Constructive Hypocrisy and Trust

A stimulating conversation over on LinkedIn, sparked by Adam Turteltaub of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, leads me to explore the relationship of hypocrisy to trust, authenticity and truth-telling.

How can there by such a thing as “constructive hypocrisy,” you ask? Well, it’s a good term to describe how we handle the uncomfortable no-man’s land between the letter of the law and the nuanced nature of the world.

Example: The 55 mph speed limit. Enforcement kicks in at about 65. We say “about” because it has to stay loose, else it becomes the new 55. How can you justify people driving 57 when the limit is 55? You can’t. But we do all the time. Constructive hypocrisy.

Bill Bennett wrote about constructive hypocrisy as key to social functioning back in the 90s.  The brilliant (and outrageously controversial) Herman Kahn used the term to describe the social value of plausible deniability (“A rural American man doesn’t want his daughter to be able to buy pornography at the corner store; and if she does, he wants to be able to say he didn’t know about it.”)

But we don’t need no stinkin’ highfalutin definitions. Here are two that’ll do fine. Have you ever said:

“I’ll call you right back in 1 minute.” Which means between 3 and 5 minutes.

“Let’s do lunch,” which of course means ‘let’s don’t do lunch.’

If you’ve said those things, then you’re a constructive hypocrite.  Sometimes, anyway. Congratulations.

The Role of Hypocrisy

Constructive hypocrisy gives us breathing room from the constant cacophonous confrontation between the puritanical rule-givers among us, and the anarchistic forces just waiting to destroy civilization. 

·    What does the flight attendant do when the announcement says ‘turn off your cell phones now’ and the passenger covers up the screen to finish the email? Constructive hypocrisy (for a while).

·    What does the cop say when it’s a first violation and the person is clearly not a trouble maker, and the violation was narrow? I’ll let you off this time with a warning….Constructive hypocrisy.

·    What are sentencing guidelines for judges, except constructive hypocrisy?

Here are some situations where the world could use more, not less, constructive hypocrisy:

·    Gay marriage

·    Three strikes you’re out sentencing rules

·    Abortion (oh boy, I can see the emails now)

·    the Middle East

On the other hand, there are limits to constructive hypocrisy—at some point it becomes denial. Think of US immigration policy, for example, or municipal pension funding. Over a decade ago, don’t ask/don’t tell was constructive hypocrisy; as time passed, it became uncomfortable denial. The policy didn’t change; society did.

 Hypocrisy, Authenticity and Trust

On the face of it, you’d think trust can’t co-exist with hypocrisy. But on closer examination, I think they are complementary, maybe even interdependent.

Constructive hypocrisy is a socially acceptable way of agreeing to disagree. We both choose to look the other way, rather than insist on a constant confrontation of values. Done in the right proportion, it is the triumph of relationship over principle.  

Can I trust someone who’s being hypocritical? In many cases, yes, precisely because their willingness to be hypocritical rather than provoke a confrontation over principle means they actually value my relationship over one of their opinions. 

What about authenticity? Only in a narrow sense are they in conflict. For me to indulge in constructive hypocrisy doesn’t mean I’m being inauthentic about my beliefs; it means I’m being authentic about the balance of my principles and the need to get along with others in the world. 

Alfred Hitchcock knew that imagination trumped vision (the shower scene in Psycho); other directors know that a bit of clothing is more erotic than pure nudity.  In the same sense, a bit of hypocrisy lubricates social interactions better than does undiluted truth.  

If you’d like to talk more about this concept, maybe we could do lunch?  

15 replies
  1. Lance E. Osborne
    Lance E. Osborne says:

    The English are masters of the use of constructive hypocrisy in order to soften the blow of an insult or suggestion. This is an interesting question: Does telling a little white lie, to reduce tension or soften a negative, dilute or support trust? Hmmm, Charlie, good question.

  2. John
    John says:


    When I read the line..."you’d think trust can’t co-exist with hypocrisy. But on closer examination, I think they are complementary, maybe even interdependent." My rule bound thinking kicked into gear and I had to ask is that true? Does it conflict with my other rules… Honesty, trustworthy, loyal, reverant, brave…

    I studied extra logic in college because I believed in a world of black and white, yes or no; a world of logic if you will. What I have found is that it is a glorious range of colors. Sometimes it is more comfortable than others to operate in this diverse world; and yet; if I step back and consider as you did, I recognize that "Constructive Hypocrisy" can be a lubricant that helps.

    Thanks for making me think in a new way this AM.

