The other day, a leader-manager mentioned that she thought one of her direct reports was either mendacious or a dissembler. That’s a polite way of saying she thought her report often evaded the truth. Lied, in fact, if you want to call a digging implement a spade. So we had a chat about how to tell whether someone is being truthful. Or not.
One of the best clues, and one that crosses many cultures, is raising your hand to your nose or scratching your nose. Nose tissues engorge, or swell up, when you tell a lie. When this happens, your nose releases histamine, which in turn causes it to itch. This is such a common indicator of lying that it has a name: the ‘Pinocchio Sign’.
Licking your lips, swallowing a lot, not blinking very much, and turning your head or body away when uttering an untruth are other physical cues signalling mendacity. Covering or blocking your mouth and covering or rubbing your eyes can also signal a falsehood. An insincere smile, the kind when your eyes don’t crinkle up, or that you hold for too long or don’t hold long enough are give-aways, too, as is a lopsided smile.
But beware: there are behaviours we often associate with lying that we shouldn’t, particularly crossing your arms, sweating and sweaty palms, increased heart rate or blood pressure, umming and ahhing, rapid blinking and laughing. That’s because these can just as easily result from habit or from feeling intimidated or under pressure as from not telling the truth.
Looking away or looking down are other poor indicators of lying, because while some people might do this because they feel guilty about the lie, other liars make a point of looking you in the eye as they lie in order to look more honest. Fidgeting isn’t a reliable indicator, either. Poor liars often fidget, rub their hands together and so on, or they may control their movements to the point of stiffness. Practiced liars, on the other hand, can control their eye movements and gestures so they don’t give them away.
Lower body movements, now they’re a different story. They’re under the radar of most people, so watch these when you suspect a porky. Look for jiggling legs or shifting feet.
That’s the body language of mendaciousness. The verbal cues are often even more telling. For instance, using a lot of verbal qualifiers or modifiers, beating around the bush, not providing much detail – just the broad brush and digressing a lot are all markers of porkies. So are giving an unnecessarily long explanation and its opposite, giving a short answer to a direct question.
Another give-away is expanding your contractions, as in ‘I did not’ rather than ‘I didn’t’. Stuttering when you don’t normally trip over your words and clearing your throat are also linked with lying. Pausing before a lie and speaking it more slowly are often give-aways, too, because lying takes more thought than telling the truth, and slows you down.
Calling on God can indicate deceit, too: ‘I swear on my mother’s grave …’; ‘May God strike me dead …’; ‘As God is my witness …’; ‘God, no! I never!’ Similarly, calling on the truth often indicates a lie: ‘To be perfectly honest, …’; ‘Truly, .l..’; ‘Trust me, …’; Frankly’, …’, especially when repeated unnecessarily.
Along the same lines is claiming the negative, not the positive: ‘I am not a crook’ rather than ‘I’m honest’. Disclaimers can indicate dishonesty, too: ‘You won’t believe this, but …’; ‘This is going to sound odd but …’.
Accomplished liars are good at masking any nervousness about being sprung or any guilt about telling a whopper. Turning your head away to hide those emotions is a bit obvious, but pasting on a straight face, a positive emotion or a smile can hide nerves or guilt. A straight face is the easiest – just relax your face. A smile is potentially the most effective because, done right, it makes you look happy and relaxed, not nervous. But it’s got to be a good smile, not an obviously-faked smile, discussed above.