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The first time a client looked straight at me in the middle of a mediation and lied to me, I didn’t have any idea what to do. I wasn’t baffled because he lied; I’ve had clients lie to me before. What was different this time was that this guy didn’t seem to care.

I’ve thinking about this a lot recently, since election day in particular. Because whether you support President Trump or not, you can see that he frequently makes statements that aren’t true and that can’t possibly be true, but he doesn’t seem to care.

For example, Mr. Trump told ABC news on January 25 that “3 to 5 million people voted illegally,” and if it weren’t for that, he would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral college vote. Now even if you believe that some people voted fraudulently, there’s no way that so many people could have voted fraudulently without it being common knowledge already. Plus which, all those supposedly illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton? It doesn’t make any sense.

So I started doing some googling for literature on how people can lie and not care.

Mr. Trump is probably using what I’m going to call performance speech acts. To understand what this is, you have to know a little about what’s called speech act theory.

I first heard about speech act theory when I was in graduate school, studying cognitive science. One of the most famous researchers on the subject is John Searle, but there are several others.

According to speech act theory, when we talk to each other, we can be doing several different things.

Sometimes when we speak to each other, we give each other information. For example, when we tell someone that it’s raining out, or that we brought sushi for lunch, we’re probably simply conveying information.

Other things that we say don’t simply convey information, but actually cause something to happen. For example, when Pres. Trump repeated the oath of office after Chief Justice John Roberts, and he said, “I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear to… preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” his saying that is what created his promise. In other words, that’s a speech act that does something.

What I’m calling a performance speech act is something someone says that tries to get someone else to think a certain way, feel a certain way, or have a certain opinion about the person who’s speaking. One researcher who talks about this kind of speech act is Harry G. Frankfurt, in his book On Bullshit (yes, that’s really the title).

When Mr. Trump says that 3 two 5 million people voted illegally, he probably wants us to see him has someone who actually won the popular vote, and that it doesn’t matter that he won the electoral college without winning the popular vote. He probably wants to be able to believe of himself that he’s popular, that losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton doesn’t make him inferior. In a way, he’s performing for us, playing the role of someone popular and superior.

Let’s take another example. After his inauguration address, Mr. Trump said that when he started his address, the sun came out. Now, actual news footage and video from people’s cell phones showed that the sun didn’t come out. So why did he say it? Probably he wanted to believe that the weather was a good omen rather than a bad omen, that when he started to speak, the nation got brighter. Again, he’s performing for us.

So what do we do?

The only thing we can do is ignore his performances. He doesn’t care that he’s not telling the literal truth, so pointing it out to him will have any effect.

We need to ignore his performance speech acts, and concentrate on what he does.


Photo credit: © 2013 Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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