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Is there a word that describes the phenomenon, often seen on SE sites, where someone says they are asking a question "for a friend", but actually mean themselves?

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    The technical term for this among professional linguists is "lying". – Dan Bron Aug 12 '14 at 23:52
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    I came, I see a comment, I approve – Raestloz Aug 13 '14 at 9:57
  • @DanBron Well played – AleksandrH Apr 1 '17 at 19:52
  • I tend to agree with Dan and Raestloz but isn't that a lot harsh? Isn't this a white lie? Wouldn't 'dissembling' or 'being disingenuous' be equally realistic and a lot more accommodating? – Robbie Goodwin Apr 1 '17 at 22:02
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+50

I use prosopopoeia, defined at MERRIAM WEBSTER as

a figure of speech in which an imaginary or absent person is represented as speaking or acting

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    The term is actually spot on, but it's hardly well-known. I've never heard of it before. Although it bears a strong resemblance to onomatopoeia, I would not know what it means without checking a dictionary. And I doubt I'd ever use it in speech. How would this specific term fit in a sentence? "Pretending to be someone you aren't, is a typical example of prosopopeia? – Mari-Lou A Apr 2 '17 at 11:45
  • +1 for the word, it's definition exactly matches the requirement; I wonder how you even found it! – alwayslearning Apr 2 '17 at 12:25
  • @Mari-LouA You're so right that I can barely add anything. – vickyace Apr 2 '17 at 12:25
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    Awesome. Also this needs an adjective form. A friend of mine suggests prosopopoeiacious. It rolls right off the tongue. – Jason C Apr 3 '17 at 16:36
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    @JasonC I love the popo part. Hilarious and didactic. – vickyace Apr 3 '17 at 16:54
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One expression which encapsulates the phenomenon to which you refer is under the guise, M-W defines it as: by saying or acting as if something is other than what it really is

Under [or in] the guise of a helpful friend, the OP is really asking the question for his own benefit.

On call-in talk shows on the radio, for example, a caller might preface his or her comments to the psychologist or psychiatrist by saying,

"A friend of mine is struggling with an addiction problem, and I'm calling to get some advice as to how I can help my friend get free from the downward spiral."

You know what they say:

Denial isn't just a river in Egypt.

As an armchair psychologist, however, I commend the person who calls about his "friend's" addiction. Despite their pretense, at least they realize there's a problem in their own life and are seeking help, albeit indirectly.

As for an OP who asks a question supposedly for a friend, I see nothing particularly wrong with that, unless the OP's motive is to deceive or otherwise hurt another person. Sometimes we just find it hard to admit being ignorant, whether the reluctance stems from pride and/or fear of what others (including peers) might think us, or from some other relatively harmless but perfectly understandable motive.

Another expression which comes to mind is feigned ignorance. One interesting aspect of feigned ignorance is that it can proceed from an ironic perspective. Socrates had mastered the art of feigning ignorance in order to encourage his interlocutor to talk himself into a corner, so to speak. Once that happens, the person who feigned ignorance can then pounce on his prey and eviscerate him verbally, exposing the interlocutor's true ignorance.

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This is an example of face-saving behavior (or just saving face). More specifically, it's a face-saving lie or ruse. From the Cyclopedia of Philosophy (Sam Vaknin, 2009):

The (Face-Saving) lie can help the liar . . . to avoid embarrassment, humiliation, social sanctions, judgement, criticism and, in general, unpleasant experiences related to social standing.

The phrase save face is a fairly common idiom meaning

Avoid humiliation or embarrassment, preserve dignity, as in Rather than fire him outright, they let him save face by accepting his resignation. The phrase, which uses face in the sense of "outward appearances," is modeled on the antonym lose face. [Late 1800s] (The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, cited in The Free Dictionary.)

If someone is asking a question that potentially reveals embarrassing information about the asker, it is this desire to avoid humiliation or embarrassment which might cause that person to claim that they want the information "for a friend".

Note that a certain amount of wink-wink, nudge-nudge "white" deception is implicit in the example given in the definition above; when we talk about letting someone else save face, we're often talking about pretending not to notice obvious ploys like "asking for a friend".

Unfortunately, this phrase is more general than just this specific situation. However, there is a common term for it: Asking for a friend or AFAF. Wiktionary defines the term as:

  1. (idiomatic) Indicating that a question is embarrassing by pretending to be asking on behalf of another person.

    2015, Belle Payton, Even the Score, page 70:
    “Oh, please, like we'd ever believe that whole 'I'm asking for a friend' routine.”

  2. (idiomatic) Ironically referencing people involved in current events.  

    2016, "Celebrities React to Presidential Town Hall Debate 2016", Just Jared (Oct 9, 2016):
    How many more of these #debates do we have to suffer through? Asking for a friend. — Eva Amurri Martino (@TheHappilyEva)

This phenomenon is so well-known that it has an entry on Urban Dictionary and one on Know Your Meme (although the latter notes that the meme is to use the phrase with self-aware irony), Twitter collects tweets with this phrase, and it is the title of an advice column in The Nation.

