We all know what simple lying is – saying something which isn’t true, but knowing this isn’t always enough in today’s world. Lying and deception can sometimes take on more subtler forms, one if these being lying by omission, or omission lying.
But what exactly do we mean by this? How can we define omission lying, and what can we do about it?
Omission lying can be defined as the deliberate withholding of pertinent facts or information regarding a person, event, life history or scenario which leads the person receiving this incomplete information to perceive and act differently than they would if they had been given the full relevant information.
In other words, a person deceiving someone else not by what is said, but by what is NOT said, what is left out, of the information they give about something.
In this sense omission lying can be just as damaging, if not more damaging, than straightforward lying, since it is more covert, sneaky and can take longer to uncover, sometimes not being uncovered at all.
The effect of omission lying can be devastating to those deceived, leading to workplace blow-ups and resignations, broken relationships, and mental health issues if the deception is uncovered after being kept alive for a long period of time.
As such, it is vitally important for us all to understand and be able to look out for this more sneaky and hidden form of deception, which is rife in toxic relationships and workplaces especially.
Being aware of this kind of lying is the first important step, followed by being more astute and critical in the way we assess the often incomplete information some people often give us. Verify, verify, verify needs to be the rule whenever we are not sure about something someone tells us.
Not trusting our gut feel or intuition can often lead us to being deceived by omission lying, and learning again to trust our gut feel that “something isn’t right” with someone is often the way we get back to spotting omission lying and being more resistant to it in the future.
Let’s look at omission lying in more detail, starting with some examples of it and some differen contexts in which it can show up.
“I didn’t lie; I just didn’t tell you” Omission lying is still lying, because it leads the other person to think and act differently than if they had all the information.
Some Examples of Omission Lying
Omission lying can take many different forms and happen in many different contexts. Of course not every case of omission lying involves truly serious things which will cause real hurt if disclosed. Let’s start with a relatively harmless example:
Omission Lying – Minor Example
For example, a father takes his daughter out on a shopping trip one morning to get some things for the house, and on the way back buys her some candy to keep her happy. When he returns home, the wife may ask him where he has been and what he’s been up to. He simply responds he was “getting some bits for the house”.
His wife presses and says “what did you buy” – he mentions the furniture, paint and brushes he bought, omitting the fact he also bought the daughter some candy, since this may cause an argument (“come on, you know all that sugar is bad for her teeth”, etc etc.)
This is a minor example of lying by omission, and of course this isn’t a devastating or even serious case of it. It’s not going to ruin a marriage or family if it’s somehow disclosed ten years down the line. It happens and everyone involved moves on and quickly forgets about it.
There is a scale or spectrum of omission lying and not all of it is truly harmful or toxic in a permanent or deeper sense of the word.
However, even if this kind of lying starts off small, it often becomes a habit and escalates into bigger and bigger things which will cause problems if disclosed.
Secondly, a lot of omission lying is about more serious things which will cause hurt to others if the real truth gets out.
Here are some examples of more serious lying by omission:
More Serious Example #1 – Here’s an example story taken from a good YouTube video on red flags in dating.
(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.
You can see how the partner’s reaction might radically differ depending on what version of the story he heard. 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?
Here’s another example, working the other way around:
Omission Lying – More Serious Example #2
A women starts dating a man she met online. As per the usual back and forth conversations of getting to know each other, she asks him what he’s been up to lately for work.
Clipped story – with omissions: “Ah, I’ve been chilling out lately, I was in a job with a bank until recently. Now I’m working casually for a friend of mine, dealing with electronics. It pays well and it’s great fun”
Full story – without omissions: “I was working at a bank until recently when I was fired for attempting fraud with customer details. Now I’m working for a friend of mine, illegally, cash-in-hand, stealing electronics and selling them on on the black market. We make great money doing this and often go out drinking/clubbing with the proceeds”.
Again you see the radical divergence with how the person lied to would react, depending on which version of the story they heard. Again, it’s not what is said, it’s what is NOT said, what is left out, that’s crucial here in how the deception is played out.
Omission Lying – More Serious Example #3
A woman or man is on the dating scene in their thirties, putting out the very common narrative of wanting to settle down and “get serious” after their twenties. Again they can talk of their past very differently so as not to reveal the full truth which they know will put off many potential partners.
