What does It Mean to "Pay Lip Service"?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Particularly in the political and business arenas, there are times when a person's public words fail to match their private positions on an issue. Whenever a public official or company spokesman issues a public statement expressing full support for a particular issue, such as anti-discrimination legislation, and privately continues to practice discriminatory hiring, he or she could be said to be paying lip service to the issue at hand.

Spokespeople and government officials are often accused of paying lip service during press conferences.
Spokespeople and government officials are often accused of paying lip service during press conferences.

Lip service is a disingenuous or surface-level attempt to gain public favor by appearing to take a popular stance, yet making little effort to actually adopt or implement that position in private. A company spokesman may promise to investigate allegations of fraud or embezzlement during a press conference, for example, but no such investigation ever takes place. The spokesperson was simply paying lip service to the idea of fair business practices.

Customers and employees except companies to fulfill promises.
Customers and employees except companies to fulfill promises.

Using this practice in relation to a controversial issue or the needs of a specific subgroup of citizens is also a popular gimmick among politicians courting voters. When surrounded by a group of farmers, a politician may promise to enact tax breaks for the working class. When in the company of wealthy business owners, the same politician may promise similar tax breaks for businesses. In both cases, the politician is merely paying lip service in order to appear both pro-business and pro-working class.

When a person is caught paying lip service, many people become disillusioned by his or her apparent hypocrisy. Employees who believed their boss' speech promising substantial raises can become disgruntled whenever those promised raises fail to materialize. The realization that a trusted official or authority figure has resorted to duplicitous actions can be a very painful pill to swallow for some. Others may take a much more cynical view on any future promises or commitments made by that official or employer.

Lip service can also be equated with the concepts of "blowing smoke up one's butt" or "promising the moon." These are all variations on making public promises one never intended to fulfill privately. Some view this practice as more of a kissing-up process, in which the speaker wants to impress a higher authority with his or her public generosity or social awareness while still maintaining his or her private and contrary position on those same issues.

Some politicians have a reputation for making public promises that they have no intention of fulfilling.
Some politicians have a reputation for making public promises that they have no intention of fulfilling.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


SauteePan- I hate when that happens. I think that another example of lip service is when parents tell their children to behave in a certain way, yet the parents behave entirely differently in private.

For example, a parent might tell a child not to gossip about anyone because it is hurtful to the person you are talking about.

But then, the parent turns around and starts gossiping with a friend on the phone. This hypocritical behavior is another form of lip service.

When a child sees this they are less likely to listen to the parent. These actions discredit the parent’s message of not gossiping.


Moldova- I think an even bigger example of lip service has to be Charlie Rangel. Charlie Rangel was the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee which sets tax policy.

He himself is under investigation for unpaid taxes and hidden assets. He didn't report $75,000 worth of rental income from a vacation property in the Dominican Republic.

In addition he did not pay taxes on lots that he owns in New Jersey and was also under investigation for his questionable use of four rent stabilized apartments in New York City.

It is ironic that he increases taxes to the public yet fails to pay his own share. This is another example of lip service.


Many politicians are known for offering lip service. They say publicly that they support a certain measure but privately they say something else. For example, in a state of Florida one of the candidates for governor, Bill McCollum publicly criticized the Arizona immigration law. He said that it was something that Floridians were not going to see and it was very unfair.

His opponent, Rick Scott came out in favor of this law and has risen in the polls because of it. As a result, Bill McCollum is trying to push legislation to create an even stricter law than what the Arizona law proposed. Political inconsistency is viewed as lip service, meaning that McCollum was not genuinely interested in passing this law, but because it became popular he immediately changed his mind in order to gain favor with the public.

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