Home » How to Spot a Liar — at Fifty Paces or Online

How to Spot a Liar — at Fifty Paces or Online

by Louis J. Wasser

The reason I talk to myself is I’m the only one whose answers I accept. — George Carlin

You hear lies every day, don’t you? When you shout upstairs “Are you ready yet?,” you know your spouse is lying when he or she responds, “I’ll be down in five minutes.” Or how about the exec to whom you’ve just submitted a business proposal; you know, the character who tells you “thanks, this looks good; we’ll get back to you.” Or the contractor who throws out a number on the fly without committing to a written estimate: “This job shouldn’t run you any more than (hesitation and softener here: ‘well, we’re lookin’ at – maybe’) five hundred or a thousand bucks.”

Okay, let’s cut that contractor some slack. Maybe he’s a better craftsman than businessman. And the exec was simply in a hurry — he’ll turn out to be the sincere one in 100 folks who’ll actually get back to you. As for your spouse — she just happens to be the love of your life with a bad sense of time.

These might seem like harmless remarks, but don’t kid yourself. All three of them are lies. Lest you think otherwise, consider what Sisella Bok, who wrote the classic modern book on the subject, puts forth as a definition: “a lie is an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement.”

Bok’s definition covers a wide territory, doesn’t it: everything from the remarks made by your well-intentioned spouse and casual contractor, to Watergate and Benghazi. In assessing the public moral landscape 21 years after she published the first edition of her book, here’s what Bok had to say in 1999:

“In recent years, television screens have shown a parade of public officials, bankers, lawyers, union officials, and business executives caught lying about bribery, insider trading, money laundering, and vast interlocking schemes of corruption. Exposés have proliferated about fraud in scientific research and Medicare, entrapment by undercover police and reporters, and hoaxes in book publishing and psychotherapy.”

What difference does it make: 1978, 1999, 2014? As far as we can tell, Bok could have written these words yesterday evening. So little has changed.

Still, in our public and private lives, each of us eventually has to make an ethical decision about statements we consider truthful vs. those we let slide as exaggerations, hyperbole, or out-and- out lies. We also have to make that decision about what we say to others, and how we wind up counseling our children about the nature of deception.

In a more practical vein, most of us would find it helpful in our day-to-day encounters to know how to identify a liar. Here are some tips:

Lying in Person

Be Aware of Inconsistencies in a Person’s Story

Federal agent J.J. Newberry tells of the time that a witness to a shooting told him she heard a shot and then ran. Trouble is she failed to look around first. This provided the tip off to Newberry that the person he was interrogating was lying.

Watch for Fake Emotions

A smile during a part of a person’s story that isn’t really funny, or some other inappropriate show of emotion, offers a conspicuous clue that the teller of the story is not in touch with how he or she should really feel were the story true.

Look for Overly Formal and Distancing Language

Psychologist Pamela Meyer gives the now-infamous example of President Clinton’s remark “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” as an example of a response a liar uses to strike an inappropriate distance from the person he’s discussing — in this particular case, Clinton was revealing his discomfort discussing Monica Lewinsky.

Look for Overly-Qualifying Body Language

According to Meyer, the conventional wisdom that liars don’t look you in the eye is incorrect. A true liar will make a point of looking you in the eye.

Lying Online

The Overly Distancing Language Clue Applies Here Too

Tyler Cohen Wood, a defense intelligence officer and cyber branch chief, informs us that the person who resorts to formalities online is performing the cyber equivalent of folding one’s arms when listening to another person talk. That person might simply write something like “last night was fun” in response to the more effusive comment “hey I had a great time last night, did you?”

Beware of Noncommittal Statements

Wood emphasizes that remarks like “pretty sure,” “probably,” and “maybe” tend to “leave the other person out.” It’s pretty easy to leave the other person out in cyber chat. You’re already working without the aid of body language clues, so noncommittal statements can serve as an easy technique for filling in the space.

Switch Gears if Email Doesn’t Feel Right

If you get a queasy feeling communicating online, don’t be afraid to ask that person if he or she wouldn’t mind switching to phone or Skype, or as Wood suggests, if this is a potential courtship, feel free to request a “real-time photo stamped with the time and date.”

Alertness and skepticism are always useful techniques employed by any smart lie spotter.

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