So if you want to describe the bald act, you can call it a lie; if you want to describe the motivation, you can call it saving face, but if you want everyone to know exactly what behavior you mean, you can call it asking for a friend.

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To masquerade as something/someone you are not:

to pretend or appear to be someone or something;

Hooligans masquerading as protesters have once again caused disturbance.

Cambridge Dictionary

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This is a common, often not very believable, but usually not necessary, subterfuge.

a stratagem employed to conceal something, evade an argument, etc. (Collins Dictionary)

Example sentence:

The OP is using that common subterfuge, "asking for a friend," but no matter. The question still needs to be closed, since the answer depends on individual circumstances.

Variants:

The OP is using the "asking for a friend" subterfuge, etc.

The OP is using the fictitious friend subterfuge, etc.

  • I like this word, but the primary issue I have with it is subterfuge doesn't capture the essence on its own. E.g. in your example you must still qualify it with "asking for a friend". – Jason C Apr 4 '17 at 4:15
  • @JasonC - You're right. But I suspect that if you want something specific, you're going to have to invent it. – aparente001 Apr 4 '17 at 4:16
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    @JasonC - Cute. Maybe just frienderfuge. Except it looks sort of German. – aparente001 Apr 4 '17 at 4:17
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    I'm really getting tired of your prosopopoeiacious frienderfuge. – Jason C Apr 4 '17 at 4:18
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    @JasonC - I guess you could talk about the person hiding behind a fictitious friend. It makes me think of Cyrano de Bergerac. Not quite the same situation, but a bit related. – aparente001 Apr 4 '17 at 4:26
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It's usually used with more the sense of experiencing another person's circumstances, but you can also act vicariously. In the context of vicariously asking for personal advice, you present someone else's circumstances in lieu of your own. But that other person (who may not exist) doesn't actually get the advice - you do. From Merriam-Webster:

vicarious - serving instead of someone or something else

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    Vicariously would actually be the opposite in this situation. If you vicariously asked for personal advice, you'd have a friend who needed advice but you would present it as you needing the advise instead, rather than the other way around. You'd present someone else's circumstances as your own, as opposed to in lieu of. – Jason C Apr 1 '17 at 18:10
  • I agree with @JasonC. You can get your thrills watching a motorcycle movie without actually buying or riding a motorcycle. Those are vicarious thrills. – aparente001 Apr 4 '17 at 3:52
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"being coy about it" or say, "coyly asked for an autograph for a friend"

Coy is a word that has evolved from something more like shy and reserved, to something playful or flirtatious by feigning shyness while still calling attention, to sometimes almost meaning a deceitful intransigence to admit you understand a situation".

The situation of asking for an autograph "for a friend" captures many of the past and present feelings all at once... speaks to a bit of shyness to ask directly, speaks to the playful idea that both the requester and the requestee know that "for a friend" is probably a ruse, and acknowledges there is some deceitful use of a false pretense for personal gain wrapped in.(asking on behalf of another makes you falsely appear generous rather than self serving.

You might read more than one dictionary to get the full feeling of the word coy although this one does pretty well

coy

OBS. quiet; silent ARCHAIC

shrinking from contact or familiarity with others; bashful; shy primly reserved; demure

affecting innocence or shyness, esp. in a playful or coquettish manner

reticent or evasive, as in making a commitment

ARCHAIC inaccessible; secluded

OBS. disdainfully aloof

Read more at http://www.yourdictionary.com/coy#9BFOOEPh61oIWJtW.99

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A few terms:

Anonymous: of unknown authorship or origin - M-W; as in posting anonymously.

This comes close. There is a definition: not named or identified, which implies lack of any identity, but it is often used in the more general sense to refer to use of a substitute name or identity that allows the person to remain anonymous. They write the post itself under their own name, but obscure their identity regarding the issue.

Alias: otherwise known as —used to indicate an additional name that a person sometimes uses - M-W. Alias typically refers to an actual name, but it can also refer to an identity. They write as two people, themselves creating the post and an alias to describe the problem.

Nom de plume: An assumed name used by a writer instead of their real name; a pen-name. This typically applies to an actual name rather than an unnamed false identity, but it is a similar mechanism for a similar purpose. They are using the name "my friend".

Pseudonym (essentially the "plain English" equivalent of nom de plume; nom de plume is an English word created from French words): a fictitious name; especially: pen name - M-W

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Consider the term projection

The attribution of one's own attitudes, feelings, or desires to someone or something as a naive or unconscious defense against anxiety or guilt [American Heritage Dictionary]

This concept is used extensively in psychology to describe the unconscious attribution of personal thoughts or traits on another, but it is applicable in everyday usage as well.

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    Projection in psychology is often misunderstood colloquially. It is concerned more with a person's view of others, rather than a person pretending to speak for somebody else. E.g. if you are unhappy with a quality in yourself, you may deny that you have that quality and instead see it in others (project it on to them) as a subconscious coping mechanism. Wikipedia actually does an OK job of explaining it. E.g. if I said "my friend is rude" where "my friend" didn't actually exist, that's an example of the OP, but not projection. – Jason C Apr 1 '17 at 18:03

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