Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Culture and Deception: Moral Transgression or Social Necessity?

February 1, 2008
Communication Ethics

Lies, dishonesty, trickery, fraud, duplicity, betrayal—these words are often entangled together in the proverbial web of deceit. But does lying receive an unnecessary bad rap? Recent cross-cultural research suggests that deceptive communication can actually serve more functional purposes than our society generally wishes to acknowledge.

People choose to lie for a variety of reasons. These motives for not telling the truth typically fall into two categories: lies to benefit the self and lies to benefit the other. People will often tell lies in pursuit of personal gain, to escape punishment, or to make themselves appear better than their characteristics actually deserve. At other times, people will lie to protect another's image, to avoid hurting the other, or to avoid unwanted relational trauma. It is no secret that lies have indeed spared many a person from unnecessary distress and possible harm.

While people may have their own motives for avoiding the truth, the pervasive influence of culture is less often recognized as a key factor affecting one's ultimate decision to tell the truth. Results of a recent cross-cultural study conducted by researchers of the University of Hawai'i revealed that a person's motivation to deceive is clearly influenced by his or her cultural self-identity. They also found that one's cultural identity greatly influenced whether or not a message was perceived to be deceptive.

What is a cultural self-identity? Cultures differ markedly in their regard for the importance of the welfare of the individual versus the welfare of the group. Cultures in which individual welfare is valued have been theorized to cultivate members of a more independent or self-promoting nature. Collective cultures, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of group-welfare over the needs and desires of the individual, thus producing a more interdependent self. Because not all people within a given culture will be influenced in exactly the same way, each person claims for him or herself a cultural self-identity that reflects more or less the values endorsed by the culture. One's cultural-identity then provides the lens through which a person thinks and behaves.

Employing samples from Hong KongHawai'i and the Mainland U.S., the study revealed that people who strongly valued their own independence and individuality over the social relationships in which they are embedded reported having a lower overall motivation to deceive. By contrast, people who possessed cultural self-identities which emphasize placing group needs over the individual reported having a greater overall motivation to avoid telling the truth.

An interesting twist, however, is that when people were presented with a scenario in which deception would serve to benefit them, those who valued their independence were actually more willing to use deception than in cases where deception would benefit someone else. People who valued social relationships over individuality, however, reported a greater willingness to use deception to benefit others rather than for self-serving purposes.

How does one go about explaining these particular findings? Western as well as European cultures have long been noted to cultivate members who value their individuality and prefer more explicit and direct styles of communicating in order to emphasize their uniqueness. In this case, being a moral and ethical human being would require avoiding any type of communication that would jeopardize one's own personal integrity. Lying is a form of communication that could possibly compromise that integrity.

By comparison, East Asian cultures have been well-known for endorsing more indirect styles of communication in order to protect the image of the other and promote trouble-free relationships. In this regard, deceptive communication has and continues to serve as a useful tool in the maintenance and preservation of significant social relationships.

It should not come as a surprise then that when people of varying cultural backgrounds were asked to rate the deceptiveness of different types of deceptive responses, highly independent people rated messages that departed from the truth as highly deceptive, while highly interdependent people viewed the exact same deceptive responses as not deceptive. For example, when asked to comment on a co-worker's truly repulsive style of dress, those high in independent cultural orientation rated the "When is lunch?" evasive response as highly deceptive, whereas those high in interdependent orientation rated the same response as not at all deceptive.

Just as cultures differ in their regard for the value of the individual versus the group, cultural influences are likely to impress upon the meaning of morality. Cultures in which the needs of the group take precedence over the individual tend to regard morality strictly as a social phenomenon that takes into account the needs and expectations of group members. Being a moral human being in the collective sense requires protecting the image and welfare of others in the group. If avoiding the truth will serve to achieve this end, then telling a lie would be the most moral choice. In light of this fact, it is not surprising that those with high regard for social relationships would be more inclined to avoid the truth to escape potential conflict with others.

Costly misunderstandings can arise from an interaction in which the truth was told when a less than true response was expected, or vice-versa. A poignant illustration is one in which Americans and Japanese conduct business together. A Japanese businessperson who is highly interdependent in cultural orientation, asks his American colleague who is highly independent in cultural orientation to comment on his less than average performance on a presentation. The American, being a person of integrity, might respond with an honest "It was really disorganized. What happened?" despite the Japanese colleague's expectation of a more socially acceptable and less face-threatening response. This can potentially lead to strained relations between the two which can, in turn, have detrimental effects on the business.

Alternatively, if the American businessperson were to ask his Japanese colleague to comment on her less than average performance on a presentation, the Japanese counterpart might respond with what she regards as a less face-threatening response: "Well, you tried your best and that's what really counts." However, the American colleague expecting an honest and candid evaluation, now doubts that her Japanese colleague can be trusted to give an honest evaluation. Cross-cultural misunderstandings of this nature are commonplace. Damages to significant social relationships as a result of these misunderstandings can run the gamut from trivial to severe.

In the final analysis, the various motivations for and perceptions that people hold about deception are greatly influenced by dominant cultural values. While we may not know another person's cultural values off-hand, we do need to be aware that differences in independent versus interdependent cultural orientations can and do affect the ways in which we communicate with one another. From greater awareness comes greater cultural sensitivity; from greater sensitivity comes a greater ability to adapt one's communication styles to the other. The result is more effective intercultural interactions and more satisfying intercultural relationships. If we can exercise greater sensitivity to cultural differences we can begin to interpret communicative responses through the cultural lens of the other. It is only when we can learn to recognize and understand pertinent cross-cultural differences that we can truly begin to preserve the moral fabric of an intercultural society.

About the author (s)

William F. Sharkey

University of Hawaii at Mänoa