absolutely every little detail about every little thing/event/person, or about our past. We all technically have to leave stuff out of what we tell others”.
My answer would be:
If someone withholds certain highly pertinent information about a person/event/scenario/life chronology that leads to person receiving this (incomplete) information to perceive the situation/person/event radically differently than if they had the full information, deception is taking place.
In other words, if someone has neglected to mention not just a small little detail or fact, but a BIG, important detail that changes how you perceive everything regarding that person/situation, that person has effectively lied by omission, by what they haven’t told you.
Readers can argue about semantics if they want, calling it deception or manipulation if they prefer. But if certain relevant information is omitted from what people tell you, your perception is being altered and manipulated in a way that isn’t honest or straightforward.
The person is carefully crafting what they say so as to conceal what they don’t want you to know. Is that the basis for an honest and trusting relationship? The answer should hopefully be clear.
Of course, people often omit small, irrelevant details in what they say about things every day. But it’s usually very obvious and clear to us when someone has failed to mention something pretty obvious, relevant and important, that they should have mentioned.
Common reactions when we find out might be:
- “Are you kidding me? Why didn’t you tell me that? It’s an obvious piece of information you should have given me”
- “No, it’s not ‘just a minor detail’. It changes everything, and I’m not happy you didn’t disclose that to me before”
- “I thought I knew who you were, but now I’ve found out these things from your past that you didn’t tell me, I realize I don’t know you at all”
- “I now realize what you told me about Person X isn’t the whole story at all. You’ve left a whole lot out that’s pretty important”.
- “I notice how you always seem to leave stuff out of what you say about others in a way that misleads me. I can’t trust you to give reliable feedback. You always neglect to mention important things” (demote any workplace managers that continually lie by omission).
Is it possible that there are some scenarios where someone can lie by omission and have motives that are arguably benevolent? A couple of examples I could think of are:
- Perhaps a young adult does not tell parents about something that happened or where they are at a certain time, because they know the parent will unnecessarily worry or fret. So they don’t tell them to save them the worry.
- Perhaps when young adults are also trying to separate and individuate from overly controlling or critical parents, it’s best not to disclose certain things to ward off negative criticism, controlling behavior, fault finding or other abusive behavior from the parents.
- Part of some 12 step recovery programs (step 9 – make amends) is to disclose all betrayals/infidelities/mis-treatments and make amends to the parties involved, with the important caveat that “except when to do would unnecessarily harm them or others”.
- In rare cases, people can actually withhold information that would actually make people see them more positively and affectionately if they knew. Perhaps they don’t disclose noble or benevolent things they’ve done because they’re naturally quiet, reserved and don’t like to brag or be the center of attention (or the generous anonymous benefactor type situation).
But these exceptions are quite rare, and the context is usually clear. Most times, when important information is NOT disclosed in a way which deceives and misleads someone, the intentions are self serving and manipulative, not altruistic or noble.
Omission Lying Is Common In Smear Campaigns
When someone effectively lies to you by what they don’t tell you about a particular person, then it’s often form of a broader smear campaign that’s being run on that person. This is especially common in workplaces, but can also happen in social/personal circles as well.
In the context of smear campaigns, lying by omission also be alternatively defined as the withholding of obvious relevant information regarding a person/situation, in a way that avoids undermining or contradicting a smear campaign (or correcting misconceptions), and instead continues to fuel or support it.
In other words, a person can feed selective information about someone to others, and keep pushing, pushing, pushing a certain negative narrative, whilst withholding one or two crucial bits of information which would completely undermine that false narrative and smear campaign, and correct obvious misconceptions in the eyes of others. And they often play this out over many weeks or months.
It’s something else to be aware of and another example of how not telling people certain things can definitely be a form of deception and manipulation. Watch out for this in toxic workplaces and be especially aware of toxic managers who like to sneak around gossiping about others all the time.
Omission Lying Is Common With Disordered People
It should be mentioned that all forms of deception, including lying by omission are very common with Cluster B disordered individuals – psychopaths/narcissists/borderlines. This is especially so for the psychopathic/sociopathic individuals, since it is a personality style characterized by relentless deceitfulness and manipulativeness (in other words, they don’t even need to think about deceiving others – they just do it naturally and instinctively).
Not nearly every person who has lied to someone else by what they haven’t told them has a pathological personality disorder. But it’s important to note that this form of deception is especially common with these disorders, because it’s sneaky and harder to detect, which is exactly how these people like to operate.
Another huge red flag to watch out for in this regard is when lying by omission is combined with blatant gas-lighting or a denial of your reality when it’s discovered and you confront them about it. In other words, you find out something obviously massively important that a person hasn’t told you, but when you confront them, they act like nothing’s wrong and in fact try to turn the tables on you and make out that you’re the one that’s crazy and over-reacting.
This is a huge sign that you need to dis-engage and detach from this person immediately, especially if it’s a romantic partner. Once you see this kind of “crazy-making” or gas-lighting alongside obvious deception through what’s been withheld from you, you’re firmly in the category of at the very least a toxic person, and likely a full blow personality disorder. At this point, even engaging or trying to reason with them is just feeding them what they want, and it’s best to end the relationship immediately if everything in your own body and mind is telling you something is very wrong with the deception that’s gone on.