Sunday, August 05, 2018

Should I lie to keep a surprise?

"I don't like to lie," C.E., a reader from Southeastern United States, tells me. It would be refreshing to believe that she is in good company.

Typically, C.E. doesn't find herself in a position of even being tempted to lie, she says. But that recently changed.

Some members of her family decided to throw a surprise birthday party for one of her close relatives. Knowing that C.E. and the recipient of the surprise party were close, C.E. was enlisted to help with the planning and with the effort to keep the soiree a tightly guarded secret.

"She and I talk regularly," C.E. says about her relative. While they live in different parts of the country, they also visit one another during the summer, just around the time the party was planned to take place.

"I don't want to ruin the surprise," C.E. says, but she also doesn't want to lie to keep the surprise element in place.

But, she wants to know, if it would be wrong to lie if she had to in this particular instance, or if it would be better to spill the beans on the surprise rather than lie about it.

C.E.'s is likely a situation many of us find ourselves in from time to time. Lying might seem like the only route to take to do something perceived to be nice for someone else. Justifying that a small lie might do no harm seems easy enough.

I'm not convinced C.E.'s only choices are to lie or to spoil the secret.

Years ago, Rushworth M. Kidder, the late co-founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, told me about some advice he offered in a different situation where trying to decide how to keep a secret without lying proved challenging.

"You have to come to terms with how to approach issues like this where you can't divulge all of the information, but to do it without lying," Kidder told me. He went on to tell me about a woman he knew who once told him how she handled such situations: "I really find that I don't ever have to lie; I have too big a vocabulary."

When keeping a confidence of any sort -- whether it's about an upcoming surprise party or upcoming layoffs about which only you and a few other managers might know -- lying should not be the go-to tactic. Instead, choosing responses to questions carefully and honestly without revealing more than you want to seems the right thing to do.

Of course, if C.E.'s relative comes right out and asks, "Are you having a surprise party for me?" that puts her in a quandary. If she says, "No," she'll know she's lying. If she says, "Yes," she'll spoil the secret. If she simultaneously wants to maintain her honesty and the element of surprise, the right thing is to change the subject as deftly as possible and move on.

Keeping a surprise party a secret from the honoree is always a challenge. But once C.E. decided she doesn't want to lie, her choice was made and she needs to find a way to stay true to her conviction. Or she could just avoid as many of her relative's calls as possible until the day of the party. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Unknown said...

If this is the biggest problem C. E. has, s/he is indeed a lucky person.

C. E., it is not a lie to keep information to yourself. In many if not most cases, it's just common sense. You are not are just not telling.