Little Promises

Made to Be Broken

“I see an old friend on the street I haven’t seen in months. He says to me, ‘Let’s have lunch. I’ll call you next week.’ I say that sounds great. Months go by, and he never calls. Did he make a promise and break it? Is making promises, no matter how small they are, and not keeping them ethical?”

“I have a dog and I have arthritis. I can’t walk the dog as much as he needs. My neighbor has said to me on more than one occasion, ‘Let me walk the dog for you.’ He never does, and I don’t want to ask him. Does that make him a liar?”

I’m starting a new business. An old friend in the same business tells me, ‘I’m definitely going to send you some clients next week.’ Months have gone by, and I’ve never heard from her or any client she has recommended.”

Ben Bycel

The above are taken from a number of questions posed to Street Ethics in the past few weeks. How many of us make these types of promises to do something but never follow through?

Yes, my hand is up. No, I don’t purposely go around making promises with the intention of breaking them, but I have. Other things come up, or I simply forget. Or worse, on a few occasions, my words that could easily be construed as a promise were disingenuous. I said it merely because it seemed like the right thing to say at the moment. No, I’m not proud of it.

Are we really serial promise breakers if we do something such as fail to call someone for coffee? Or come through on the dog walking?

I mean, after all, it’s not as if we have broken our marriage vows or failed to pay back a loan or come to our mother’s 90th birthday party.

Or do we start with small broken promises and end up on the slippery slope, like the politician who believes, as Jonathan Swift put it, “Promises and pie crust are made to be broken.”

Why do we make these casual promises that even as we make them are unlikely to be kept?

Psychologists, sociologist, ethicists, philosophers, rabbis, and priests spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out why so many of us make promises we have no intention of fulfilling.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, in a Huntington Post article points out that for some people, “Saying you are going to do something feels just as good as actually doing it.” She uses an example of someone promising to babysit but never comes through. “Why follow through on the offer to watch the kids, with all the hassle that entails, when simply expressing your intention to do so feels so good in its own right?”

For others, including myself, making statements such as “Let’s have lunch” has become an extension of a simple greeting. It’s not that I don’t want to have lunch with someone (who I hope isn’t reading this), but it’s just not high on my priority list. Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up: “All promise outruns performance.”

I don’t think, in the overwhelming majority of cases, people who make and break casual social promises will become major league liars. While I can understand someone being miffed or even hurt by any promise not fulfilled (I know I have), I think it important that what was said is put in the context of an informal social interaction. But then again, maybe this is just a cop-out.

Making such, even spur-of-the-moment, promises is not what I would consider unethical behavior, but it certainly will not get you a retro active Scout Merit Badge.

It’s a long-lived and widespread problem, addressed by people like Plato, Aristotle, and Norman Vincent Peale, and in modern times by WikiHow, all with advice on how we can mitigate the unintentional hurt that may result from casual promises. Here’s how WikiHow weighs in:

• When talking (or emailing or however you communicate), think before you make even the simplest statement that could be reasonable construed as a promise.

• If you know the person you are talking with is vulnerable or hurt, then be extra careful about what you say that could be reasonably interpreted as a promise.

• Before you make even the simplest promise, consider whether you can or want to fulfill it.

• Whether you meant to or not, if what you say comes out as a promise, do everything you can to fulfill it.

Whatever you do, do not follow the advice of Machiavelli, who said: “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to

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