Wouldn’t that be great if every liar we ever run into had their pants on fire as the famous children’s rhyme tells us? Or at least if their exponentially growing noses would testify to their less than honest nature. While clearly, none of this is possible in real life, there are ways to teach yourself to detect when you are being told anything but truth.
In the old Soviet rendition of the Pinocchio movie there was a scene that made quite an impression on me when I was 5-6 years old. In this scene Sleek and Sly set out to cheat Pinocchio out of his money and tell him all kinds of lies in order to convince him to run away with them. They act super nice and charming around him, they call him nothing else but My Dearest Pinocchio the entire time. Pinocchio in his turn gives his reasons why he cannot join them. Sleek (who is a female in this version), finally gets annoyed, loses her patience, her sweet voice and yells at him: “My Dearest Pinocchio! You are your own worst enemy!”
When I first saw this scene it struck me with its glaring inconsistency between the character’s words on one hand and her tone and facial expression on the other. “Did you see what she just did?” – I kept bugging my siblings who watched the movie with me. I bet if I had a remote in my hand I would be rewinding that part dozens of times to make sure everyone I knew saw it. The scene stayed with me. With time its novelty wore off but a reference to it remained in our vocabulary. Whenever my siblings or I witnessed someone sending mixed messages like that our first reaction was – She totally pulled “My Dearest Pinocchio” on him! And we all knew what it meant.
As I integrated further into the outside world I saw many other manifestations of people’s body language being inconsistent with the speech. I realized that we cannot rely on everyone telling us what they have on their mind 100 % of the time and what people choose to tell us is not always the truth. This doesn’t mean that the entire world is made of Sleeks and Sly’s who have all conspired to deceive us. In fact if you know someone who wants you to believe that – watch out for that person and not for the world.
At the same time, any one of us at some point may stumble upon a real-life Pinocchio who wouldn’t mind sneaking in a lie or two of their own. These lies may range anywhere from relatively innocent to completely malicious. Methods of delivery vary too. One may lie by omission, another falsifies the facts. Someone goes to a great length to contort the language to pass his lie as truth. Anyone in particular comes to mind? There is also a special category of liars who convince themselves that it’s not even a lie as long as they believe it.
People consciously choose their words but aren’t always aware their body speaks a language of its own and gives off cues. While it’s out of our hands what choices others make about hiding the truth, we can regain control over the situation by using these cues available to us.
What does it mean to you if I shrug my shoulders? Usually it means exactly what I intend for it to mean. If you tell me it’s raining in Santiago Chile today and I go “Shrug” – it means “So what?”If you ask me who will be in the next year’s Super bowl and I go “Shrug” – it means “I don’t know”. But if you caught a hint of a shrug which was barely there – then it changes the meaning. A fleeting gesture like that could be a sign of someone trying to act way more relaxed and nonchalant about their words, than they really are.
Also watch how people express their initial reaction, because that’s the reflection of their true feelings. Even if the initial reaction was too quick to read, the fact that it changed to something else is a sign and the secondary reaction is never authentic.
The timing is important too. If the corresponding gesture or facial expression shows after the words were said – it didn’t come naturally to the speaker and was forced, to add credibility to an otherwise questionable statement. If I tell you calmly: “I am so angry right now” and then shake my fist in the air – that would be different from me having an angry face before those words even escape my mouth!
With any amount of luck on your end the real-life Pinocchio you’re dealing with won’t be a professional liar but someone rather uncomfortable with being dishonest. In that case she will give you additional nonverbal cues by subconsciously covering her mouth or touching her nose. She may even develop a sudden itch on her face or start rubbing her eyes.
There is a lot more to the body language and the good news is – no need to memorize all of the possible signs. In any case none of them will work as unmistakably as a nose growing longer with every lie coming out of its owner’s mouth. Some have to be evaluated in conjunction with other indicators.
If you do sense something fishy is going on in your personal life or in your professional circles – begin by observing the person in question to learn their normal habits. Ask questions, pay attention to their reactions, do your own fact-checking and evaluate the signs you get. Even though this doesn’t guarantee you will make a living as a human lie detector one day, with practice you will become successful at telling the facts from stories. You may even become so good at it that the liar will regret he messed with the wrong person and you’ll be able to look him in the eye and say: “My dearest Pinocchio, you are your own worst enemy”.