Butler lie: A lie that allows for polite initiation or termination of a conversation, particularly in electronic communications such as instant messaging. The term was coined by a team of Cornell University researchers for a paper (“Butler Lies: Awareness, Deception,and Design”) presented at the 2009 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
From the abstract:
Instant messaging (IM) is a common and popular way for co-workers, friends, and family to stay in touch, but its “always-on” properties can sometimes lead people to feel overexposed or too readily available to others for conversation. This, in turn, may lead people to deceive others about their actual status or availability. ... We present results from a field study of 50 IM users, in which participants rated each of their messages at the time of sending to indicate whether or not it was deceptive. About one tenth of all IM messages were rated as lies and, of these, about one fifth were butler lies. These results suggest that butler lies are an important social practice in IM, and that existing approaches to interpersonal awareness, which focus on accurate assessment of availability, may need to take deception and other social practices into account.
“Like butlers, [butler lies] act as social buffers, telling others that we are at lunch when we are just avoiding them,” writes Austin Considine in a July 10, 2011, article in the New York Times (“New Technology, but the Same Old Lies”):
Being constantly reachable makes butler lies necessary to many people, and the Cornell researchers concluded in a subsequent study that ambiguities inherent in traditional texting also made them easier. Texters typically do not know when outgoing messages are read, where their recipients are or what they are doing.
However, writes Considine:
[T]echnology is already laying siege to the butler lie. Services like BlackBerry Messenger enable mutual users to track when their texts are read, effectively torpedoing the “sorry, phone died last night” excuse. “Friend tracking” applications like Google Latitude allow people to geographically pinpoint their friends’ mobile phones. So much for “stuck in traffic” when you really overslept.