Clipped version – with omissions: “I’ve had my wild/party/fun years, but I’m bored of that now and I’m ready to settle down with someone and get serious”.
Full version – without omissions: “I did some wild things in my younger years. I had many different sexual partners, some at the same time, and some of my activities were filmed/photographed and are still on the internet. I’m not sorry or ashamed of what I did, but now I want to settle down”.
Again you can see how a potential date would view these two life histories very differently because in the second one they have more specific details that were omitted from the first account which do not paint the person in a favorable light if the other person found out and realized their partner never thought to disclose this.
Both men and women often leave out details from their sexual past for fear of being judged by future potential partners, but in the age of the internet these lies often come back to haunt them.
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 un-savory 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 that’s being run against someone, especially in a workplace (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 or dismiss any workplace managers that continually lie by omission).
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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, but sometimes 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.
Omission Lying is very common in the workplace and can wreak havoc when you have toxic people promoted to managerial positions who give incomplete feedback about others
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.
Is Omission Lying Ever Acceptable?
Some people may question whether omission lying is really that bad a thing. Don’t we all have to tell lies at some point? Is it not true that what a person doesn’t know about can’t hurt them?
Whilst it is true that we could come up with some very minor day to day example scenarios where omission lying may not cause any harm, omitting anything truly significant and impactful about people, situations or past life history is not acceptable or justified under any circumstances, since it represents a covert form of dishonesty which is a) Ethically wrong in and of itself; and b) Can cause serious damage to the people lied to if the truth is revealed, especially after a long period of time.
The very act of omitting certain key facts about situations or people demonstrates that the person lying does know that the other person would not approve or would react differently if they knew all the information.
The omission is most often deliberate and shows that the person knows they have something to hide. There is consciousness of guilt there, to use a legal standard.
What person with any kind of conscience really wants to live with this kind of deception hanging over them? The answer should be clear; however the real reason to not engage in omission lying is the damage it causes to the other person, the person being deceived.
Here are some things to take into account regarding the negative impact of omission lying:
- It causes people to draw radically different conclusions about people and situations than they would if they had all the relevant information
- In workplace scenarios, it causes misunderstandings which can lead to good workers being forced out. Omission lying is commonly used by workplace troublemakers to smear and target those they see as a threat. Companies cultures will likely deteriorate in workplaces where omission lying is not detected and dealt with.
- In relationships especially it removes free will on the other person’s part to make a full informed choice with all the relevant facts. Deception keeps things afloat instead of truth. The person lied to is making decisions under false pretenses.
- If the full omitted truth does emerge, especially about a person’s past and after a long time, the effects on the person lied to are often devastating, since they have spent months or years “living a lie” in terms of thinking they knew this person when in fact they really didn’t.
- “I don’t even know who I’m married to”, or “I married a complete stranger” are common phrases once unpleasant undisclosed things about a person’s past come out to a partner.
- Depending on the length of time involved here, the person lied to can have their life fall apart, completely lose their trust in other people, and suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental problems, when they were not even the ones that lied. The effects of “living a lie” over a long period of time can be brutal on the person deceived.
- In intimate relationships, it is vital to tell the whole truth about yourself and your past, even the un-savory bits, to at least give the other person the free will and choice to accept you “warts and all”, with no hidden skeletons in the closet that could come out later.
- See here for a particularly brutal account of the effects of omission lying in a relationship, and the damage it can cause.
The key take away ethical lesson here is never lie – either directly or by omission – about serious things from your current life or past. Be open and honest and accept the outcome, whatever it is.
It is important in relationships to make sure the other person is accepting the “real” you, and not some fake “persona” or image you have presented which isn’t the whole picture.
In a more general sense as well, it is never a good idea to get into the habit of lying just to make your life easier in the present, even about minor things, since it is a habit that can escalate and be hard to break as you start lying about more and more things because it seems “easier”.
Hopefully we have shown in this article that this kind of omission lying – deliberate withholding of information in a way which misleads – is not acceptable under any circumstances where the person deceived would act differently if they had the full story.
“I’m not upset that you lied to me; I’m upset that from now on I can no longer believe you”
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