    PS If you are in Denver Lunch is on me..No Joke

  3. LisaZ
    LisaZ says:

    You did it again! Took seeming opposites and made us see the "complementarity" between them! I have often thought, as I have "matured", that my "principles" have softened. But I never felt bad about it – even though I sometimes thought I should. You have clearly and concisely summed up a "rationale" that boosts my confidence. Maybe my principles are not "softer" – maybe I’ve just refined my use creative hypocrisy.  Thanks for pointing that out!

  4. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Loved this post and the way it got me thinking about all the times I have — rather smugly – practiced constructive hypocrisy.  My favorite method had always been to say something ‘true’ but with a coded meaning.  "It looks like you put a lot of work into this proposal …"  subtext, "but you ain’t gettin’ the assignment."  You’ve prompted me to take a closer look at the little white ‘truths’ I tell.



  5. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

     Charlie:  I couldn’t help but thinking about the overlap between constructive hypocricy and passive agressiveness.  You say, " Constructive hypocrisy is a socially acceptable way of agreeing to disagree. We both choose to look the other way, rather than insist on a constant confrontation of values".  Passive-aggressive behavior is sometimes a perfectly rational behavior which allows one to evade unpleasant activities while avoiding confrontation. Sounds the same, no? Take an example of a coworker who  agrees to refrain from un-PC behavior, then does it anyway. Is this passive-aggressive behavior or constructive hypocricy? Probably neither…more like a person being a jerk.

    So…can I trust someone who’s being hypocritical? You say, "…In many cases, yes". But what about that co-worker?  What about authenticity? How authentic was the co-worker in balancing their need to get along w/ others? 

    I agree there is a difference between constructive hypocricy and passive agressive behavior but it does seem like a bit of Hobson’s Choice in some instances. 


  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    What a delightful set of comments! What a fascinating pool of perspectives!

    Lisa I’m delighted you found some confidence-boost in here. 

    And to Barbara’s point: where do we draw the line between constructive hypocrisy and passive aggressive behavior?  Keep them comments flowing…

  7. Barbara Kimmel
    Barbara Kimmel says:

    Very interesting post Charlie. Seems like you are really talking about diplomacy…Personally,  I’ve always favored  "direct" over "diplomatic".  Reminds me of the olden days when I’d hear the line "I’ll call you" at the end of a date!





  8. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I was really hoping you would tie this post on Constructive Hypocricy to your earlier post on Radical Honesty.

    In that post, you wrote: "Think you can justify not telling your spouse something? The white lie to your subordinate? The truth about your attraction to your office-mate?
    Go ahead, test it. Check out [Radical Honesty proponent Brad Blanton]. . . . You may not agree with him, but you’ll have a helluva hard time justifying why you don’t."

    In light of today’s post, how do you answer the questions (/challenge) you posed to readers there?


  9. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

     Shaula nice connection w/ the posting re : Radical Honesty.

    OK, lets face it, when someone says," …does this make me look fat?", no one really wants to hear, "yes, it makes you look fat". No one wants to hear that they look fat,old, grey, skinny, etc. period.  Replying with something along the lines of " your blue or red outfits compliment you more" says the same thing (what you are wearing isn’t really flattering) without really hurting/destroying the person. Is it the "coward’s way out – absolutely. Is it a lie – yes & no. Yes, it isn’t telling the total truth in responding exactly in the manner in which the  question was phrased. No, but it gets the same result without hurting the person. Come on, the person was insecure about wearing the outfit to begin with otherwise they never would have asked. Can I live w/ myself knowing I finagled the response – you bet. I provided the input the person wanted & needed to be more comfortable. Is it really necessary to hurt the individual in being brutally honest about how fat that person looked in the outfit, just so I can satisfy some warped sense of  self satisfaction…don’t think so. Can this person now trust me based upon my telling a white lie…  I have a feeling that person would, knowing I can provide what they need or look out for their interests without the arrogance or a wake of hurt feelings.

  10. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    The most interesting aspect of this discussion from my perspective is that the focus is on the good of the individual rather than group.  In Eastern societies this question would not exist.  The Japanese phrase "makeru ga kachi"…"to lose is to win"…illustrates this.  Maintaining peace and harmony has a much greater value than getting one’s own way.  To what extent does my trust in another increase because I know that he/she values the good of the group over an individual perspective?

  11. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Thanks for playing the role of the one who dares to question the emperor’s clothes, as always!  Good on you for singling out the Brad Blanton piece.

    It’s fair to ask me where I come out, and I’m not sure you’ll like it, but here it is.  I profoundly distrust absolutes.  If the world is too simple, there’s something wrong with your eyeglasses.  Simple solutions are almost always Gordian knot solutions; they get rid of nuance by fiat.

