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 blowups 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:
Omission Lying – More Serious Example #1
A wife returns from a night out with her friends. Her partner asks how her night was.
Clipped story – with omissions: She responds “Ah it was great, I met up with my female friends at 8, we went to the club, had a few drinks, danced a bit, we stayed out late this time, got back about three, enjoyed the rest of my night and slept in til about 1 in the afternoon, after which I had some lunch and came straight back here”.
Full story, without omissions: “I met up with my female friends, we went to the club, had a few drinks, danced, stayed out late. I met another guy, ending up hooking up with him, went back to his place about three, slept with him, spent the night there and slept in at his until about 1. Had lunch and came back”
So you can see how the husband’s reaction might radically differ depending on what version of the story he heard. The wife isn’t technically lying about what she does say, but is lying by leaving out certain key information about what happened that would cause the person deceived to react very differently if they knew.
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 attemping 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 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 in terms of self respect.
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.
Omission Lying is Common in the Workplace
Omission lying is also extremely common in the workplace, especially among more toxic troublemaking personality types like psychopaths and narcissists.
Omission lying is part of the more general smear tactic so often used by workplace troublemakers to undermine someone in the image of colleages and upper management and drive them out of the company.
This often happens when a toxic personality type is promoted to a position of power, where they are managing others and giving feedback about others to higher levels of management.
Very commonly they will selectively edit this “feedback” to leave out certain crucial information about the person which deliberately paints a misleading picture of the person, and damages their reputation and credibility in the eyes of others.
This can be played many different ways, but some crucial things which can be left out are:
- Good things the person does, skills they have, ways they do contribute, focusing only on “bad” things, either real or fabricated.
- Previous experience the person may have in the line of work is often omitted, lessening the person’s credibility in the eyes of others.
- The person mentions only a person’s reaction to certain conflicts and flare ups, without the context of mentioning the continual provocation on the part of troublemakers which may have led to this reaction (This is a crucial part of the smear tactic used by workplace psychopaths).
- Crucial aspects of a person’s current or past life which may necessitate more understanding and sympathy from onlookers (personal issues, family problems, financial difficulties, past bullying) may be omitted by troublemakers, again taking the proper context out of situations.
- In summary, any kind of feedback which omits certain key bits of information which would lead anyone receiving this information to perceive the person/situation differently and react differently.
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
If allowed to continue over time, this can lead to blowups where the target is unfairly blamed for sitautions which aren’t their fault, since their reputation has been so undermined and smeared by the selective feedback of others that upper management has lost sympathy for them.
This can lead to good people being forced out of companies as troublemakers look to solidify their own position and undermine and push out anyone they see as a threat.
See our full article on omission lying in the workplace for more on this.
Omission Lying is Very Common With Psychopaths & Narcissists
Why is this article appearing on a site about psychopaths? Because omission lying is something psychopathic and narcissistic personalities are very good at, both in personal relatioonships and in workplaces. They are very adept at weaving narratives and spinning stories in a way that either benefits them or undermines someone else. They are very good at deception.
Omission lying is a very common tactic used by toxic personality disordered people – psychopaths, narcissists and borderlines. Lying by omission often, though not always, signifies deep character problems that a simple disclosure and apology often won’t fix. The person may constantly use omission lying to their own ends, without remorse ar guilt.
Most people have some kind of common sense moral “barometer” inside them which knows when another person close to them would disapprove or react differently if they knew certain information which they currently don’t about a person or situations.
Unfortunately, severely toxic people (Cluster B personality disorders) don’t have this barometer, but these disorder are comparatively rare. Most people know when something should be disclosed, but not all of us do.
Put differently, personality disordered people have often been practicing deceiving others their entire lives, and don’t feel bad about it. They have the full toolkit of deception at their disposal, including omission lying.
They can so glibly and smoothly deliver their lines and feed you a certain narrative that you can be totally convinved it’s true even though it’s a complete fabrication (straightforward lying), or leaves our massive chunks of unflattering information that would leave you to perceive them very differently (omission lying).
Non violent psychopaths especially are brilliant at reeling unsuspecting people in with false stories and smooth talk; they move through the same cycle of grooming (idealize-devalue-discard) with countless victims, confident that every single time the same deceptive tactics like omission lying will work.
Conversely, the way psychopaths often get caught is when these unsavory facts about their past (deception, fraud, bankruptices, trail of toxic failed relationships etc) that they had omitted from their smooth talking life narrative are found out by people who sense something is off and start to ask more questions and dig into their past.
At this point, psychopaths will often cooly detach from this relationship and move onto the next unsuspecting victim, again using omission and overt lying to weave the same tangled web of false stories.
Omission Lying in Politics & Media
Once we understand omission lying, perhaps the place we see this the most is in politics and the media. This kind of deception by omitting certain key facts is so common in politics and news that there are too many cases of it to even know where to start, from all sides of the political spectrum.
Omission lying in politics and media is so widespead that it deserves it’s own article. It is practically built into both areas of modern life. Here are just a few examples of how this can show up in these areas:
- Politicians and media displaying certain statistics, graphs, “facts”, figures and so on, but omitting certain other key facts and figures which would paint a very different picture to the conclusion they are trying to make you draw.
- Media reporting on certain stories – covering certain facts but omitting other key facts that would lead the viewer to draw a very different conclusion. Omission lying is ubiquitous in mainstream media on all sides of the political spectrum.
- Again too many examples of this to even start listing them – watch any mainstream media outlet or politican’s prepared speech on any day and you’ll likely find omission lying in there somewhere.
- When politicians/bureaucrats are called in for questioning over some scandal/crisis and cross examined, again wording the answers they give in such a way that certain information/facts are omitted in a way which either misleads the questioner or helps them avoid painting themselves in a bad light.
Mainstream Media is full of omission lying, since it is harder to detect and easier to get away with than overt lying.
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 do doubt 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 unsavory 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”