Lies, damn lies, and telephone calls

Via Heath Row at Fast Company

In general, I don’t like talking on the telephone for business. If it’s extremely focused on what I’m working on, like the three hours I spent on the phone last night with Konstantin Guerecke, then it can be really stimulating. Or, if it’s just short messages for clarification, and there’s some sort of urgency, like I do with my co-author frequently, that’s fine, too. But in general, I’m not a big fan of the telephone. I don’t like to do “exploratory” phone calls — send me an email.


For one thing, the phone is extraordinarily time-consuming. Phone calls usually take 20-30 minutes, whereas an email read/respond usually only takes 5-10. I can read faster than you can talk.

Two other big reasons that I have long preferred email, though, are accountability and thoughtfulness. If we make a written record, we are both accountable to that record. There’s no, “But I thought you said…”, or, “You didn’t tell me that.” Also, on the telephone, or in face-to-face conversation, there’s an implied expectation of an immediate response, so we tend to answer off the top of our head, rather than taking some time to reflect on what we want to say. In conversation, I frequently find myself saying things that are not, in retrospect, reflective of my true feelings.

Well, a new study at Cornell University supports this. Volunteers were asked to keep track of their emails, instant messages, telephone calls, and face-to-face contact. The results will shock you:

Lies were told in 14 percent of emails, 21 percent of instant messages, 27 percent of face-to-face contact – and a whopping 37 percent of telephone calls.

The findings are a surprise, because emailers would normally be considered to be the most persistent liars, given the detachment of the Internet.

The researchers believe that two factors contribute to this: the immediacy of the communication and whether or not it’s being recorded.
– Telephone: immediate, and not recorded
– Face-to-face: immediate, “recorded” by the other person’s observation of your face (higher risk of getting caught)
– IM: immediate, potentially recorded completely (the person may or may not save the IM session)
– Email: not immediate, recorded completely

According to the research, people tend to lie in face-to-face conversation to cover themselves when they get caught off-guard. The classic example is the old, “Do I look fat in this?”

Needless to say, this has implications for business:

The telephone might be the best medium for sales employees who are encouraged to stretch the truth, but emails would be better for workers where honesty is a priority.

I feel SO vindicated… this is going in the book today.