The New White Lies of Lockdown

Spotty Wi-Fi, an upcoming meal, another Zoom happy hour—people are coming up with new excuses for ending social interactions.

An illustration of a videochat window, with one participant in the call sneaking away
Rose Wong

During the pandemic, video and phone calls have become a crucial source of social connection, but like in-person interactions, they can become tiring if they go on too long. The world used to be rich with excuses for cutting a conversation short: I should probably get home to feed my dog; this was fun, but I have to go to another party; and so on. But this new, locked-down era calls for more creativity in coming up with a good reason to say bye.

Thankfully, we are seasoned liars and up to the test. Pandemic or no pandemic, innocuous white lies function as a social lubricant, allowing one to keep up an air of politeness while terminating conversations humanely. “People lie because it works,” says Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships. “We’re all very susceptible to the lies of others, and in fact sometimes welcome those lies because it gives us a graceful way of interacting with other people.” He says that this sort of casual lying is, at least in the United States, “almost a universal kind of behavior.”

Even at a time when people have been deprived of their usual socializing, the accumulation of phone calls, FaceTime catch-ups, and Zoom happy hours can be exhausting. Between work, child care, and household chores, many of those currently cooped up at home have ample excuses for not socializing. But many others don’t, and just want to seem like they do. Like poets working within a particularly constrictive rhyme scheme, they are innovating deceptions within the present limitations—or, occasionally, just being more honest about not wanting to talk.

Heather Jovanovic, a 25-year-old college student currently holed up with her parents outside of Toronto, recently walked me through her newfound suite of white lies and convenient outs. “Meals are really big now, so it’s like, ‘I have to go make lunch,’” she said. “I’ve also found that being like, ‘Oh, I just started watching a movie with my parents and I can’t just get up and leave’” reliably shuts down an invitation. She’s also excused herself from calls because of her barking dogs and because the battery’s running low on whatever device she’s using. “There’s no arguing with a dead phone,” she said.

According to Feldman, the excuses people provide in order to skip or curtail social encounters frequently blame an outside force, such as kids or pets that need checking up on, or a work call that can’t be missed. “It’s a social nicety that ensures that we’re not really culpable,” he says.

These outside forces aren’t always fabrications—they can be truths, albeit convenient ones. Gary Leff is experienced in shutting down conversations without making enemies. He is the author of the air-travel blog View From the Wing, and in pre-pandemic times he flew on a plane about once a week, meaning he regularly found himself a captive audience to chatty seatmates. “You can start typing away on a laptop,” he wrote to me in an email. “‘I'm sorry, I have a presentation to finish’ has never failed for me. Is it a white lie? For me, never. I’m always working.”

Under lockdown, Leff is remaining truthful as he ends interactions. He’s taken to saying that he has “another call coming up.” “Notice I said ‘coming up’ rather than ‘about to start,’” he said. “In other words, it is at some future point—true! And there are things you need to do between now and the call—also true!” People looking after children right now also have a near-permanent excuse for leaving a call, he noted.

If convenient truths represent one end of the excuse spectrum, the other end consists of contrived falsehoods. That’s the realm of a more daring contingent of callers, who are elevating social deception to an art form.

Two friends of mine recently told me about a tactic that they had used to end interminably long video calls at a former job, and that could easily work during the pandemic as well. When they were ready for the call to be over, they’d freeze their face and body in place for a moment, to make it seem as if their Wi-Fi had gone out, and then very carefully, off-camera, hit the End Call button. Followed up with a short message such as “Whoops, I think my internet cut out. I think we’re done, but let me know if you have any questions!,” the “frozen face” worked exceptionally well.

Destiny Lopez, a graduate student currently at home with her mother in Waterbury, Connecticut, told me about a more surreptitious way to get out of a group video call. It’s the digital equivalent of casually backing out of a conference room and hoping no one notices: “I turned off my audio slowly, and then I turned off my camera slowly, and then I just left the meeting,” she said. “I just cut off a small piece of myself, little by little, and then I'm out.”

Since going back to Waterbury, Lopez has also found social refuge in the rigidity of the television broadcast schedule. Usually she streams shows and starts watching whenever she pleases. “What’s great about having cable now is that if I’m on the phone with somebody, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I have to catch How to Get Away With Murder at 10, so I’m going to [say bye] now,’” said Lopez, a self-described homebody.

Whatever method you choose to wind down a call, you might actually be doing others a service: Despite the perception that being stuck at home means people are pretty much always available to talk, a lot of them seem eager for an excuse to do something else. Meghan Roberts, a 33-year-old in Southern California who works in marketing, has noticed that on several group calls lately, “as soon as I say something, then everyone else leaves too … Somebody needs to end it, but nobody wants to be the one that ends it. It’s almost giving everyone else permission” to leave.

Even if being home comes with a mild pressure to hang out anytime, people do seem more understanding nowadays when their fellow socializers need a break. “I think everybody’s a little bit more aware of everybody [else] going through a difficult time right now, and we’re learning to read each other better,” Lopez said.

Whether lockdowns have made society as a whole more or less honest with their friends, Feldman expects the trend to be temporary. “This presumably is a short-term blip, and I'm guessing that we’ll go back to pre-coronavirus levels of deception, and kinds of deception, after this is over,” he says.

When regular social gatherings resume, Jovanovic anticipates a period when everyone’s very excited to spend time together. It will be fun, obviously, but there might be a small downside. “Once we’re free again, canceling on people might be seen as a little bit shitty,” she predicts, “because ‘I haven’t seen you in eight months, we’ve been on lockdown, and you can’t come to drinks tonight because you don’t feel like it!?’” Homebodies should start getting their excuses ready now.