    That said, absolute perspectives are great for clarity.  They cut through bombast, quickly reveal the implication of thoughts, and serve to bookend any issue at hand.  As a friend of mine, Andy Stroukhoff, says, "If it weren’t for the far right and the far left the rest of us wouldn’t know how to find the middle."

    So it is with Brad. You quoted me correctly: "you may not agree with him, but you’ll have a helluva time justifying why you don’t."  That’s me. I don’t agree with him, but it’s a helluva challenge to say just why and how and where I don’t.  And that challenge keeps us honest.

    Because here’s the other thing I believe.  In the personal realm, a lot of absolute arguments are very productively reframed as directional arguments.  Brad Blanton says that truth-telling is good; other people say telling white lies is good.  My question is: which one are we more in need of?  And there I have no trouble–Blanton’s virtue is the one in short supply.  Broadly speaking, we are not in danger of telling too much truth, but in danger of not telling enough.

    It may be–and this blog is an interesting case in point–that in the public sphere, the danger is reversed.  We’re not in danger of too much constructive hypocrisy in the public sphere, but of not enough: due to the polarizing, absolutist nature of an awful lot of public discourse. 

    So there’s as good as I’ve got.  We ought to pay more attention to Blanton in our private lives, and more to constructive hypocrisy in our public lives.

    Whether that’s sophistry or not, Shaula will probably have something to say about; if not now, in a year or so.


  12. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Aha, I’m back, and in less than a year.

    I’ve been trying to put my finger on where the balance lies for me, and this afternoon I’ve come across a passage in The Economist’s new language blog which cuts to the heart of the matter:

    > "[Mr Kinsley] simply says "write the truth." That’s a journalist’s job. No disagreement here. But can we call it "the truth" to say Mr X is a blowhard, Mr Y is a dupe or Mr Z is a fool? These things are opinions, not facts. If you write true facts about someone, and then comment on those facts alone, you should have far less fear of running into him at a party than if you say he is an idiot or a crook."

    (bolding added)

    Should we be true about facts? Generally yes.

    Must we blurt out every single one of our subjective opinions? Clearly not.

    From this viewpoint, not all "truths" are created equal.

  13. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    If everyone had the same perception of the difference between fact and opinion, it would be as simple as the Economist likes to make things appear.  But they don’t.  In the Netherlands, in my experience, calling someone ignorant is often considered a simple statement of fact, verifiable, obvious.  While of course in the UK and much of the US, it’s a deep insult. 

    Fact? Opinion?  It depends on where you sit.  Or where you grew up.

    Worse, if you end up making pre-judgments about what someone else might consider to be the difference between fact and opinion so that you don’t risk offending them by saying something, that may seem like well-intended courtesy.  But it’s also the behavior of someone who holds predisposed opinions about other people, and considers his or her own opinion to be sufficiently self-evident that there’s no need to check those opinions with others.  That behavior can also describe snobbery, if not racism.

    The Economist’s example you point to is in the personal sphere; and like the prim and proper nation in which it’s housed, I find it very conservative about the proper personal behavior, and quite likely to be offended by Mr. Blanton’s in-your-face views.  But as I said above, I think Blanton’s directionally right when it comes to personal behavior–we need more truth, not less.

    In business, I find massive epidemics of blame-throwing, scape-goating, and generally CYA-ing behavior.  We don’t need more civility there; we need more truth-telling, constructive confrontation.  The sin is not incivility, it’s disengagement. 

    While in the public sphere, I’m starting to think it may be the reverse; we need more civility, less opinion.

    Then again; them’s just my own personal opinions.  They’re worth the bytes they’re printed on.



  14. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    I think there is common ground. We often shy from confrontation because we have not learned how have "consructive confrontation".  That does not mean we should not avoid it rather in the word of the Desiderata, we can "speak our truth quietly and clearly".

    It’s funny how syncronicity occurs. This morning I am reading the book The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan. And they are discussing how to get organizations into alignment when often we seem to have differing objectives. The suggestion is that if people are not in alignment with the proposal, ask for their counter proposal. Again it doesn’t have to be as you say Charlie "Blame throwing or CYAing" (Way yoo much of that going round). Instead it can be a dialogue.

    I am also reminded of a comment by my friend Coach Dave from ECI Learning, N.I.C.E means nothing inside cares enough (to do anything about it) when talking about how people shy away from the tough conversation in organizations because it takes work.

    Perhaps the questionto be asked is what is gained by being brutally honest? Or what is gained by constructive hypocricy?

    Do we strengthen our relationship, by telling our loved one those jeans make her look fat, or by saying lets look for another pair? The differnce is in symantics and in results.

    Take Good Care,



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