- Being honest with a partner may seem to be the best practice, but it may have a downside.
- New research on negotiations suggests when it might be better to cover up anger and put on a happy face.
- We can learn when to reveal our true emotions and when it's better to keep them to ourselves.
You’ve always held to the principle that honesty is the best policy in relationships. Not only should the content of what you express be truthful, but so should the emotion you express. If you’re angry, you should show it, and if you’re happy, you should let this emerge as well. These two emotions have somewhat different functions, though. An honest display of anger may make you feel better, but it could also lead to an argument, and in the process, defeat the purpose of using honesty as a relationship-building tool. Expressing happiness when you are truly happy may not have exactly the same obvious outcome, because it could lead to trouble if you’re happy about something that infuriates your partner.
Try to imagine each type of situation in your own current or recent relationship. You’re annoyed because your partner forgot to put something in the mail. Nothing you can do will change the situation, but you still feel like saying how irritated you are anyway. What if, instead, you took the deceptive approach and pretended that it was no problem at all and even laughed it off? Yes, your partner will be less likely to get into an argument with you, but you’ll also have lied.
Now think about a time that you’re happy about something that, if expressed, would offend your partner. You’re in a similar dilemma. Maybe you’re thrilled that your partner’s sister (whom you are not a big fan of) can’t make an important family get-together. Letting that happiness show through would almost certainly have an equally undesirable effect.
Deception and the Expression of Emotion
In a newly-published study, Leiden University’s Zie Ye (2023) and colleagues put the issue of emotional deception and relationships to the test within the context of situations in which people negotiate and bargain for a desired outcome. Their findings can inform the role of deception in relationships by virtue of the fact that partners, like people in business, are also seeking to attain fair and positive outcomes. In a business negotiation, the person wanting more money may feign anger in order to appear to be a hard-liner. With your partner, you could put on the guise of anger in order to exact some type of recompense. If you actually weren’t that angry about the missed mail drop, you could pretend to be, just to be sure that it doesn’t happen again.
The Dutch researchers based their work on the “Emotion as Social Interaction (EASI)” model, which suggests that “deceptive emotion communications—where communications do not match internal feelings—are considered negatively, and inappropriate." However, the devil is in the details in terms of which type of deception is worse. If you communicate more anger than you feel, the other person won’t trust you in the future, as shown in previous research, because you'll seem to be manipulative.
These previous findings prompted Ye et al. to wonder how people involved in negotiations would feel about a person who is genuinely happy showing their happiness, compared to an angry person pretending to be happy. Would the liar or the honest person come out ahead?
Testing the Effects of Deception on Outcomes
The Dutch study, using a paradigm based on salary negotiations, involved a set of complex experiments in which online participants negotiated over salary offers with an avatar that either faked or displayed their honest emotions. In one of these experiments, the employee is shown (via a callout bubble) that they felt angry about the offer but said “I’m happy about your offer.” In the honest condition, the employee both felt and expressed happiness.
The data analyses showed that covering up anger was indeed the better strategy. Participants felt that the employee who faked happiness was making more of a sacrifice than employees who were happy and said so, This apparent sacrifice produced the benefit to the employee of receiving a better offer than did the employee whose happiness was genuine.
As the authors concluded from this set of findings, “Possibly, negotiators who perceive their opponents as making a sacrifice may in turn distribute high rewards to these opponents, because they may appreciate their good intentions. The findings suggest that, consistent with the EASI model, when people cover up their anger, they're signaling more “relationship-focused” and less "self-interested" motivation.
So, When Should You Lie?
Extrapolating now back to the question of whether and when you should hide your feelings, it appears that anger is best covered up rather than expressed. However, unlike a video or verbal scenario, as used in the Dutch study, your partner is likely to be able to read your emotions to know how you’re actually feeling. In that incident with the mail, you may try to laugh it off, but your partner probably senses your underlying irritation and appreciates your attempt to maintain harmony. This apparent sacrifice on your behalf would therefore be worth it, in terms of building your relationship’s strength.
Over time, such deception could potentially backfire. If you are always shrugging off mistakes your partner makes while actually feeling annoyed, you’ll start to build inner resentment. Like the employee who feigns being happy despite getting a low salary offer, the false front you keep putting on can eventually come to produce your own emotional burnout.
To sum up, honesty can be a good policy, but in the area of emotions, it’s important to consider possible outcomes on your relationship’s quality. In the moment, disguising your anger can pay off in terms of showing how much you care about your partner. Over the long term, honesty ultimately should be the best policy, promoting the type of communication that can lead to fulfillment.
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Ye, Z., Lelieveld, G.-J., Noordewier, M. K., & van Dijk, E. (2023). So you want me to believe you’re happy or angry? How negotiators perceive and respond to emotion deception. Group Decision and Negotiation. doi: 10.1007/s10726-023-09850-0