Lying is hard work.
Daunting as it may seem to keep track of all the possible signs of deception—facial cues, gestures, leg movements—think of how difficult it is to be the deceiver. To tell a convincing lie, you must keep all the details of your story straight. And not only that, you must sell it with appropriate body language, while trying to avoid leaking any emotional clues that would give the lie away.
It’s so difficult to keep a false story going that you’d think it would be easy to catch a liar in the act. Yet it isn’t. We still catch only about 50% of lies. We’re terrible at reading facial expressions and body language. And we’re not much better at listening to the words.
So what are we to do? Listen more carefully, for starters. While liars are more likely to rehearse their words than their body language, there are a number of telltale signs that still leak out. From word choice to vocal tone to the chronology of stories, the trained liespotter has several verbal clues with which to work. Knowing the potential slip-ups, you can zero in on suspicious language, ask questions, and spot the lies.
Here are 10 common ways that liars use words to obscure the truth, so you can be on guard for deception:
- Liars will repeat a question verbatim. Hey Charles, did you send the email to Jackie? Did I send the email to Jackie? If this is Charles’s response, you have your answer—he didn’t send it yet. Repeating a question in full is a common stalling tactic used by people looking for an extra moment to prepare their deceptive reply. In natural conversation, people will sometimes repeat part of a question, but restating the entire question is highly awkward and unnecessary—they clearly heard you the first time.
- Liars will take a guarded tone. If Charles had replied to the direct question by lowering his voice and asking, What do you mean?, a lie may well have been in the works. A suspicious or guarded approach isn’t usually called for, and may indicate that he’s concealing something—whether it’s the truthful answer or his attitude toward you for asking the question in the first place.
- Liars won’t use contractions in their denials. Bill Clinton provides the classic example of what interrogators call a “non-contracted denial” when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The extra emphasis in the denial is unnecessary if someone is telling the truth. I didn’t have sex with her is how the honest person is likely to phrase his claim of innocence. Clinton said a lot more than he realized with his words.
- Liars tell stories in strict chronology. To keep their stories straight, liars tend to stick to chronological accounts when relating an event. They don’t want to get tripped up by an out-of-place detail—there’s enough to think about already. But this isn’t how we talk when being truthful. We relate stories in the way we remember them, not in strict chronological order. That’s because memorable events carry an emotional component too. Often we’ll lead with the most searing emotional moment, and jump around in time.
- Liars love euphemisms. It’s human nature not to implicate ourselves in wrongdoing. This holds true even for liars, who will shy away from dwelling on their deception if possible. One way they do this is opting for softer language—instead of saying “I didn’t steal the purse” they may say “I didn’t take the purse.” If you ask someone a direct question about their involvement in an incident and they change your words to something softer, raise your deception antennae.
- Liars overemphasize their truthfulness. “To tell you the truth…” “Honestly…” “I swear to you…” Oh, if only it were so! When people use these bolstering statements to emphasize their honesty, there’s a good chance they are hiding something. Learning to baseline someone’s normal behavior is important in situations such as this: You want to listen for normal or harmless use of such phrases. There’s no need to add them if you really are telling the truth, so be on guard.
- Liars avoid or confuse pronouns. We use a fair amount of pronouns in normal conversation. They are a sign of comfortable speech, and they may disappear or be misused by someone who is trying to be extra careful with his words. A liar may say “You don’t bill hours that you didn’t work” instead of making the clear first- person statement: “I don’t bill hours I didn’t work.”
- Liars use long introductions but skip over main events. When a liar wants to build credibility, she will pad her story with as much factual content as possible. The Israeli researcher Avinoam Sapir found that deceptive individuals will add more detail around the prologue of a story, but gloss over the main event where the deception comes into play. Careful listeners can pick up on this lopsided storytelling style and use the BASIC method to zero in on the missing details with specific questions.
- Liars give very specific denials. We’ve already discussed the human impulse to avoid implicating ourselves. So we can expect liars to be very particular in what they say and don’t say. Truth-tellers have no problem issuing categorical denials—I never cheated anyone in my whole life—where as the liar will choose his words ever so carefully.
- Liars hedge their statements. We hear them in court testimony, political hearings and TV confessional interviews all the time: qualifying statements that leave an out for the person on the hot seat. “As far as I recall…” “If you really think about it…” “What I remember is…” Hedged statements aren’t an absolute indicator of deception, but an overuse of such qualifying phrases certainly should raise suspicion that a person isn’t being totally up front with what he or she knows.
Even without the benefit of being able to watch body language and facial expressions, the careful listener can do a fair bit of liespotting just from the words liars choose to use.