Have You Been Tricked by the Line Crossing Illusion?

Imagine this situation: a manager asks an employee if they can come in to work on Saturday.

The employee might take offense to the request. “Why did you ask me? Is it because of [fill in the blank]? You don’t think I have a life outside of work?”

The manager might then take offense to a no. “You think you’re too good to work on a Saturday? I have to come in to work. Are you really committed to this job?”

Even a simple exchange like this can easily go wrong. And it can snowball into further disagreements that damage professional relationships, team dynamics, and corporate culture.

So we try to tread lightly.


Now imagine the same situation again. Only this time, the people involved didn’t really mean what they said. They weren’t actually offended.


A recent study found that people commonly use the fear of offending to their advantage.

Most people (82%) deliberately manipulate others by:

  • Pretending to be shocked, offended, or irritated when they really aren’t.
  • Exaggerating their emotional expressions.
  • Exaggerating, bluffing, or embellishing verbal responses.
  • Trying to make the other person feel like they are asking too much or not offering enough.
  • Pretending a deal is worse than they really think it is.


Despite the fact that most of us are aware of this (and often use it on other people) it still works when other people use it on us.

Most of the time we don’t even know that it’s happening.

The same research (linked above) studied negotiations by comparing each party’s self-perceptions to how they were actually perceived by the other party.Line Crossing Illusion

Most people who thought they had crossed a line actually hadn’t.

The majority of people who thought they had offended the other person were actually seen by the other person as entirely appropriate.

Some were even seen as under-assertive!

People were so overwhelmingly wrong in their perceptions, the researchers call it the Line Crossing Illusion.

This illusion leads you to ask too little, concede too much, and get significantly less than you would have otherwise.


If you can’t trust your own perceptions, what can you trust?

The researchers found that 3rd party observers can tell—much better than you can—when you have actually gone too far and when you are just being manipulated. An impartial observer can be an incredibly valuable resource.

For any situation in which you are afraid to offend but don’t want to ask too little, include another person as an observer. If you actually do start to cross a line, they can be there to pull you back.


As is sometimes the case, Seinfeld called it well in advance.

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